When was Aramaic spoken?

Why Aramaic will never completely die outThe language of Jesus

With his voice he brings an almost forgotten language back to life: Dayroyo Boulus, a Syrian Orthodox monk at St. Mark's Monastery in Jerusalem, sings in the language of Jesus, in Aramaic.

In some Christian worship services, but also in the Jewish liturgy, Aramaic survived for more than two millennia. Til today. It is the oldest still spoken language in the world. But as an everyday language it is threatened with extinction, which is also due to the political situation, wars and conflicts. In Israel, some Christians have set themselves the goal of breathing new life into this language.

Light-colored sheepskin from Hebron, cut into small pieces, is piled up on Dayroyo Boulus' table in St. Mark's Monastery in Jerusalem's old town. The leather has an intense smell in the air. He writes the Lord's Prayer on the leather strips with thick felt-tip pens. In Aramaic.

"Four years ago I started to write down the Our Father and give it to people. I don't want to sell it. It's the word of God, I don't make a business out of it. I give it to people so that it becomes a blessing for them. If I sold it, it would only be about money and we would forget God, "says Dayroyo Boulus.

The Lord's Prayer in Aramaic (Deutschlandradio / Lissy Kaufmann)

The 30-year-old bearded monk wears a black robe, an embroidered headgear and a palm-sized cross. He introduces himself to visitors as Dayroyo Boulus. The word Dayroyo is Aramaic and means something like: "He who lives in the monastery".

Dayroyo Boulus belongs to the Syrian Orthodox Church, one of those churches that to this day celebrate their services mostly in Aramaic. These churches also include the Syrian Catholic and the Maronite. Many Christians in these churches also keep Aramaic as their everyday language.

The number of Aramaic speakers is falling

But the number is falling: Scientists estimate that today only a few hundred thousand worldwide speak one of the dialects of Neo-Aramaic.

"Here in Jerusalem there are around a hundred Syrian-Aramaic families. Two of them still speak Aramaic. In addition, we, the monks in the monastery, speak the language to each other. And when visitors or pilgrims come, we pray and speak a few words in Aramaic, to show them that this language is still alive, in prayer and in everyday life, "says Dayroyo Boulus.

Like most of these families in Israel, Dayroyo Boulus' comes from Turkey. His grandparents still spoke Aramaic there. He himself grew up speaking Arabic in Bethlehem.

Arabic and from Bethlehem - most would call him a Palestinian. But he defines himself as Syrian-Aramaic.

He learned the language from monks in Damascus for three years. Boulus is passionate about Aramaic. He wants to save the language of Jesus.

His room is full of small souvenirs with Aramaic script: He wrote the Lord's Prayer on hearts made of olive wood. And he had it printed on stickers, fridge magnets, mugs, calendars and Christmas cards.

Gift items with Aramaic scripts (Deutschlandradio / Lizzy Kaufmann)

Anyone who wants to understand why Christians like Dayroyo Boulus want to preserve this ancient language, how Aramaic has survived to this day and why it plays a central role in the liturgy of Christians and Jews, has to look far back in history.

And the best thing to do is meet Chesi Muzafi. He speaks some neo-Aramaic dialects fluently:

"I just said: Hello, my name is Chesi Muzafi. I am a professor and linguist and I study Aramaic, or Assyrian as it is also called."

"Aramaic Had a Golden Age"

Chesi Muzafi researches and teaches at Tel Aviv University. He knows the history of Aramaic. He tells of a language whose traces go back to the year 1000 BC:

"Aramaic had a golden age. During the Old Persian Empire of the Achaemenids it was even the official language of the entire Middle East. Aramaic was widely spoken, the language of diplomacy, administration, literature. Even later, when Alexander the Great, the region conquered in 331 BC and Aramaic was no longer the official language of the kingdom, it remained the lingua franca. It was a standard language. The Jews also switched to Aramaic, and in Byzantine times they no longer spoke Hebrew. "

The Jewish population had previously spoken Hebrew until the destruction of the First Temple in 586 BC. Much of the ancient Jewish scriptures are therefore written in Hebrew.

Later, in the Jewish diaspora, Hebrew remained a holy language, called lashon hakodesh. But even before that, after the destruction of the First Temple, Aramaic gained importance for the Jews in the Middle East. Even at the time when a traveling preacher was born in Nazareth.

"Jesus dreamed in Aramaic"

Scientists assume that Jesus should not only have understood Hebrew and Greek, but also spoke Aramaic above all in everyday life: at work, at home and with the people he met. Yes, Jesus must have dreamed and prayed in Aramaic.

And because at some point Hebrew was increasingly displaced, but almost every Jew mastered the lingua franca, Aramaic also found its way into the Jewish liturgy.

For example at the noon prayer Mincha, when it is prayed in a group of at least ten people with a prayer leader.

Students and rabbis have gathered in the Beit Midrash, the learning room of the Schechter Institute for Jewish Studies in Jerusalem. The prayer leader prays the kaddish.

Avi Novis-Deutsh is one of the rabbis at the institute:

"Part of our liturgy, the Kaddish prayer, is recited in Aramaic. There is an interesting explanation from the Midrash, the rabbinical interpretation of the Bible: namely that the angels do not understand Aramaic and the prayer therefore goes directly to God. I don't know how someone came up with the idea that the angels understand Hebrew but not Aramaic. But that is the argument. At the same time, it is also a funeral prayer, the text is almost the same. The Kaddish is written in Babylonian Aramaic. It was probably short Written time after the Talmud. "

The Talmud has Aramaic influences

The Talmud is one of the most important writings in Judaism. It also contains religious legal texts. For believing Jews, studying the Talmud is central to this day. The Talmud consists on the one hand of the Mishnah, which God is said to have passed on orally to Moses on Sinai and which was probably written down in the first or second century AD. Mainly in Hebrew, but with Aramaic influences.

The Gemara is the other part of the Talmud: It is about interpretations and classifications of the legal texts by rabbis. The Gemara is mainly written in Aramaic.

"The main texts on Jewish legal doctrine were developed in schools that taught in Aramaic. Later, when the area of ​​what is now Iraq became the center of Judaism, Jews spoke Aramaic. It was the language of Jewish law. Even nowadays, where Jewish legal texts refer to Aramaic expressions and quotations are still used when they are written in Hebrew, so in order to understand these texts you need a knowledge of Aramaic, "says Rabbi Avi Novis-Deutsh.

Parts of the books Daniel, Ezra and Nechemia are also written in Aramaic. Likewise the Jewish wedding contract, the Ketuba - at least in orthodox circles. Aramaic has become a part of Judaism. But even rabbis don't have to fully master it today.

"The word for website is an Aramaic word"

Aramaic not only influenced the liturgy and the scriptures of Judaism, but also Hebrew, which was spoken in parallel for a while. So parts of Aramaic live on today in modern Iwrit. For example, the names of the months in the Jewish calendar have their origins in Aramaic. But not only them, explains the linguist Chesi Muzafi:

"Some of the very basic words we use every day are Aramaic. Aba, father. Ima, mother. Uvda, fact. Saba, grandfather. Atar, page or web page. Even the word for web page is an Aramaic word!"

The heyday of Aramaic ended with Islam. This spread along with the Arabic language after the seventh century - and supplanted everything else in the Middle East. Only in remote, often mountainous regions, did Christians, Jews and Mandaeans, a small Gnostic minority, remain loyal to the Aramaic.

On the wall of Chesi Muzafi's small office there are maps with the regions where Aramaic was spoken and where it survived: for example in northwest and northeast Iran, in Azerbaijan, in northern Iraq or in the border areas of Turkey and Kurdistan.

The linguist has traveled to some of these regions, driven to remote villages and learned the dialects that have developed over the millennia.

They no longer sound just like the Aramaic that Jesus spoke. Nevertheless, religious identity played a central role in preserving the language, explains Chesi Muzafi:

Central part of identity

"Minorities were tolerated at best, but always despised because they were not Muslims. Christians, at least, were often persecuted, and Aramaic was used as a kind of ethno-religious label that strengthened them. It was beneficial in communities that were silent and self-evident had to protect against external threats. Language was a central component of the identity of these minorities and a protective, connecting force. "

Yet each denomination spoke its own dialect. The differences were often so great that even Christians and Jews from neighboring villages could barely understand each other.

Steven Fassberg examined several of the small Aramaic language groups - just in time. He is a professor at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He was lucky in his field work:

"I found the last good speaker of an Aramaic dialect in southeastern Turkey, near the border with Iraq. A place that the Turks now call Chukúrdscha, the Aramaeans Tschálla. There were Christians and Jews there - and I have the last one I tracked him down for hours and wrote a grammar based on it. Then he died, at the age of 90, and the dialect with him. It will never be spoken again. "

"Jesus certainly spoke Aramaic": Linguist Steven Fassberg (Deutschlandradio / Lissy Kaufmann)

Dialects of Aramaic are dying out again and again. An important reason for this are the political changes in the region. People have been moving away for decades, some are on the run. Entire villages are disappearing from the map, according to Steven Fassberg:

"The Christians in Kurdistan were killed by the Turks during the First World War, those in Iraq by Saddam Hussein. Those who survived all this were slaughtered by IS. Those who were lucky could flee. Today there are Aramaic communities all over the world, in Germany, Sweden, Holland, many in Australia, also in Los Angeles, Detroit and Chicago. "

Many Christians are proud of their mother tongue

After all, many of the Christians who have fled are trying to keep Aramaic alive. In Sweden, says Steven Fassberg, there are books, newspapers and radio broadcasts in Aramaic. And language researcher Chesi Muzafi from Tel Aviv University adds:

"Many Christians believe that they speak the language of Jesus. And they are mightily proud of this language, their mother tongue. It is very different with the Jews. Sometimes they say to me: 'Why are you interested in this ancient language? Leave it die! She means nothing to us. '"

Aramaic-speaking Jews moved to their new Jewish homeland after the founding of the state of Israel. Modern Hebrew became the everyday language, an important part of Israeli identity. The spoken Neo-Aramaic, however, lost its meaning.

But for a small group of Christians in the north of the country, the Maronites, Aramaic has become a question of national identity - even though the language has not played a role there for a long time. In the village of Gush Chalav on the border with Lebanon, this is about to change:

Adults and children learn the ancient language

The Aramaic ABC song. The siblings Christián, Abdállah and Kristín learned it at school here in Gush Chalav. With a little support, it works pretty well. Shadi Khalloul has fought for the next generation of Christians in the village to learn this ancient language. A man with a confident demeanor, 42 years old, with short hair and a shirt. He is currently on the way to his student, the 35-year-old Nivin Elias.

Nivin Elias is one of those Christians in Gush Chalav who are learning Aramaic with Shadi's help. For a long time the language was only used here in Christian worship. In everyday life, the residents talked in Arabic.

And for a long time that hardly bothered any of the Christians in Gush Chalav. Nobody questioned it. Except for Shadi Khalloul. While studying abroad in the United States, he began to look at his roots. He forged the bold plan to revive the language of his ancestors:

"We are Christians of the Syrian-Maronite Church. Maronites are Aramaeans. They are direct descendants of those Christians who followed Jesus here in Galilee in the Middle East. Today we are called Eastern Christians. And then I asked myself why we neglect Aramaic. It's the language of our ancestors and our church. We shouldn't hide it. "

More than ten years ago, Shadi Khalloul founded the Israeli Christian Aramaic Society and ensured that Aramaic is now taught in the state village school. And: he teaches a dozen adults in the village himself. Including Nivin Elias:

"Aramaic has never completely disappeared here. But it wasn't until Shadi started teaching us that we developed a relationship with this ancient language. Others had doubts: Why should I speak this language? What should I sit down now?" and learn? Then I give the answer: Because it is the language in which Jesus spoke. "

"We are Arameans - not Arabs"

Aramaic is therefore also an emotional language for the Christians in Gush Chalav. One that was always present in the church. But only now, through the lessons, can Nivin and the other students understand the chants and prayers. Language becomes part of their identity and nationality again. For Shadi Khalloul, teaching alone was not enough. He no longer wanted to accept that the State of Israel had included the Christians in his village among the Arab Israelis since the state was founded in 1948. After all, he is neither an Arab nor a Palestinian:

"We said to ourselves we had to correct this mistake Israel made when we were wrongly registered as Arabs when it was founded. We are Arameans. We fought for seven years. In December 2014, the State of Israel granted our application and us allows us to be entered in the official state register as Arameans. "

But especially in a country like Israel, where conflicts run along national and religious lines, such steps are not well received by the Arab and Palestinian sides.

Shadi does not speak well of the Arab population of Israel. But he does not openly address the conflict. The Syrian Orthodox monk, Dayroyo Boulus, around 200 kilometers further south in Jerusalem, continues:

"We need people who revive Aramaic, not only in prayers and as language here in the monastery. Our church thinks that is good. But there are also Christians here who see things differently. They say: We are Arabs, we are Palestinians "That is not our language! We oppose this: We are Aramaic, we still speak in the language of Jesus and we want to revive our language."

It is questionable whether Christians like Dayroyo Boulus and Shadi Khalloul will succeed in reviving their language in Israel. But at least where the Aramaic-speaking Christians still live together in large groups, in Sweden or in Germany, the chances are not bad for the time being that their language will stay alive. And Aramaic will surely survive in the liturgy, both for Christians and Jews.

And just as the Jew Jesus, the traveling preacher from Nazareth, connects the two religious communities in a certain way, this linguistic bond still exists today: the Aramaic.