Aramaic is an ancient language, as old as the Bible, spoken by Jesus and millions of others in the Middle East since the days of the Neo-Assyrian empire thousands of years ago.
With a language so old, in a country so torn by endless wars, consider the voices raised in lamentation across time—the unnumbered columns of ragged refugees, fleeing the unnumbered columns of smoke write across a blue sky of long history. Counterpoint scored in cadenced tread as the soldiers come, and the village destroyed, in a story as old as those sheep-swept-bare hills.
The village of Maaloula was once a pretty place, nestled in the cleft of the Qalamun mountains north of Damascus. And Aramaic is what they were speaking when the rebels came last winter, and drove the refugees from their homes. Then, in the way of wars, another battle last week left this little oasis in the hands of the Syrian government again, now as a ruin.
They spoke Aramaic in Maaloula. The language of the Fertile Crescent of Syria, Turkey and Iraq for centuries, a lingua franca until replaced by Arabic. The Aramaic alphabet, a direct decedent of Phoenician, was adapted to write many other languages, and the script became the mother of still more, including Hebrew, Arabic, Mongolian and probably the Old Turkic script. But that was a long time ago. First the Greeks came with fire and sword, then Arabs with same, and Aramaic became the language of Jews and Christians in a Muslim land. But they endured, up in the hills, and over the centuries waited out the wars, and then returned to rebuild their homes.
But not this time. Aramaic, or at least the Western dialect spoken in Syria, is running out of room. The last villages have fallen. Maaloula and two neighboring villages where the only place left to this language. When the rebels arrived, the 2000 villagers found refugee nearby around Damascus. Now that the inhabitants of this last Aramaic enclave have scattered, the language is scattered too. This exodus raises fears that Aramaic speakers will integrate elsewhere, speaking Arabic instead of Aramaic in their new homes. Many fear this ancient tongue will never be heard again on these contested hills.
“The village is badly damaged and security is very limited,” one Maaloula resident told Kina Joyoush of the Globe and Mail. “I do not think we will be able to go there to settle in a long time.”
“We are so happy [Maaloula] is free now, but the village is littered with land mines, many parts of it are destroyed and some homes have been torched,” says a former resident named Ward, who fled in late 2013 and has taken refuge in Damascus. “Most villagers are poor and I doubt they would have the means to rebuild their homes.”
It’s not just people who die in wars. Languages die too. Video on the “last bastion” of Aramaic shot in 2008 before it’s fall. 7:20