Aramaic, famous for being the language spoken by Jesus himself, had a brief moment in the sun in 2004, when Mel Gibson released the Passion of the Christ. However, outside of Mel Gibson movies, the language is declining. According to the Christian Science Monitor, most of the last remaining Aramaic speakers live in 3 small villages in Syria. The Syrian government had launched an Aramaic language institute near Damascus to try to teach Arabic speakers the language, but ran into some public relations problems due to the traditional Aramaic alphabet’s resemblance to Modern Hebrew. That may not seem like it should matter, but in the Middle East, it does, so the University of Damascus halted the program.
However, George Rezkallah, the head of the school, believes that the controversy will blow over and classes will start again over the summer. This year, his classes will be geared toward both Arabic speakers and English speakers, and will use Syriac script instead of the problematic Aramaic letters.
Ironically, although the square alphabet used to teach Aramaic at the institute does resemble the modern Hebrew alphabet, it’s actually older than Hebrew. The Christian Science Monitor says that according to Dr. David Taylor, author of The Hidden Pearl: Aramaic Heritage of the Syrian Orthodox Church:
“the Jewish people adopted the square Aramaic alphabet – which had become the lingua franca of the entire Middle East from about 700 BC – after they were exiled to Babylon in 587 BC, before which they had used a Palaeo-Hebrew script.”
Dr. Taylor also told the Christian Science Monitor that saving Aramaic is important because the language is:
“a constant reminder of the international importance of Syria in the ancient world, when it was a beacon of learning and culture that had a profound impact worldwide.”