The ancient language of Aramaic – first spoken over 3000 years ago – faces extinction at the hands of the Islamic State, following the capture of Iraqi towns which represent the last major concentration of Aramaic speakers in the world.
As ISIL (Islamic State in the Levant) continues its invasion into the ancient heart of Christian Iraq, fears are mounting that this could mean the end of the ‘Language of Jesus’.
Earlier this month, 200,000 Christians fled their homes on the Nineveh plains fearing capture, torture and conversion.
A local archbishop, Joseph Thomas, has described the situation as a “cultural and linguistic emergency”.
Here’s what Foreign Policy had to say in regards to the impending disaster:
Nearly three millennia of continuous records exist for Aramaic; only Chinese, Hebrew, and Greek have an equally long written legacy. For many religions, Aramaic has had sacred or near-sacred status. It is the presumed mother tongue of Jesus, who is reported in the Gospel of Matthew to have said on the cross: “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?” (“My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”) It came to be used in the Jewish Talmud, in the Eastern Christian churches (where it is known as Syriac), and as the ritual and everyday language of the Mandaeans, an ethno-religious minority in Iran and Iraq.
Though marginalized, this Aramaic-speaking world survived for over a millennium, until the 20th century shattered what remained of it. During World War I, as Ottoman power dissolved, Turkish nationalists not only massacred Armenians and Greeks, but also perpetrated what is known today as the Assyrian Genocide, slaughtering and expelling the Christian Aramaic-speaking population of eastern Turkey. Most survivors fled to Iran and Iraq.
Thus, until early August, the best hope for Aramaic’s survival was in northern Iraq, in the diverse North-Eastern subgroup, with its greater number of speakers and its roots in larger communities. The Christian population of Iraq has been in free fall — from 1.5 million in 2003 to an estimated 350,000 to 450,000 today — but the Nineveh plains had been spared the worst. In January, Baghdad even announced its intention to make the region a separate province, a gesture towards Assyrian aspirations for autonomy.
After a century of expulsions and persecutions, can spoken Aramaic survive without its homeland on the Nineveh plains? Between assimilation and dispersion, the challenges of maintaining the language in diaspora will be immense, even if speakers remain in Erbil.
Globally, languages and cultures are disappearing at an unprecedented rate — on average, the last fluent, native speaker of a language dies every three months — but what’s happening with Aramaic is far more unusual and terrifying: the deliberate extinction of a language and culture, unfolding in real time.”
It was in Aramaic that the original “writing on the wall,” at the Feast of King Belshazzar in the Book of Daniel, foretold the fall of Babylon.
Will these latest atrocities by the Islamic State foreshadow the end of this once almost universal language?
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