Aramaic, the Language of Jesus, and Places Where it Is Still Spoken

Home | Category: Jesus and History


Aramaic in an 11th century Hebrew Bible

Aramaic is a Hamito-Semitic language like Arabic and Hebrew. Its name comes from Aram, an archaic word for Syria, where it is believed the language originated and spread to much of the ancient world—as far west as Egypt and as far east as Pakistan—in the first millennium B.C. and was used by the Persian and Babylonian empires. Aramaic was also the language of commerce between 700 B.C. and A.D. 636. Around the time of Jesus it was the language of daily life (Hebrew was associated with religion).

Parts the Bible and many of the Dead Sea scrolls are written in Aramaic. The language lost some ground to Latin during the Roman period and was dealt a near fatal blow after the spread of Islam—and with it Arabic—beginning in the A.D. 7th century. Aramaic endured in Maaloula because it was remote and hard to get to and the people lived in isolation for such a long time. .

Steven V. Roberts wrote in the Washington Post, “Aramaic actually is not one language but a variety of local dialects, shaped by time and place...Large portions of the Talmud, a compilation of Jewish teachings and commentaries, were written in Aramaic; so were the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Biblical books of Ezra and Daniel. Gradually Greek and then Arabic replaced Aramaic across the Levant. [Source: Steven V. Roberts, Washington Post, December 20, 2009 ^^]

“The language got another boost in 2004 when Mel Gibson's movie "The Passion of the Christ" depicted Jesus speaking Aramaic, providing English subtitles. But few villagers could follow the dialogue. A shepherd told a visiting filmmaker from London that the movie language sounded "broken" to his ear. Maaloula's vernacular is "faster and stronger," he said.” ^^

Websites and Resources: Christianity Britannica on Christianity ; History of Christianity ; BBC on Christianity ;Wikipedia article on Christianity Wikipedia ; Religious Tolerance ; Christian Answers ; Christian Classics Ethereal Library ; Bible: Bible Gateway and the New International Version (NIV) of The Bible ; King James Version of the Bible

History of Aramaic

Ariel Sabar wrote in Smithsonian magazine, “Aramaic, a Semitic language related to Hebrew and Arabic, was the common tongue of the entire Middle East when the Middle East was the crossroads of the world. People used it for commerce and government across territory stretching from Egypt and the Holy Land to India and China. Parts of the Bible and the Jewish Talmud were written in it; the original “writing on the wall,” presaging the fall of the Babylonians, was composed in it. As Jesus died on the cross, he cried in Aramaic, “Elahi, Elahi, lema shabaqtani?” (“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”) [Source: Ariel Sabar. Smithsonian magazine, February 2, 2013 ==]

proto-Aramaic text with the date March 10, 402 BC

“Its first speakers, the Arameans, were desert nomads. (The Bible describes the mythic forebear of the Hebrews as “a wandering Aramean.”) Spreading out from ancient Syria, they so blanketed Mesopotamia that when the Assyrians conquered the Middle East in the eighth century B.C., they adopted Aramaic — not their own tongue, Akkadian — as a language of empire. So did the Babylonians when they vanquished the Assyrians, and the Persians when they toppled the Babylonians. The language crossed the lips of Christians, Jews, Mandeans, Manicheans, Muslims, Samaritans, Zoroastrians and pagans. ==

“The writing on the wall (the proverbial sort) came for Aramaic in the seventh century A.D., when Muslim armies from Arabia conquered the Middle East, and Arabic routed Aramaic as the region’s lingua franca. Aramaic survived only in the Kurdish mountains of Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria, places so remote they never got the memo. Jews and Christians there (though not Muslims, who spoke Kurdish) kept up Aramaic as an everyday tongue for another 1,300 years.” ==

Aramaic, A Dying Language Hanging on For Dear Life

Aramaic in its written form has died (it is transcribed in Arabic and Roman alphabets). Some lingusts say that the Aramaic spoken in Maaloula is so different from the language spoken in ancient times that Jesus would not understand a word if he heard the modern version.

Ariel Sabar wrote in Smithsonian magazine, “Aramaic is down now to its last generation or two of speakers, most of them scattered over the past century from homelands where their language once flourished. In their new lands, few children and even fewer grandchildren learn it. (My father, a Jew born in Kurdish Iraq, is a native speaker and scholar of Aramaic; I grew up in Los Angeles and know just a few words.) This generational rupture marks a language’s last days. For field linguists like Khan, recording native speakers — “informants,” in the lingo — is both an act of cultural preservation and an investigation into how ancient languages shift and splinter over time. [Source: Ariel Sabar. Smithsonian magazine, February 2, 2013 ==]

Aramaic was the language spoken in Mel Gibson's "The Passion of Christ"

“The number of Aramaic speakers alive today is difficult to calculate. Though some estimates set the figure as high as a half-million, that number is misleading. Because of its ancient lineage, lack of standardization and the isolation of speakers from one another, the modern tongue, known as Neo-Aramaic, has more than 100 dialects, most with no written analogue. Many dialects are already extinct, and others are down to their last one or two speakers. As an everyday language, linguists told me, Aramaic is safe now in only one place: the Christian village of Maaloula, in the hills outside Damascus, where, with Syrian state support, elders still teach it to children.” ==

Cambridge Guy Who Studies Aramaic

Linguist Geoffrey Khan of the University of Cambridge studies Aramic and seeks out speakers of the language around the globe. Sabar wrote: “Over the past two decades, Khan has published highly regarded grammars on the previously undocumented dialects of Barwar, Qaraqosh, Erbil, Sulemaniyya and Halabja, all areas in Iraq, and Urmi and Sanandaj, in Iran. He is also at work on a web-based database of text and audio recordings that allows word-by-word comparisons across dozens of Aramaic dialects. [Source: Ariel Sabar. Smithsonian magazine, February 2, 2013 ==]

“The work has its exhilarating days, though, and few moved Khan more than his 2008 trip to the former Soviet republic of Georgia. He was in the capital of Tbilisi in search of Aramaic speakers from Salamas, a city in northwestern Iran. One wave of Assyrians fled Salamas after a Kurdish chieftain murdered a Church of the East patriarch there in 1918; another, after an earthquake a dozen years later. ==

“In Tbilisi, people told Khan that all but three of the dialect’s “pure” speakers had died. At the first house, the man’s daughter apologized: Her father had recently suffered a stroke and was mute. At the second, an older woman lived with a quartet of energetic Rottweilers. “I took out my microphone and they just started howling and barking,” Khan recalled. “It was impossible.” Finally, a local Assyrian escorted Khan one night into an imposing Soviet-era apartment block. At the top of a dark flight of stairs was a one-room apartment. A frail woman in her mid-90s answered the door. Khan looked at her brittle physique and wondered how much she could handle. He told himself he would stay for just a few minutes. But when he got up to leave, the woman stretched a bony hand across the table and clasped his wrist. “Biqir, Biqir,” she pleaded, in a small voice. (“Ask, ask.”) “She literally grabbed onto me,” he said. “It was as if this was her last breath and she wanted to tell me everything.” For two hours she hung on his wrist as his recorder filled with the sounds of a language in twilight.” ==

Maaloula, Syria: Where Aramaic Lives On

Maaloula (Malula), a spectacularly-situated town about 50 kilometers outside of Damascus in Syria, is regarded at the last place where Aramaic is still spoken as an everyday language. Maaloula has had a long association with Christianity After walking around an old church built o the site of a pagan temple a priest from Maalula's Monastery of Mar Sarkis told National Geographic: "I believe Christianity came to Maalula in the first century, and the Christians used the caves as places of refuge." In the caves that pockmark the cliffs around Maalula scholars have found depictions of a mother and child, both with halos, that they believe dates back to A.D. 98. One cave is believed to be the place that St. Thecla sought refuge in A.D. 45. A Greek Catholic convent honors her.


The Aramaic dialect spoken in Maaloula is officially Western Neo-Aramaic. About 6,000 people in the Syrian villages speak Aramaic as their first language. Another 12,000 speak it some. Arnold Werner, a linguist of the University of Erlangen in Germany who has put together an Aramaic dictionary, is not worried about the language dying out. He says more people speak it than a century ago. Some of Werner’s students live in the towns. Some of them speak Aramaic better than the locals.

Both Muslims and Christians speak Aramaic and they are determined not to let their language die. The children of villagers that speak the language learn Arabic in school but speak Aramaic at home. To keep the language alive local people write songs in Aramaic and encourage parents to insist their children learn it. Orphans are brought up by Aramaic-speaking nuns.

Steven V. Roberts wrote in the Washington Post: “Remote mountain villages such as Maaloula, untouched and unoccupied, were able to retain their traditions. That started changing in the 1920s, when French colonials built a road through the mountains. Bus service to Damascus, radio and television, and the lure of better work in bigger cities drained the pool of Aramaic speakers. It is a common story: The language seemed old-fashioned, even embarrassing, and younger people disdained it.” [Source:Steven V. Roberts, Washington Post, December 20, 2009 ^^]

Then, in the late 1980s, “a group of German scholars came to Maaloula to study Aramaic, and villagers started realizing that their precious heritage was worth preserving. In 2000, the iron-fisted ruler of Syria, Hafez al-Assad, was replaced by his son Bashar, a slightly more progressive leader. Under Bashar's patronage, the University of Damascus opened an institute in Maaloula teaching Aramaic, where Hana's two daughters studied last summer. One of the teachers, Imad Rihan, told the Catholic News Service: "Twenty years ago people started giving up on Aramaic. Then 10 years ago, they realized how important it was, so they started teaching it in church. The Germans opened our eyes and showed us we had something special." ^^

Maaloula, the Town

Chiseled into the sides of the spectacular sandstone cliffs of the Anti Lebanon Mountains, Maaloula is famous for the ancient convents of Tecla and Sarkis, and its famous Funeral Caves. The people of Maaloula and the nearby villages of Jaba'deen and Bakh'a—about half of them Christians—still speak ancient Aramaic, the language that Jesus Christ spoke. Many also live in caves. The 4th century St. Sergius church is one of the world's oldest churches. The alter has grooves and a basin for catching blood which may have been used used in sacrifices. The church honors soldiers who died for their beliefs at the hands of the Romans. I has long attracted pilgrims.

Tecla Monastery in Maaloula

Reporting from the courtyard of St. Sergius, a Greek Catholic monastery in Maaloula, Steven V. Roberts wrote in the Washington Post: The original church, he said, dated from the 4th century but was built on top of a pagan sanctuary, and some of the wooden beams, made of Lebanese cedar, were more than 2,000 years old. Also known as Mar Sarkis, the monastery was named for a Roman officer, a secret Christian whose faith was unmasked when he refused to participate in a sacrifice to Zeus. Sergius and his friend Bacchus, a fellow officer and co-religionist, were tortured and executed in the Syrian city of Resafa, and many churches in this country bear their names. [Source: Steven V. Roberts, Washington Post, December 20, 2009 ]

“Not far from Maaloula sits the Krak des Chevaliers, a mountain fortress built by Crusaders in the 12th and 13th centuries. In the old city of Damascus, a chapel marks the spot where Paul was nursed and taught by a local Christian, St. Ananias, after his vision. Several of the country's bewildering array of Christian sects — from Armenian Orthodox to Syrian Catholic — maintain headquarters in Damascus, and we were surprised to see crosses, outlined in vivid bluish-white neon, shimmering in the evening sky.

“As soon as you enter Maaloula, its religious heritage is evident. A large statue of the Virgin Mary dominates one hillside; many houses are painted in a pale blue wash, a gesture of respect to the mother of Jesus. Hana pointed out the mountaintops where every year fires are lighted to celebrate the Festival of the Holy Cross. (Legend says that after Helena, mother of Constantine, the first Christian Roman emperor, found the relics of Jesus's cross in Jerusalem in 325, she ordered her servants to light a series of fires that eventually carried word of her discovery back to the Byzantine capital of Constantinople.)”

The town is also associated with its patron saint St. Thekla. A path exists today that she reportedly walked on . “After lunch we followed the footsteps of St. Thekla through the cleft in the rock for perhaps a half-mile. Many caves pocked the cliffs above us, some used for tombs in antiquity, others for dwellings. The walk was a bit treacherous, and I was starting to worry about turning an ankle when we suddenly found ourselves at a monastery dedicated to St. Thekla. The sanctuary is built on the spot where she lived in a cave until her death at age 90.

Maaloula Occupied by Islamic Radicals

Maaloula was occupied by a jihadist group in 2013 and 2014. Many of its valuable churches and shrines were damaged when Islamist rebels took over. Syrian regime forces regained control in 2014. Frederik Pleitgen and Paul Armstrong of CNN wrote: “At first glance, the whitewashed buildings that make up this sleepy little mountain village give the sense of a place firmly rooted in its ancient past. But closer inspection reveals a troubled recent history.In 2013, regime forces in the area were overrun by the al-Qaeda-affiliated al-Nusra Front. The local population understandably feared for their lives during the fighting, while important religious buildings such as the looming Greek Catholic monastery of St. Sergius, or Mar Sarkis, were badly damaged by heavy shelling. [Source: Frederik Pleitgen and Paul Armstrong, CNN, May 16, 2016 |]

Aramaic speakers in Turkey

“Remarkably, Maaloula was spared the atrocities endured elsewhere across Syria — the rebels even freed several nuns taken hostage as part of a prisoner exchange involving 150 women and children held by the Syrian government. The Syrian army eventually pushed the Islamist group out of Maaloula in April 2014 — but some of the village's residents remain missing, feared kidnapped by the retreating jihadists. Today the villagers — of all ages — just want to move on from their recent trauma. "I want things to be better, like they were before," one young girl tells CNN during a religion class in the village. Another hopes those kidnapped will be freed. But danger is never far away in this war-torn country — especially for religious minorities. The pock-marked and charred buildings are a constant reminder of this. |

“A UNESCO World Heritage site, Maaloula is home to many shrines and churches — as well as two monasteries — considered sacred by many Christians. The Convent of St. Thecla is one of the most famous buildings in the area. Thecla was a disciple of St. Paul and locals believe she hid here after fleeing Roman persecution because of her Christian faith.The convent was badly damaged during fighting in 2013 and 12 nuns were taken hostage and held by Islamist fighters for months before they were released unharmed. Locals said militants attempted to burn the inside of the tomb where St. Thecla is said to be buried. People from the village continue to visit the site to light candles and pray. They hope the United Nations Development program will help them to rebuild ancient sites like this. The ceiling of the newer Church of the Convent of St. Thecla was also blackened by the fire that raged here. However, the murals are still mostly intact. The church is currently not in use as the community is waiting for restoration work to begin.”|

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons except speakers in Turkey, Times of Israel

Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Christian Origins “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “ Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); King James Version of the Bible,; New International Version (NIV) of The Bible,; “Egeria's Description of the Liturgical Year in Jerusalem” ; Complete Works of Josephus at Christian Classics Ethereal Library (CCEL), translated by William Whiston, , Metropolitan Museum of Art, Frontline, PBS, “Encyclopedia of the World Cultures” edited by David Levinson (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1994); National Geographic, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2018

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been authorized by the copyright owner. Such material is made available in an effort to advance understanding of country or topic discussed in the article. This constitutes 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. If you are the copyright owner and would like this content removed from, please contact me.