Sunday, June 27, 2010


During much of its 3000-year history, Aramaic was the most widely
spoken language on earth. Here's an excerpt from Ariel Sabar's My
Father's Paradise: A Son's Search for his Jewish Past in Kurdish Iraq
(Kindle Edition, 2008):

"Such Jews!" the Jewish-American professor Walter Fischel wrote after
visiting Kurdistan in the 1940s. "Men virile and wild-looking; women
wearing embroidered turbans, earrings, bracelets, even nose-rings, and
with symbols tattooed into their faces — our brethren and sisters!"

Their language was just as intoxicating, mostly because people had
written it off as long dead. Aramaic had been the English of its day,
a lingua franca across what was then the world's center of
civilization. Its first inscriptions—mostly on stone monuments to gods
and kings found near Aleppo, Syria — stretch back to around 1000 b.c.,
when an ob- scure tribe of Semitic nomads, the Arameans, began
drifting from Syria across the Fertile Crescent. The Arameans' trump
wasn't their wealth or power — they never had much. It was their
tendency to wander.

As nomads, they had dispersed so widely across ancient Mesopotamia
that their language became a de facto common tongue, the world's first
esperanto. It was the language on the ground. And no one, it seemed,
wanted to mess with it. By the eighth century b.c., a practical
decision had been made throughout the Assyrian Empire to adopt the
Aramean tongue as the official language of administration. When the
Assyrians fell, the Babylonians embraced Aramaic as the official
language of their Mesopotamian empire; when the Babylonians fell, the
Persians took it up.

That no fewer than three empires came and went without imposing their
own language upends a linguistic verity: that language follows power.
Aramaic survived precisely because its native speakers lacked
political ambition. The Arameans were no-account drifters—"uncouth
Bedouins," one historian called them. They were everywhere. But they
were so badly organized, so poor, and so powerless that the new
emperors saw no threat in their language. Here is what made Aramaic
irresistible: It was high-tech. Before it, the closest thing to a Near
Eastern lingua franca was Akkadian, which was etched in cuneiform,
wedge-shaped characters pressed into clay. Aramaic could be written on
papyrus. For an Assyrian or Babylonian bureaucrat with a sprawling
empire to administer, it was simply easier to push paper than rock.

The miracle of Aramaic was not lost on Assyrian king Sargon II, who
claimed credit for its rapid spread in a stone inscription found near
Mo- sul: "Peoples of the four regions of the world, of foreign tongue
and di- vergent speech, dwellers of mountain and lowland . . . I
carried off [and] made them of one mouth."

People were soon speaking and writing Aramaic over wide bands of Asia
and northern Africa, from the Caucuses to southern Egypt, from my
father's paradise western Turkey to southern India and western China.
It crossed borders and bridged faiths as no prior language had. Not
only did Jews and Chris- tians speak it as an everyday tongue, but so,
at various times, did zoroas- trians, Buddhists, Muslims, Mandeans,
Manicheans, and pagans.

For a while, Aramaic appeared destined for immortality. As the com-
mon language of the formative years of Christianity and diaspora Juda-
ism, it embedded itself in seminal liturgical texts. An Aramaic
translation of the Hebrew Bible was expanded into a landmark work of
interpretation known as the Targum, or Translation. The Books of Ezra
and Daniel were partly composed in Aramaic. Babylonian Jews wrote the
Talmud, the book of commentary and law, in Aramaic. A medieval Spanish
poet drafted the zohar, the chief text of Jewish Kabbalah, in it. The
original "writing on the wall" that prophesied the fall of Babylon was
in Aramaic. And Jesus Christ himself cried out in the same lilting
tongue as he died on the cross: "Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?" My
God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

Ariel Sabar, My Father's Paradise: A Son's Search for his Jewish Past
in Kurdish Iraq, Kindle Edition, 2008, 3-4% into the book.