MAALOULA, Syria – A young Syriac-Roum man from the Aramaic-speaking town of Maaloula has returned home after leaving Syria for Germany eight years ago. His love for his Aramaic native language led him to obtain a degree in Semitic Studies from the University of Heidelberg.
The Syriac-Roum Rimon Wehbi has now fully devoted himself to the preservation of the Aramaic language, so much so that his love for the language left him no choice but to return to Syria with the aim of reviving his endangered language. Wehbi says the people of Maaloula today are “forced to speak the language of the areas to which they have been displaced or emigrated.” He has thus returned home for fear that his Aramaic mother tongue will disappear. And with his academic grade in hand, Rimon Wehbi has announced the creation of a modern academic curriculum for use in teaching.
He also invests in social media and offers educational content about the Aramaic language through a YouTube channel. But his passion for the Aramaic language did not stop there. He also founded a project website under the authentic Aramaic name “Yawna” – which means dove of peace – and he provides free educational courses in Daramsuq (Damascus) for adults and children. Rimon Wehbi is preparing to hold his Aramaic language course in Damascus next month, and hopes by making his large Aramaic archive available will be of use for new and in-depth research on the Aramaic language and for those wishing to learn Syria’s native language.
In ancient times, the town of Maaloula was part of the Aramean kingdom of Aram-Damascus or Daramsuq in Syriac. The Arameans were an ancient semi-nomadic people. From the thirteenth century BC, Aramean tribes lived near Tur Abdin in what is contemporary southeast Turkey. Bet Zamani is mentioned in a thirteenth century record as a place of settlement of Aramean tribes in Upper Beth Nahrin (Mesopotamia).
According to Orientalist Edward Lipinski in his book “The Arameans. Their ancient history, culture, Religion” (2000), the emergence of the Arameans only came after the Assyrian Empire brought down the Hurrian and Mitanni kingdoms. It opened the way for the nomadic Arameans to spread and occupy the Gozarto (Jazira) Region in northeast Syria, and push further into the valleys of the Tigris, the Euphrates, and their tributaries.
From the eleventh century onwards, after 200 years of roaming in some confederative form of Aramaic-speaking tribes, the Arameans emerged as a power. From the tenth century BC, there is real mention of (a federation) of Aramean city-states, of which Daramsuq and Maaloula were part.
After the Assyrian Empire brought many of the Aramean kingdoms and city-states under its rule, Aramaic became the Lingua Franca of the Empire and region for centuries. And it was spoken until the days of Jesus Christ. Aramaic was the language of Jesus. But those days of glory are well gone. Today, the Aramaic of Maaloula is what UNESCO recognizes as a “definitely endangered language”. In Maaloula only a few thousand still speak the Aramaic language.