"Pope Zakka speaks on preserving the ancient language of Aramaic in a new, modern world."
DAMASCUS: With the recent release of the film, "The Passion of The Christ," Aramaic has likely been heard by more people in the past months than in it's entire history. Once the vernacular, it is now reduced to subtitles, spoken daily by a few. The man in front of me has a less brutal way of keeping the language alive.
Patriarch Zakka sits in a gold encrusted chair in a fading cathedral in the Old Quarter of Damascus, but the power of this holy man is not contained in a chair. Or in his extensive title: His Holiness Moran Mor Ignatius Zakka I Iwas. The power of Pope Zakka rests in words.
Pope Zakka is the Patriarch of Antioch and All the East and the Supreme Head of the Universal Syriac Orthodox Church, the planet's second oldest church, founded by the Apostles.
As intriguing as the longevity of the institution, is its charge to keep alive Aramaic, the language in which Christ spoke. That is, the words in which The Word spoke.
Words have consequence, but few take words as seriously as Pope Zakka.
We all know one phrase in Aramaic: Abracadabra. Childish magical gibberish to the rest of us, loosely translated from Aramaic it has a vastly more serious meaning: "Create what I speak, or, May my words be brought to life." These are not men who dangle their participles.
The church has come within a breath of extinction at least twice in its long history, and its survival is a miracle.
In the 6th century, following doctrinal splits in Christology, the church was down to three tattered bishops hiding underground from persecution.
Empress Theodora, daughter of a Syriac Christian priest and wife of the Byzantine Justinian, intervened, giving the green light for Jacob (after whom the church is often mistakenly named) to establish missions and bishops throughout the East, into Arabia and Ethiopia.
In the early 21st century, the church and the language so intimately linked to it again struggles to survive. This time it has found an oddly modern ally; the internet.
"The most important thing is that Aramaic was spoken by Our Lord Jesus Christ," the Patriarch says. "That's why we love it. It has been the liturgical language of our church from the beginning of Christianity and, of course, it was the ancient language of Syria before Islam. That's also why we love it. And we feel it is our duty and responsibility to keep it alive because we can't imagine that, one day, the language spoken by our Lord Jesus Christ will be forgotten. It's something we can't imagine."
Monks and holy scholars have kept the flame alive for almost 2,000 years, but can they survive the tornado of Western culture?
Syria has been isolated from much of the recent technology and communications boom and it is yet to be seen what will happen to these protected enclaves when exposed to global culture and technology.
I asked the Patriarch whether he fears this will be the final demise of The Word of God?
The internet, with its disrespect for man-made borders, is his ally.
"Technology has always been with the human being," he states. " Those who believe the world was created by God, they will always be loving God through Our Lord Jesus Christ."
With the help of technology - and the savvy leadership of the Patriarch - Aramaic is undergoing revival among members of the Syriac Orthodox Church connected across the globe and scholars attracted to its cerebral mission.
"We have many scholars here and there," the Patriarch says with enthusiasm. "And they learn the language and they teach it and, of course, we are proud of those people, too. And grateful, too. Yes."
Although he admits he doesn't fully understand the new technology, Pope Zakka visited Los Angeles to bless it.
The Syriac-Orthodox Church of Antioch, formed in the time of the Apostles, has its own website, with libraries, chatrooms, youth groups and CDs of liturgical music for sale through Amazon.com.
Pope Zakka has his own page where you can access copies of his encyclicals and writings. The Syriac-Aramaic language project has a worldwide center that the peripatetic Apostle Peter, first Bishop of the church, would definitely approve of.
For the Patriarch also, globalization and technology are positive developments.
When asked about the commercialization of the globe and the loss of individual identity, he shrugs it off. I'd forgotten that Syrians are hard-wired as world traders - just check out the chambers of commerce from Buenos Aires to Brisbane. The first in formation highway was the famed Silk Route which moved goods and ideas from one side of the known world to the other and terminated in Syria.
The Patriarch immediately identifies the positive and sellable side of Damascus.
"We may not have McDonald's here," he says, "But we have much to offer. The spirit. Nature. This city is a blessing of God. We call it the City of Saint Paul, of course, because when he came to Damascus, he had the experience of the faith."
Apostle Paul is instrumental in explaining the openness of the Syriac Orthodox Church toward technology and new ideas. The church was grafted from Jerusalem onto Antioch, the former capital of Eastern Rome (now Antakya in south-eastern Turkey), by Aramean and Gentile converts among the local Greek population. A simple and central act of the Antiochians inspired Paul in his writings on inclusiveness: converted Gentiles and Jews broke a pre-Christian taboo by eating together at the same table.
The locals coined a new term for these peculiar church members - "Christian" - and thereby introduced a new word into the planet's lexicon.
Inclusiveness has contributed to the quiet survival of the church and the preservation of the language. The Patriarch greets the advent of Westernized culture with the same careful openness.
"We have Coca-Cola here, already," he continues on his discussion of globalization. He shrugs. "It is the same all over the world. If they don't have Coca-Cola, for example, they have something similar to that. People always try to get the best."
He adds, quietly: "I think we don't have our lives in the bread. We have it in the spirit. That's something very important."
The Patriarch's concerns about the future are larger than fast food and Western movies, or even about the continued existence of the Syriac Orthodox Church in Syria. His concern is for the continuation of the church on this planet.
"What does peace look like to you?" I ask the holy man in front of me.
Ceremonially poised until this question, he now slumps. He sighs deeply and grinds his forehead with the foot of his palm.
"Ayyy. Peace, you ask?" he says, slowly. "Peace is a tired, old man."
His Holiness knows all about being tired. Even the boon of technology cannot reduce the weight of a long history.
"Let me say," the Patriarch continues after a sigh, "in my opinion, first there must be peace with God."
According to the Patriarch, peace between God and humankind has already been given through Christ.
Globalization, advances in science and technology, faster communications, these we chase after out of novelty and need. They will each impact our present lives and the future of our planet in ways we are just beginning to understand, but they will not bring peace. As the Patriarch says: Peace is a given. It is we humans who don't accept the gift.
Yvonne Seng, author of Men in Black Dresses: Quest for the Future Among Wisdom Makers of the Middle East, is a cultural historian specializing in the Middle East and Turkey.
Copyright © 2004 The Daily Star2004.06.02, Beirut, Lebanon.
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