Turkey's Aramean ChristiansWhere they speak Jesus' language
The ball flits through the air. It looks as though it might even sail over the church wall. The six young players beneath the bell tower with the metal cross give each other a few soccer tips. As their language echoes over the yard it sounds different to Turkish, it’s throaty like Arabic and sounds archaic, with a linguistic melody all its own. It’s a dialect of Aramaic, the language that Jesus is thought to have conversed in.
The evening sun has drenched the church yard in a mystical golden-yellow light. The caretaker bolts the heavy wooden door of the Kirklar Church, one of seven Syriac-Orthodox churches in the southern Turkish city of Mardin. Seven year-old Theodora is bored watching the soccer game. The first-grader has tied her soot-black hair into a ponytail; her mischievous grin reveals gaps in her teeth.
After a while, Theodora’s uncle Iliyo appears, the 22 year-old son of the parish priest. He puts his arm around his niece. "Theodora, speak German with the guest," he says in Aramaic. Theodora was born in Germany and lives with her parents and two siblings near Heilbronn. Now, in the summer holidays, she’s paying her first visit to the homeland of her ancestors, walking on the ground that Aramean Christians regard as sacred, in the heartland of the Syriac-Orthodox church.
Keeping the Aramaic culture alive
Here, her grandparents were wont to work and pray. "It’s a bit hot, but the children are nice here," Theodora lets her guard down. She doesn’t understand any Turkish, but she can talk to her peers from the Kirklar parish in Aramaic.
"My big sister, Theodora’s mother, left Turkey years ago. But we’re trying to keep the Aramaic culture here alive. We don’t want people to emigrate to Europe," explains Iliyo. "But of course we can’t prevent them doing it." Now, during the summer months, the Kirklar Church is offering courses in Aramaic, to help the descendants of early Christians improve their knowledge of the ancient liturgical language – both spoken and written.
Mesopotamia, the territory between the Euphrates and the Tigris in the tri-border zone between Turkey, Syria and Iraq has been the homeland of the Aramaic Christians for 700 years. The region, which includes the modern Turkish province of Mardin, is one of the oldest regions in the world to have been continuously populated by Christians. As representatives of a tradition that’s been unbroken since the beginnings of Christianity until the present day, churchgoers in the parish of Kirklar are living with a sense of responsibility.