Search JTA's historical archive dating back to 1923

Assyrian Community Speaks Aramaic, Provides a Warm Welcome to Israelis

February 28, 2003
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

I never intended to visit Adabashi. I was heading toward the border crossing between Turkey and Iraq, hoping to get to northern Iraq before the widely anticipated war began.

But the Turkish border authorities would not hear of any journalists running around in that Kurdish-dominated part of Iraq. Not just Israeli journalists, any journalists.

As a result, I and a group of fellow journalists found ourselves traveling along the long Turkish border between Iraq and Syria — until we spotted a church tower off the main road.

A church? In the heart of this Muslim Kurdish part of Turkey?

It was almost mid-day during the Muslim feast of Eid al-Adha. The village appeared deserted. The muddy streets were empty.

But then, out of nowhere, appeared Hanna Durdu, an old man with deep blue eyes. He greeted us warmly in a strange language.

Only a few minutes later, when he took us to “someone who can speak American,” did we realize that a short detour off the main road had taken us centuries back in history — to a small community of Christians who live as a tiny island within an ocean of Muslims, Turks and Kurds.

They are referred to by a name straight out of millennia past: Assyrians.

As I greeted the “American”-speaking guy with the traditional Arabic, Salam Aleikum, he looked almost offended.

“Here,” he said, “we say shlomo.”

“Shlomo?” I was not quite sure I heard correctly.

“Yes, shlomo,” he insisted.

It is the Aramaic word for the Hebrew “shalom.”

It turns out that the tiny village of Adabashi on the Turkish-Syrian border is one of the few places in the world where people still speak Aramaic, the language of Abraham the Patriarch, the Talmud and Jesus.

It is the prayer language of the Assyrian Church. The church seceded from the main body of Christianity in the fifth century C.E., but the language is much older.

It was born in Mesopotamia, present-day Iraq, at least 3,500 years ago. It served as a common trade language among the various peoples of the ancient Middle East.

In Adabashi and among 400,000 Arab Christians — in places including Syria, Iraq, Iran, Lebanon and the former Soviet republics of Georgia and Armenia — they still speak Aramaic at home.

They use “shlomo” for “shalom” and “halebo” for “halav,” milk in Hebrew.

“Beita,” the word for house, is similar to “beit” in Arabic and “bayit” in Hebrew.

“Kalba” is Aramaic for dog, similar to “kalb” in Arabic and “kelev” in Hebrew.

Another man, who acted as our host, introduced himself as “Abraham,” pronouncing it like the Hebrew “Avraham.”

When we introduced ourselves as Israeli journalists, he hugged us and kissed us on both cheeks three times, as if we were close relatives who had finally come home.

Durdu, the old man with the blue eyes, could not hide his excitement.

He pulled up his sleeves to show us a tattoo marking three dates — one for each of his visits to Jerusalem.

While his Muslim neighbors make their pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina, he went to Jerusalem to follow in the footsteps of Jesus and to meet the small Assyrian community in Jerusalem’s Old City.

The Assyrians like to compare themselves to the Jews — always persecuted, forever tolerated only barely by the local majority, they say.

According to their tradition, they have lived in Turkey ever since the 5th-century split within the Christian church.

During World War I, many of them were massacred, along with the Armenians.

Until nine years ago, most of the people of Adabashi lived across the main road, in the nearby village of Grunyurdu.

But then they became victims of the bitter conflict between the Turkish authorities and the Kurdish underground, the PKK.

PKK fighters used to enter the village, asking for shelter, food, supplies–and money.

The Assyrians were caught in the middle between the Kurdish guerrillas and the Turkish soldiers. Anyone suspected of collaborating with the guerrillas was sentenced to long years in jail.

Eventually, Abraham and his family moved to Adabashi, close to the border, where a Turkish military presence deterred PKK activities.

Most of the people are elderly. After being forced from their homes in Grunyurdu, many of the younger generation emigrated.

Abraham’s son, Balan, happened to be there when we visited. He came following the death of his mother a month earlier.

During the past nine years, Balan has lived in Hamburg. He makes a good living working in a local restaurant, is married, owns a car and lives in a respectable neighborhood.

But Balan is determined to return home.

“I feel like a Jew in Germany,” he told me. “In recent years, many Germans no longer feel shameful over what happened during the war.

“Many openly voice their anti-Semitism, and they also hate us — other foreigners. I can make all the money in the world, but I will always be looked down at as an outsider, as someone who does not belong there.”

Balan wants to wait until after the Iraqi crisis is resolved — by war or otherwise — before moving back home.

“I know I will miss the comfort of Germany — but I will be home.”

Before we parted, Balan gave us a word of advice.

“Don’t give in to the Palestinians,” he said. “The Land of Israel should not be redivided. I am a devout Christian — and the Bible says that the country should not be divided.”

Our visit to Adabashi was short. And then we move on to our next stop along the border with Iraq.

But even as the world prepares for a possible war, Adabashi lingers in the mind, and it prompts me to make a suggestion for the Jewish tourist looking for new places to visit.

If the area ever opens up to tourism — as it was until only a few years ago — you should remember that you have friends in Adabashi, and they speak the language of your forefathers.

Actually, they are family.

Recommended from JTA