Prof. Dr. Werner Arnold

Report on my fieldwork in Maloula/Syria (funded by the DAAD)

In October 1985 I won a one year grant for post-graduate research in Maloula/Syria to gather data for my doctoral thesis on Western Neo-Aramaic. This small town is famous all over the world and a tourist attraction. It is considered to be the most beautiful village of Syria and the only place, where the language of Christ is spoken. The houses are for the most part blue painted, narrow and stick to the rocks like swallow's nests.


Beneath of the village there are irrigated gardens called 'shiqya'; the elder care diligently for them, despite they contribute but little fruit and vegetables to their living.

Most of the inhabitants do not live in Maloula any longer, but moved to Damascus, a minority also to Beirut. They use to come only in summer to this place situated about 1500 m above sea level top escape from the heat and dust of the capital, and stay until September the 14th - the day of the cross - in Maloula. In winter there live no more than 1000 people, but in summer the number of inhabitants climbs up to 5000.

When I arrived there in October, all vacationers had left, and so I could easily manage to find somewhere to live for me and my family in western style. Beneath the village, close to the access-road, during the last years a number of cemented houses have been erected. The owners of these houses earned a considerable amount of money by their work in Damascus, Beirut or the gulf region and invested it in a summer residence in Maloula. Some of them also run small workshops or stores.

The rent was at this time 20.000,- SL per annum, to be payed in advance, about 2500,- Euro. Syrians use to live in a slightly different way than Germans. The largest and best room, called salon, is only used by guests. It is cleaned and dusted daily and furnished with sofas and armchairs, while an average Syrian family usually sits in other rooms on the floor.

 Die Familie Shoara

When I rented an apartment of the family Sho'ra (have a look on the picture), my family came to Syria. We have four children and therefor had to take a lot of luggage with us. So I asked a shipping agency to send two big boxes full of luggage, a total of about 650 kg, to Syria. They reached the customs office in Damascus after about three weeks. Unfortunately I had no idea about the difficulties I had to expect to get my luggage out of the customs building. I was equipped with a permission of the University of Aleppo for my research-project and a letter of the ministry of higher education. With this legitimation I got a visa and an identity card without having any trouble. But the customs office required another letter of the ministry of higher education. The ministry referred me to the University of Aleppo. The customs department of the University provided me with a letter, that authorized me to get a stamp on the import licence, and finally I was sent to the next office. There they requested the agreement of the ministry of commerce, and at the ministry of commerce I was told I needed the signature of the minister, for in general foreigners were not allowed to import anything. The minister was not available, and every day I was told he would be there tomorrow. He finally arrived a few days later. In the end I needed a Syrian guarantor to make sure I would take everything with me again. Anyway, shortly before Christmas I managed to become hold of my luggage. It would have been easier and cheaper to buy the things in Syria and sell them again when we left.

It turned out to be of great advantage to start the work in winter. The peasants had harvested the fields and sat at their homes bored; so they were delighted by the change to have a foreigner in their village, who is interested in their language. So I was able to spend some hours in their houses, learn their language, note down and ask them questions about their grammar and vocabulary.

From the beginning the inhabitants kept to ask me about the purpose of my work. A lot of them could not understand, why someone should come "from the end of the world" to learn a language, that is spoken but in three villages. So there were rumours, there might be another cause than the language of Maloula. Some believed me to be an Israeli spy, others a treasure hunter. After a few months, when people realized I was indeed interested in nothing else but linguistics, the rumours stopped.

I believe these rumours to be the cause for the first visit of the Syriac secret service in early 1986. But it was not worrying at all: They asked me some insignificant questions, had a look on my visa and the permission for my research-project and went away again.

Mushe Barkila

At this time I met Mushe Barkila, who worked at the local casualty ward of Maloula. He is acquainted with everyone living in Maloula (at the upper left part of the picture, to the right his father Yhanne). He introduced me to a lot of nice and interesting people who spoke Aramaic stories onto tape. After the visit of the secret service I grew more cautious and feared, they might confiscate the tapes to keep my work under surveillance. I told Dr. Röhrs at the German embassy about my fears and we agreed to keep copies of the tapes at the embassy in Damascus.

The secret service kept asking the inhabitants about me, especially the Imam and the mayor. But people started to get acquainted with me and informed me of these visits and assured me that they told only good things about me.

Towards the end of spring 1986 most parts of my work were done, but I realized it would not be possible to finish it in time. First of all the peasants use to be very busy in summer. The do not have as much time to speak texts onto tape and read and emend these recordings. Therefor I needed another winter season. Besides in the meantime I also met some people from Bax'a and Jubb'adin and noticed that the dialects of these Aramaic villages differed widely from the dialect of Maloula and were in some aspects more archaic. So I did not intend to omit these villages. I notified my supervisor, Prof. Jastrow, of the situation, and we agreed to propose for an extension of my grant. The grant was awarded again until May 1987, and so I was able to work also on the dialect of these two villages.

In spring 1986 the Muslim brethren attacked busses and trains, and a lot of people lost their life. At this time professor Hebbo, the dean of the Faculty of Philosophy at the University of Aleppo, who arranged for the permission for my research and invited and visited me several times, invited me to come to a party to Aleppo. But it was not a pleasure at all to take a bus to Aleppo, for there were road-blocks every 20 to 30 km, and especially the busses were stopped. The luggage and the passengers were searched for weapons. So we avoided to leave Malula and did not go on a trip to the surroundings. But the situation calmed down soon and the road-blocks were given up.

When school was over in July thousands of people with Maloula origins living in Beirut or Damascus came back to their home town. Some of them even travelled there from America. These people can not speak Aramaic anymore and are wasting your time when they keep to invite you for dinner. So I decided to start my research in Bax'a, that never has been a summer resort. The only problem was there did not exist any public conveyance to Bax'a. There was not even a taxi cab available in Maloula. Therefor I had a talk with Dr. Röhrs, whether it would be possible to import or register a car. It is impossible to buy a car in Syria - I would have to pay about 15.000 to 25.000 Euro for it. He told me it would take a year to register the car. And he also advised me to buy a bicycle. In my opinion it would have been useless in the mountains. To Bax'a you have to drive 5 km uphill. So the only solution was to walk every day 5 km to Bax'a and in the evening back to Maloula. The road is in a very bad condition, and there were but smuggler's cars (cross-country vehicles) going to Bax'a (who gave me a lift sometimes).

In Bax'a, like in the other villages of Qalamûn close to the Lebanese border, a lot of people lives on smuggling. They are trading e.g. with handkerchiefs, coffee, cooking oil, wood, iron, jeans, dishes, cigarettes and alcohol. The smugglers use to pass with their cross country vehicles the almost inaccessible roads leading through the mountains and are in general armed. Shootings of the customs authorities and the smugglers happen. Then military forces are sent to the villages close to the border. The police officers of Maloula check the cars going from Bax'a to Maloula. When the smugglers gave me a lift in the evening back to Maloula and we were stopped, they used to pay 100 Lire and were able to continue our journey.

 Hamad Ahmat Hemid mit seinen Kindern aus Bakha

Hamad Ahmat Hemid and his children in Bakha

 Bax'a is a small village not having any asphalt road - they turn to mud when it starts to rain. All inhabitants are Muslim. Despite being very small it has like almost all villages in Syria a casualty ward; a physician from Yabrûd is available there in the morning. The people of Bax'a are very nice and helpful; every time I came there I was invited for dinner. They also answered all my questions with extraordinary patience. In this summer until the bad weather started I walked to Bax'a every day and by this avoided the tourists in Maloula.

The tourists stay in Maloula until the 14th of September, the day of the cross. It is the most important holiday in Maloula; visitors come from the nearby Christian and Muslim villages, but also from Damascus, Beirut or other Syrian towns.

As legend has it, the empress Helana sent messengers to Jerusalem to look for the Christ's cross. If the cross is found, a message should be sent across the mountains by fire signals. So in Maloula youths use to climb two rocks and light fire there. Already the day before police and military forces block the roads leading to Maloula. Small busses are going to the village. Army also makes sure there will not be any shooting. In earlier times there even were fatal shootings on holidays. All night long they dance Dabke on the streets; people form a chain and hold each others hands. Besides they drink a lot of Arak.


 All feasts are held by both Muslims and Christians. It is common to pay a visit to each other and congratulate. The guest is offered bitter coffee.

I spent most parts of winter 1986/87 on a survey of the material I gathered. In particular me and the speakers looked through the texts and transcribed them. All texts are available on tape and in writing. Sometimes, when the weather was good, I walked to Bax'a, especially, if any questions on grammar arouse and I had to ask them about it again. In the course of this winter also a shooting of a Muslim and a Christian family occurred; they had accused each other of burglary. One Muslim was injured on his cheeks by a shot. Shortly after this incident the army sent armoured forces there, blocked the roads and started to detain people. Army stayed there for the whole night and left the next morning. Our land-lord made tea for the crew of the tank which stood in front of our house; it was very cold then.

This winter there had been a shortage of many things, in particular heating oil, coffee and cigarettes. Above all we had extended power cuts. But traders had everything in reserve, and I was offered more than I needed. And our land-lord had a generator so that we had light all the time.

In February whether was fine and trees were in bloom, but in March it grew very cold again and even snowstorms occurred. For three day we were not able to leave the village and we had a complete power cut. After three days finally a snowplough managed to clear the road, and also the circuit lines were fixed. But the whole fruit harvest was lost. But peasants did not start to complain about it like they would have done here, but regarded it to be god-given and accepted it.

Xolid Solih aus Jubbadin

In spring 1987 I started my research in Jubb'adin. I had met some people from Jubb'adin before (e.g.. Xolid Solih, have a look at the picture) noted down some differences between their dialect and the one spoken in Maloula. In Bax'a I understood almost everything at once, but in Jubb'adin in the beginning I had problems to understand anything, and it took me some time to get used to the dialect, for the difference between Maloula and Jubb'adin are bigger than between Maloula and Bax'a.

For example:

Malula: ana batt nzill

Jubb'adin: ana bilay niz

"I will go"

Apart from that the problems in Jubb'adin and Bax'a were the same. There does not exist any public conveyance going from Maloula to Jubb'adin. There is but a bus from Jubb'adin to Damascus. Jubb'adin is bigger than Bax'a. It has a high-school and some asphalt roads. A lot of people there own lorries or even refrigerator lorries and take goods from Lebanon to the gulf states. They have gained a considerable prosperity and show their wealth in form of big, new and comfortable houses. All inhabitants are Muslims and a bit more religious than the Muslims of Bax'a and Maloula. They go to the mosque more frequently, are very strict with the fasting period and weare clothes, that do not look too continental. In contrast to Maloula just a very limited number of people own houses in Damascus, and those working in Damascus go back to their village in the evening by bus. So you can hardly hear a language on the street that is not Aramaic. Looking on these three villages the most Aramaic settlement is Jubb'adin. They also have a local poet, a young engineer, who wrote a number of Aramaic poems which are very popular in town.

In this village also until a few years ago some archaic customs survived; they erected a stone statue on a rock in the month of Ramadan, and there was a single wedding day for all couples who wanted to get married this year. The festivities took a fortnight and included dramas, a fire was lit on a rock and also combative sports. But these customs now exist only in the memory of the elder people.

In April 1987 my supervisor, Prof. Dr. Jastrow, visited me in Syria. He stayed for 10 days in Maloula, and so we had the opportunity to talk about some grammatical or phonological problems. In particular we looked through the complicated system of short vowels with the speakers; it had not been described in the right way in scientific literature before. We also made a trip to the other villages, Bax'a and Jubb'adin, and told him about the most important features of my research. We agreed to stay also June and July, that were not covered by the grant, in Syria. Until that point I had not finished the transcription of some Jubb'adin texts, and also some important recordings had to be done; I had thought work in Jubb'adin would not take longer than in Bax'a. But the verbs are completely different than in Malula and Bax'a, and so it took quite a long time to check it. In June the Syrian secret service payed another visit to me and asked me about the expiry of my visa; I thought it to be a good idea to send all material to Germany via the embassy. The embassy agreed, and we sent 23 kg tapes and notes to Germany.

Shortly before I left, in July, Dr. Behnstedt visited me in Maloula. We went to some Arabic villages nearby and could discover some correspondence of the Western Neo-Aramaic and the Arabic dialect of the surroundings.

Despite some problems that did not form any obstacle to my scientific research, me and my family enjoyed Syria. People there are very kind and friendly towards visitors. To have good contact with the inhabitants was of great advantage for my work, and I owe a lot to the open-mindedness and communicative nature of the people. Without them I would not have been able to take home such a great variety of linguistic material.

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Latest Revision: 2018-05-23
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