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Aramaic: An imperial language without an empire

Aramaic is a language that for some three thousand years facilitated the exchange of ideas across large tracts of the Middle East and Asia. In its heyday it was the main official and written language across the Neo-Assyrian and Achaemenid empires. It was the language in which several sections of the Old Testament Bible were written. A Galilean dialect of Aramaic was probably the language Jesus spoke. Different dialects of Aramaic still exist today but numbers of speakers are dwindling and there are fears that it could die out.

So what is the story of Aramaic? Why did it become so influential and then go into decline? And how much has it changed over its long history?

Bridget Kendall is joined by three distinguished scholars of Aramaic: Professor Holger Gzella from Ludwig-Maximilians University in Munich is the author of numerous publications on Aramaic as well as being an expert on other Old Testament languages.

Professor Alison Salvesen from Oxford University works on ancient interpretations of the Hebrew Bible including its Aramaic versions. She is also an authority on Jacob of Edessa, a leading religious scholar who wrote in one of the many variants of Aramaic.

Dr. Alinda Damsma teaches Biblical Hebrew at University College London and Aramaic at the Ecole Rabbinique in Paris. She studies medieval Aramaic dialects, especially in Jewish mystical literature, and has also done field research on the current use of the language.

[Image: Aramaic script on a stone slab from Palmyra, Syria. Credit: mtcurado/Getty Images]

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