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In remote Syrian village, language of Christ is on verge of extin ction

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  • Sarkessian, Gary A
    In remote Syrian village, language of Christ is on verge of extinction By Liz Sly Knight Ridder News Service Posted on Sun, Apr. 06, 2003
    Message 1 of 1 , Apr 8, 2003
      In remote Syrian village, language of Christ is on verge of extinction
      By Liz Sly
      Knight Ridder News Service
      Posted on Sun, Apr. 06, 2003

      MAALULA, Syria - In this quaint stone village perched high in the mountains
      above Damascus, the language of Jesus Christ has miraculously endured
      through the millennia.
      Aramaic, which was dominant in the region when Jesus was alive, died out
      elsewhere many centuries ago. But in remote Maalula, time and geography have
      conspired to keep it alive, and today this village is the last place on
      Earth in which the language spoken by Jesus is still the native tongue.
      Perhaps not for much longer, residents fear. The modern world is encroaching
      at a rapid pace, and no longer can Maalula be considered remote. A paved
      highway whisks commuters to Damascus in 45 minutes. Satellite dishes beam
      programs from around the world - none of them in Aramaic - into living
      Job opportunities are scarce, and the younger generation is moving away, to
      the cities and overseas, taking with them what may turn out to be the last
      memories of this ancient language.
      Within a few decades at most, Maalulans believe, Aramaic will have passed
      into history.
      "In 10 or 20 years, it will be dead. The children don't speak it anymore,
      and all the young people are moving to Damascus," said Maria Hadi, 30, who
      grew up speaking Aramaic but moved to the city to attend high school and has
      forgotten the language of her childhood.
      That Aramaic, which was introduced from the Persian Gulf region in the ninth
      century B.C., has survived at all is remarkable. Countless foreign invaders,
      including Greeks, Romans, Turks and Arabs, have swept across the region,
      each seeking to impose their language and culture.
      Historians attribute the survival of Aramaic in this farming community,
      clinging to steep mountains 5,000 feet above sea level, to the village's
      isolation and harsh climate. Blanketed by snow in winter, residents were
      usually cut off from the outside world for half of every year, leaving them
      to chatter away in the language passed down by their ancestors.
      The advances of the modern world are proving more powerful, however. State
      schools teach in Arabic, the language spoken throughout Syria, and even the
      villages' ancient churches conduct services in Arabic. No written version of
      Aramaic survives, not even the Bible, despite the fact that portions of it
      were originally written in Aramaic.
      Half a century ago, 15,000 people lived in Maalula, and Aramaic was the only
      language spoken in the village. Today, there are just 6,000 residents, and
      though more than 80 percent still speak Aramaic, barely 2,000 can speak it
      fluently, according to George Rizkallah, 65, a retired teacher.
      "Maybe it will survive another 50 years, but after that it will die, unless
      we do something," said Rizkallah, who has made it his life's mission to save
      the language.
      Last year, he started a summer school to teach local children during
      vacations. He is composing Aramaic songs in the hope that music will breathe
      life into the language. He has researched and revived the Aramaic alphabet
      and is working to translate the Bible. So far, he has completed two gospels.
      Although Rizkallah, like most Maalulans, is Christian, he does not regard
      his mission as a religious one. A quarter of the village's population is
      Muslim, and they too speak Aramaic.
      "This is a pre-Christian dialect that is part of our culture and our past,"
      he said. "Even the Muslims were Christians before they were Muslims, and
      before that, we all were pagans."
      Maalula is not the only place in which this form of Aramaic has survived. An
      estimated 5,000 people scattered in remote communities in Turkey, Iraq and
      Iran speak versions of the language. But those dialects would not be
      understood in Maalula today, or at the time of Jesus, who was born barely
      200 miles away.
      In Maalula, Rizkallah said, Jesus would easily be able to converse with the
      "When Jesus said to Lazarus, rise up and walk, he used the same words we
      would use today, and the words he spoke on the cross, those were the same as
      our words," he said.
      The isolation that helped preserve Aramaic in Maalula is also proving its
      biggest curse, however. The language has failed to evolve or adapt, and its
      limited vocabulary bears little relevance to those living in the modern
      "There are lots of words for things like goat, tree and vineyard, but
      outside the village, it is not so useful," Rizkallah said.
      Rizkallah is not optimistic his efforts will succeed.
      "I feel a great responsibility to teach the new generation," he said with a
      sigh. "But it is a big and difficult task, and I am alone in this work.
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