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
"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
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.