The village that speaks like Jesus
Munira Khayyat visits Maalula, in Syria
where Aramaic is still widely used

(published by the Daily Star)

If Jesus were to return to earth today, one of the few places he could make himself understood is a tiny hamlet in the Qalamoun mountains of Syria, 50 kilometers north of Damascus. Perched near a gorge on an arid mountainside, between ponderous, overhanging cliffs and an oasis of apricot and fig trees below, Maalula is one of the last living outpost of a language with supreme significance to the planet’s almost 2 billion Christians. Maalula’s 8,000 inhabitants make up more than half of the world’s remaining speakers of ‘Western Aramaic,’ the language that Christ spoke. Maalula’s blue mauve and white houses are crammed on top of each other and hug the ochre cliffs. With the same intensity, its inhabitants cling to their ancient tongue. The village is however not exclusively Christian: Even though crucifixes dot the mountainside, a crescent-topped minaret sits comfortably amid the profusion of Christian symbols. "Everyone here speaks Aramaic, Christians and Muslims," said Hunayn Daabul, a computer engineer from Maalula who now works in Damascus. Aramaic is also spoken in the predominantly Muslim neighboring villages of Jub’adin and Bakh’a.

The word Aramaic derives from "Aram," Hebrew for ancient Syria and the name of the fifth son of Shem, Noah’s eldest son and father of the Semites. Aramaic was originally spoken by Aramean tribes in Northern Syria and Mesopotamia. When the Patriarch Abraham and his followers crossed the Euphrates River from Mesopotamia and went to Palestine, their Aramaen kinsmen to the east of the Euphrates called them "those who crossed over". The word "Hebrew" is derived from the Aramaic "Abar" which means, "to cross over".  A Semitic tongue, it is the language that Abraham’s people brought with them into the Levant and later evolved into the Western Aramaic dialect that was spoken in the region at the time of Jesus. This language is still spoken in present-day Maalula. Language scholars have separated the Western Aramaic dialect from the related Eastern Aramaic dialects, Assyrian and Chaldean, that are still spoken in parts of modern day Iraq, Iran and Turkey. Aramaic was the lingua franca of the Near East in the millennium before Christ. It was the most widely spoken language in Babylonia, Persia and the Levant from the 9th century BC until the time of Jesus, after which it started being partially replaced by Greek. After the Arab Conquest of the Near East in the 7th century AD, Aramaic gave way to Arabic as the dominant language. Standing on the edge of a precipice that overlooks a ravine, the village’s most prominent topographical feature, Hunayn Daabul recounts Maalula’s founding myth.

According to Daabul, in the first century after Christ, when Saint Takla was a young woman, she converted to Christianity bringing upon her the wrath of her father, a fierce chieftain. He vowed to kill his heretic child and pursued her to the foot of the Qalamoun mountains where she found her way blocked by the sheer cliffs. Expecting immediate death, Saint Takla fell on her knees in supplication. Suddenly the mountains opened up, allowing the poor girl to flee and find sanctuary. She lived the rest of her life in the isolated mountain cavern that is today a part of the convent of Mar Takla. Today, pilgrims come to the convent to drink the healing water that drips from the rock ceiling of  cavern where Saint Takla is supposed to have hid.

According to Kamal Salibi, professor emeritus of history at the American University of Beirut and director of the Royal Institute of Interfaith Studies in Amman, Maalula’s ancient vernacular may have been preserved throughout the millennia because of the village’s secluded location. "Until recently, Maalula was an isolated and self-propagating community that had little contact with the outside world," Salibi said. "Thus its ancient language managed to stay intact." Recurrent waves of Arab Bedouins settlements in the plains that fan out from the foot of the mountains and the Arabic speaking empires that held sway in the region starting in the 7th century, contributed to the spread of Arabic in the surrounding areas- and to the erosion of the older Aramaic on the coasts and plains of the Near East.

But Arabic did not reach Maalula in its secluded mountain hideaway. Until now that is. In recent years, creeping into the village along with snaking asphalt roads and a bustling traffic of cars and people to and from the village, is the pervasive use of Arabic. Everyone in Maalula is bilingual, but since Aramaic is not taught at school, its continuity depends on it being passed down orally. "As long as Maalula remains a village that is able to subsist on its own produce, with inhabitants who inter-marry and do not venture far, Aramaic will continue to be spoken there," Dr. Salibi said. "But with Maalula’s increasing dependence on the outside world, the development of mass society, urbanization, technology, Maalula is no longer secluded from the rest of the world and as a result the use of its ancient tongue will erode." A few kilometers from the village, a four-lane highway cuts a straight asphalt line from Damascus to Aleppo. Minibuses with the immortal logo "Happy Jerny" emblazoned on their sides, chug into the village square from Damascus every hour, unloading tourists and commuters into Maalula’s twisty streets. Shop owners, standing outside their tiny tourist-trap shops, invite passers-by to come in and buy postcards or engravings of the Aramaic alphabet. A toothless old man on a donkey cheerfully accosts tourists with his marketing slogan: "Come to my house for coffee and hear me speak the language of Jesus!" Elias Daabul, looks unhappy as he sits behind a heaping plate of fresh figs in the dim, cool interior of his stone house near the village square, fingering a chain of beads. "People are leaving the village and going to big cities like Damascus or Beirut. There they speak Arabic or French or English and their children grow up not speaking a word of Aramaic," he said shaking his head sadly, nodding towards his teenage grandson, who was sitting next to him on the rug-covered divan. "Elie and many like Elie speak no Aramaic. That’s why our language will soon disappear."

The Daabul family is a good example of the effects of modernization on the inhabitants of Maalula and its language. Elias Daabul is a farmer and has lived his entire life in the village speaking Aramaic. He only speaks Arabic to strangers who venture into Maalula and on his infrequent trips to the Damascus. His eldest son, Hunayn, who is not married and lives in Damascus speaks Aramaic fluently but conducts his professional life in Arabic. The younger son, Rabih, Elie’s father, is married to a Lebanese and works as a taxi driver in Beirut. Rabih’s children do not speak a word of Aramaic. Yet, the demise of Aramaic may not be as imminent as Elias Daabul fears. It appears that the people of Maalula take the continuity of their hallowed tongue quite seriously. There has been some local effort to inaugurate Aramaic as the village’s prime cultural marker. A few years ago, the convent of Saint Takla held a Good Friday mass that was recited entirely in Aramaic.

This attracted many tourists and some important people. But Hunayn Daabul does not think that such events will help preserve the language. He feels that his mother tongue is being artificially marketed. "This language that we speak used to be spoken all over the land of Canaan, it just happened that it has survived here," he said. "We are Syrians like all the rest, we just speak an older language," he said. "Before the tourists started pouring in, asking us to speak the language of Jesus, no one here even knew that our language was particularly holy or so closely tied to Jesus. It was just what we spoke with each other." Takla, young mother named after the village’s patron saint, walks up a steep and winding village road holding a plump baby on her hip. She has made a concerted effort to instill Aramaic in her child. "I used to converse mostly in Arabic, but when my first child, Milad, was born, I switched to Aramaic.

I speak to him only in Aramaic," she said. In the main square, an old couple sits in the sun and converse in the guttural ancient tongue as they watch the comings and goings of their village. A group of little girls, playing a Maalulan version of hopscotch, chant in Aramaic as they skip across their chalk drawing. An old man walks past leading a donkey, in a scene straight from the pages of children’s Bible. He identified himself as Abu Malik Sarkis. There was hope in his words. "We speak Aramaic at home, my parents spoke it to me, I spoke it to my children and my children speak it their children," she said. And this is what has been occurring in Maalula for the past 3,000 years. But without a conscious effort to keep this unique language alive in these days of rapid change, Jesus, on his Second Coming, may have no one to talk to.