Television forcing extinction of language of Christ
Aramaic, the language of Christ, is heading for extinction in the last three remote Syrian mountain villages where it is still spoken.
Television and modern communications are taking their toll as the younger generation increasingly relies on Arabic and forgets Aramaic, the lingua franca of the Holy Land 2000 years ago. In the steep winding streets of Maloula, the picturesque home of a first-century cave shrine to St Tekla and a hillside monastery and convent, many villagers still greet each other in the tongue in which Jesus preached.
Muse Barkila, a local man who is helping a German academic to record Aramaic, fears, however, that the language could disappear within 20 years.
Mr Barkila told the London Daily Telegraph: "I learned it from my father and I teach it to my children. But fewer and fewer young people speak Aramaic. If we do not start to teach it in school, it could be lost for ever."
Western Aramaic, as it is referred to by philologists (Eastern Aramaic is still spoken in small Christian pockets in Iraq and Iran), has survived in Maloula and the nearby settlements of Jabadin and Bakha thanks to their inaccessibility. Although the villages lie only 60 km north of Damascus, they sit in high mountain passes overlooking vineyards and apricot orchards and have remained isolated for centuries.
In recent years, however, many locals have left to find work in the capital, while Arabic-speaking outsiders have moved in as the tourist industry has grown. About 10,000 people still have a working knowledge of Aramaic. In the Greek Orthodox church of St Tekla and the nearby Roman Catholic church of St George, prayers are said in a mixture of Aramaic, Greek and Arabic in an attempt to maintain the language.
Fr Sami Dager, a local Catholic priest, said: "We encourage the people here to keep alive the language that Christ spoke, but we can no longer rely only on it being passed down from father to son. We need some sort of school as well."