In Syrian villages, the language of Jesus lives, but fewer and fewer speak it





Elias Khoury can still remember the days when old people in this cliffside village spoke only Aramaic, the language of Jesus. Back then the village, linked to the capital, Damascus, only by a long and bumpy bus ride over the mountains, was almost entirely Christian, a vestige of an older and more diverse Middle East that existed before the arrival of Islam.

Now Khoury, 65, gray-haired and bedridden, admits ruefully that he has largely forgotten the language he spoke with his own mother.

"It's disappearing," he said in Arabic, sitting with his wife on a bed in the mud-and-straw house where he grew up. "A lot of the Aramaic vocabulary I don't use any more, and I've lost it."

Malula, along with two smaller neighboring villages where Aramaic is also spoken, is still celebrated in Syria as a unique linguistic island. In the Convent of St. Sergius and Bacchus, on a hill above town, young girls recite the Lord's Prayer in Aramaic to tourists, and booklets about the language are on sale at a gift shop in the town center.

But the island has grown smaller over the years, and some local people say they fear it will not last. Once a large population stretching across Syria, Turkey and Iraq, Aramaic-speaking Christians have slowly melted away, some fleeing westward, some converting to Islam.


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