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Echoes of Jesus From Syria’s Mountains

A Christian village survives in an arid and rocky place

by Mitchell Prothero

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The sleepy Syrian town of Maaloula once seemed decades from the bustling city of Damascus, which lies some 30 miles away. Since the first century, when Christianity penetrated the barren mountains that shield Maaloula, its residents have commemorated the life, death and resurrection of Jesus and his martyred followers. Generations observed fasts and feasts, clung to traditions, passed on superstitions and developed new customs. And as the world around them changed — Muslim Arabs conquered Christian Syria in 634, making Damascus their capital in 661 — Maaloula’s sons and daughters remained steadfast in their Christian faith, maintaining even their distinctive language, Aramaic, which they shared with Jesus.

But Maaloula slumbers no more. Its churches and shrines, less than 45 minutes by car from the Syrian capital, host tens of thousands of tourists and pilgrims each year, swelling the small town of 2,000 residents.

Maaloula is synonymous with martyrdom and miracles. Scaling the cliffs that tightly contain it, Maaloula’s sacred and secular architectural wonders rise several stories, usually wearing a wash of blue distemper. Were it not for the vineyards and olive and apricot orchards that carpet the surrounding valley, a casual visitor might ponder how the townspeople have survived the mountains’ sun-dried, barren landscape for millennia.

Maaloula’s most distinctive feature, however, is the language its residents speak, the same dialect of Aramaic spoken by Jesus of Nazareth. Predating Arabic — the most widely used language in the region for more than a millennium — Aramaic originated more than 900 years before Christ and, in its many forms, was the Middle East’s lingua franca from around B.C. 1200 to A.D. 700.

As with all things in the minority in the Middle East these days, Aramaic has nearly died out. Only in Maaloula and two nearby villages — now Muslim — does Aramaic’s western dialect survive as a native language and everyday vernacular. All in all, experts estimate only 15,000 people speak it worldwide, most of whom have direct lineage to one of these Syrian communities.

Modern Syria’s network of highways, improved telecommunications and deteriorating rural life endanger this ancient language.

Interest in preserving Aramaic, however, is increasing. Maaloula’s residents take pride in speaking Aramaic, and the Syrian government has established a new Aramaic Language Institute, which advances the study of, and offers formal instruction in, the language.

While Maaloula’s diminutive size and geographic isolation impeded it from ever playing a leading role in Christian history, it is home to several of Christianity’s oldest holy sites, including the Melkite Greek Catholic Monastery of St. Sergius and the Antiochene Orthodox Convent of St. Thecla.

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Tags: Syria Christianity Village life Pilgrimage/pilgrims Damascus