MaAlula, Syria: Far from the sounds of gunfire and civil conflict that embroil Syria lurks an oasis of faith and miracles in this tiny village perched on the rugged mountains. It’s one of the last places on earth where the Aramaic language Jesus Christ spoke still lives on the tongue of its inhabitants.
Barely a 45-minute drive (around 50 km) from Syrian capital Damascus, that is in the crosshairs of frenetic global diplomacy, Maalula, which in Aramaic means “entrance,” transports you to a self-enclosed world of belief, miracles and divine mysteries.
“Welcome to the place where the language in which Jesus Christ spoke is still alive,” Sister Georgette, clad in black robes, told this visiting IANS correspondent, ushering us into the Convent of St. Serge, a 4th century monastery that sits atop a rock cliff 5,000 feet above sea level.
Inside the elegantly restored Byzantine interiors are icons of Christ, his face ennobled by suffering and redemptive suffering for mankind, and the Virgin Mary. In front of the altar, she recites ‘The Lord’s Prayer’ in Aramaic.
Maalula is among three neighbouring villages where Aramaic is still spoken by around 18,000 inhabitants. The other two places which boast of a living linguistic connection with Christ are Bakhaa and Jabadeen.
Maalula is a microcosm of this multi-religious mosaic of a country embroiled in international headlines for being the new epicenter of Arab Spring-like protests against the long-standing regime of President Bashar al-Assad. Walking around amid proud believers and the keeper of an ancient legacy amid exhilarating mountain air, one would not know that barely a few kilometres away in Homs, the government forces are battling out protesters in a fierce battle for power.
The holy hush that inhabits this picturesque place, made famous by Mel Gibson’s film ‘The Passion of the Christ’, is, therefore, all the more striking.
Aramaic, the Jesus dialect, is imbibed as a mother tongue and children go on to learn Arabic, the language spoken in most of Syria, only in schools. Sadly, the oral tradition predominates as none of them can write in Aramaic, the language of sacred revelations.
“It passes from generation to generation, but we don’t know how to write,” Mikhal, a 50-something resident, told IANS.
Elsewhere in Syria, where Christians comprise nearly 10 per cent of the population, even the ancient churches conduct services in Arabic. But finding the alphabets and script of Aramaic are not a lost cause, efforts are on at both individual and state level to resurrect the language in which Jesus probably spoke to Lazarus to wake up and walk with him.
The government has funded an institute to revive the written Aramaic and to teach the younger generation this sacred tongue.
George Rizkallah, a 65-year-old retired local schoolteacher, has started a school to teach local children the ancient language. He is finding new ways to resuscitate the language and has been composing Aramaic songs. The language will survive, but we need to find ways to preserve this ancient tongue, he said.
According to Yona Sabar, a professor of Semitic languages at the University of California, Los Angeles, the three villages represent “the last Mohicans” of Western Aramaic, spoken by Jesus in Palestine two millennia ago. People of Maalula are hoping that when Jesus returns, he will speak to them in their native tongue.