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Maaloula, Syria: Where the language of Jesus lives on

We had lunch at a restaurant named for St. Thekla, the patron saint of Maaloula, where we were shown to a pleasant terrace surrounded by leafy trees. There we talked about the town's linguistic heritage. Aramaic actually is not one language but a variety of local dialects, shaped by time and place, and the one spoken in Maaloula is officially Western Neo-Aramaic. Large portions of the Talmud, a compilation of Jewish teachings and commentaries, were written in Aramaic; so were the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Biblical books of Ezra and Daniel. Gradually Greek and then Arabic replaced Aramaic across the Levant, but remote mountain villages such as Maaloula, untouched and unoccupied, were able to retain their traditions. That started changing in the 1920s, when French colonials built a road through the mountains. Bus service to Damascus, radio and television, and the lure of better work in bigger cities drained the pool of Aramaic speakers. It is a common story: The language seemed old-fashioned, even embarrassing, and younger people disdained it.

Then, about 20 years ago, a group of German scholars came to Maaloula to study Aramaic, and villagers started realizing that their precious heritage was worth preserving. In 2000, the iron-fisted ruler of Syria, Hafez al-Assad, was replaced by his son Bashar, a slightly more progressive leader. Under Bashar's patronage, the University of Damascus opened an institute in Maaloula teaching Aramaic, where Hana's two daughters studied last summer. One of the teachers, Imad Rihan, told the Catholic News Service: "Twenty years ago people started giving up on Aramaic. Then 10 years ago, they realized how important it was, so they started teaching it in church. The Germans opened our eyes and showed us we had something special."

The language got another boost in 2004 when Mel Gibson's movie "The Passion of the Christ" depicted Jesus speaking Aramaic, providing English subtitles. But few villagers could follow the dialogue. A shepherd told a visiting filmmaker from London that the movie language sounded "broken" to his ear. Maaloula's vernacular is "faster and stronger," he said.

Faster and stronger applies to St. Thekla as well. Born in what's now the Turkish city of Konya at the time of Christ, she was forbidden to hear St. Paul when he came to preach the gospel. Sitting at her open window, she miraculously heard his voice and was instantly converted. After she broke her engagement and vowed to remain a "bride of Christ," she was sentenced to death by fire. But a sudden storm doused the flames. When she spurned the advances of a nobleman in the city of Antioch, she was thrown into a pit with wild beasts, which refused to attack her. Eventually, Paul blessed her decision to live as an ascetic virgin here in the hills of Maaloula, but she faced one more trial: A local peasant vowed to plunder her virtue. She fled his advances, and the mountain opened before her, offering a narrow path of escape.

That path exists today, and after lunch we followed the footsteps of St. Thekla through the cleft in the rock for perhaps a half-mile. Many caves pocked the cliffs above us, some used for tombs in antiquity, others for dwellings. The walk was a bit treacherous, and I was starting to worry about turning an ankle when we suddenly found ourselves at a monastery dedicated to St. Thekla. The sanctuary is built on the spot where she lived in a cave until her death at age 90.

A series of steps mounts the hill to her tomb, separated by pleasing terraces with bubbling fountains, Syria's all-purpose climate-control system. I did not make it to the top, but Cokie, always eager to recognize uppity women, did. The climb reaches a cool, calming place where pilgrims rest and pray. Many have left tokens of their petitions: holy cards, medals, small gifts of thanks for healed limbs and spirits. I can only imagine what women pray for at the shrine of St. Thekla, but I'm pretty sure it is not the gift of obedience.

That is the spirit of Maaloula. It is not a walled city or a garrison town, but it is fighting a battle today, a culture war to preserve its language, its religion, its history. Perhaps the child we saw baptized was one of St. Thekla's miracles.

Roberts teaches journalism and politics at George Washington University and is the author of the recently published "From Every End of This Earth."

Details: Maaloula, Syria

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