Hunched over a thick book, George Zaarour uses a magnifying glass to decipher Aramaic script — the biblical language of Jesus that is starting to disappear from everyday use in his village.
The 62-year-old is one of the last in Syria to specialize in the ancient language, which has survived for 2,000 years in the village of Maalula — one of the world’s oldest Christian settlements. In the mountain village, Aramaic was once widely used, but today few people still speak the tongue.
“Aramaic is in danger,” Zaarour said. “If things continue like this, the language will disappear within five to 10 years.”
Zaarour collects books and encyclopedias on Aramaic in his small shop, where he sells religious icons, crucifixes and household products.
He spends his days studying and translating the ancient Semitic language, which was widespread in the Middle East at the beginning of the Christian era and whose origins date back to 10th century BC.
Today, “80 percent of Maalula’s inhabitants don’t speak Aramaic, and the remaining 20 percent are over 60 years old,” the expert said.
Etched out in the cliff face, and full of churches, convents and monasteries, Maalula is considered a symbol of Christian presence in the Damascus region.
Pilgrims across the world once visited the village to see its religious buildings and to hear Aramaic spoken on the streets, but the outbreak of the Syrian civil war in 2011 changed everything. Rebels and militants linked to al-Qaeda seized Maalula in late 2013, forcing most of its Christian inhabitants to flee.
Regime forces recaptured it in April 2014, seven months after the insurgents first entered the village.
However, two-thirds of its inhabitants have yet to return.
Many of Maalula’s residents have found refuge in and around Damascus, which is about 55km away, or even abroad.
“The war generation was born outside Maalula, in Damascus or in other areas, and they learned Arabic first,” Zaarour said.
An author of some 30 books on the Aramaic language and its history in Maalula, Zaarour is well-known in Syrian academic circles. He regularly supervises student dissertations in Damascus.
In 2006, he helped set up a center in Maalula to teach Aramaic, but it closed after war broke out.
Maalula Mayor Elias Thaalab hailed Zaarour as a source of true local pride.
“I think George Zaarour must be the only teacher and specialist of the Aramaic language in Syria,” the 80-year-old said.
“Some young teachers are trying to learn the language, but Mr Zaarour is the only one who knows the language in depth,” he added.
Preserving the language is of utmost importance, he said.
“For more than 2,000 years, we have kept the language of Christ in our hearts,” he said. “We are among the last people on earth who have the honor of mastering it.”
However, of the more than 6,000 people who lived in the village before the conflict, only 2,000 have returned, he said.
Maalula, which means “entrance” in Aramaic, is the most famous of three villages around Damascus where the language is still used.
In Syria’s northeast, Syriac, which is derived from Aramaic, is also still spoken. Other Aramaic dialects that have evolved from the original historic version of the language are also used across the Middle East today, especially in Turkey and northern Iraq, said Jean-Baptiste Yon, an ancient language specialist.
In Maalula today, the vast majority of houses remain empty, only chirping birds interrupting the calm.
The village has fared better than other parts of Syria, but it has not been spared completely. Several churches and monasteries were looted or damaged by artillery fire and religious icons destroyed or stolen.
Al-Nusra militants kidnapped 13 nuns from the village in December 2013, only releasing them three months later.
Today, in the monastery of Saint Sergius and Bacchus, gilded candles stand once again on the chapel’s white marble altar, but in the village’s only kindergarten, numbers have plummeted since the war started.
The number of students enrolled has dropped from more than 100 in 2010 to less than 30 this year, the administration said.
To ensure their ancient language survives, its pupils have an Aramaic class every day.
In a classroom with white-and-pink walls, children aged five to six sit behind wooden desks reciting Aramaic poems under the watchful eye of their teacher, Antoinette Mokh, 64.
“Aramaic in Maalula is inherited from generation to generation, from father to son... It’s the language of the home,” she said. “But these children were born outside Maalula during the years of exile.”
She has been teaching for more than a quarter of a century, but “I cannot give up my job and retire. There will be no replacement.”
A coronavirus-free tropical island nestled in the northern Pacific might seem the perfect place to ride out a pandemic, but residents on Palau said that life right now is far from idyllic. The microstate of 18,000 people is among a dwindling number of places on Earth that still report zero cases of COVID-19 as figures mount daily elsewhere. The disparate group also includes Samoa, Turkmenistan, North Korea and bases on the frozen continent of Antarctica. A dot in the ocean hundreds of kilometers from its nearest neighbors, Palau is surrounded by the vast Pacific Ocean, which has acted as a buffer against the
Dutch scientists have found the coronavirus in a city’s wastewater before COVID-19 cases were reported, demonstrating a novel early warning system for the disease. SARS-CoV-2 — the virus that causes COVID-19 — is often excreted in an infected person’s stool. Although it is unlikely that sewage will become an important route of transmission, the pathogen’s increasing circulation in communities would increase the amount of it flowing into sewer systems, Gertjan Medema and colleagues at the KWR Water Research Institute in Nieuwegein said on Monday. They detected genetic material from the coronavirus at a wastewater treatment plant in Amersfoort on March 5, before
TRUE TOLL? Some Chinese are skeptical about official data, particularly given the overwhelmed medical system and initial attempts to cover up the outbreak The long lines and stacks of urns greeting family members of the dead at funeral homes in Wuhan, China, are spurring questions about the true scale of casualties at the epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak, renewing pressure on a Chinese government struggling to control its containment narrative. The families of those who succumbed to the coronavirus in the city, where the disease first emerged, were allowed to pick up their cremated ashes at eight funeral homes last week. As they did, photographs circulated on Chinese social media of thousands of urns being ferried in. Outside one funeral home, trucks shipped in about 2,500
KEEN INTEREST: India is trying to procure medical gear from domestic producers and abroad, and China has emerged as a possible supplier as its factories reopen India is to buy ventilators and masks from China to help it deal with COVID-19, a government official said yesterday, even though some countries in Europe had complained about the quality of the equipment. India has recorded 1,251 cases of the coronavirus, with 32 deaths, but health experts said the country of 1.3 billion people could see a major surge in cases that could overwhelm its weak public health system. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government said that it was trying to procure medical gear, including masks and body coveralls, both from domestic firms and from countries such as South Korea and