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Syrian Villagers Determined to Keep Ancient Language Alive

Arabic is the official language of Syria, but in the mountain village of Maaloula residents still converse in Aramaic, a language that can be traced back 3,000 years.

The village of Maaloula is nestled in the snowy mountains, 50 kilometers north of Damascus. In the ancient language of Aramaic, the name means, opening to a high place.

Its relative isolation has allowed spoken Aramaic to survive for several thousand years - from the days when the Assyrian Empire spread across Syria and southern Turkey, and traders carried its words to Afghanistan and beyond.

For retired school teacher Georges Rezkallah, it seems quite normal to chat with friends in the ancient language.

"It was the vernacular of the people, the language of the people, of the commercial street, because they were traders," he said.

Aramaic was also a language of religion. The 22 squarish letters of its alphabet are found in early remnants of the Jewish Bible.

Later, it is said that Jesus Christ spread the language, as he traveled through the region to preach a new religion.

"When he addressed the people, Hebrew was the language of the prayer, of scriptures, but Aramaic was the vernacular," he said. "It was simple script." Use of Aramaic began to die as the Greek conqueror Alexander the Great spread his empire and his language across the region. Later, the spread of Islam gave Arabic a more prominent role.

The relative isolation of Maaloula and a handful of nearby villages helped residents preserve Aramaic through the centuries.

But a steady migration of young men seeking hi-tech jobs in larger cities is again threatening the survival of an ancient language that has no word for modern inventions, like the Internet or a space ship.

"We speak agriculture words, so the peasants who go to the fields, they are still speaking the original words," said Mr. Rezkallah. "Because the new generation - my sons or daughters - did not go with her father or grandfather to the field, so most of the words they did not hear."

Georges Rezkallah, his mustache and sideburns flecked with gray, says he is about the only one left in the village who can read, write, and speak Aramaic fluently.

Mr. Rezkallah has devoted his life to preserving the language of his ancestors. Now, the mayor of the village wants him to share his knowledge.

"Now, we are trying to build a center," he said. "This is what the mayor has told me - to build a new center. He asked us to come and train a number of teachers, 25 or more."

Teaching an ancient language is a challenge, but Mr. Rezkallah has some ideas how to attract young students.

"In the villages, at weddings and special occasions, we have popular poets," said Mr. Rezkallah. "Now, I was one of those popular poets in Arabic. Now, I deserted the Arabic, and began to write songs, because, how can I teach the children? By writing songs to the children and to the men and women."

At 66, the retired school teacher laughs and says the work of reviving an ancient language gives him a new life too.