In Syria's Maalula, fear for survival of Aramaic
Hunched over a thick book, George Zaarour uses a magnifying glass to decipher Aramaic script -- the biblical language of Jesus that is disappearing from everyday use in his village.
The 62-year-old is one of the last in Syria to specialise in the ancient language, which survived for more than 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 ten years."
Zaarour collects books and encyclopaedias 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, whose origins date to the tenth century BC and which was widespread in the Middle East at the beginning of the Christian era.
Today, "80% of Maalula's inhabitants don't speak Aramaic and the remaining 20% are over 60 years old," Zaarour said.
Etched out in the cliff face and with many churches, convents and monasteries, Maalula is considered a symbol of Christian presence in the Damascus region. Pilgrims from across the world visited the village to see its religious buildings and to hear Aramaic spoken on the streets.
However, the outbreak of the Syrian civil war in 2011 changed everything.
Rebels and jihadists linked to al-Qaeda seized Maalula in late 2013 and most of its Christian inhabitants fled. Government forces recaptured it in April 2014 but two-thirds of its 6,000 inhabitants have yet to return.
Many of Maalula's residents found refuge in and around Damascus, which is about 55km away, or 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 Aramaic 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 centre in Maalula to teach Aramaic but it closed after war broke out.
Village 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," said Thaalab, 80, leaning on his cane. "Some young teachers are trying to learn the language but Mr Zaarour is the only one who knows the language in depth."
Preserving the language is of utmost importance, he said.
"For more than 2,000 years, we have kept the language of Christ in our heart. "We are among the last people on Earth who have the honour of mastering it,” he said.
Maalula, which means "entrance" in Aramaic, is the most famous of three villages around Damascus where the language is still used. In north-eastern Syria, Syriac, which is derived from Aramaic, is still spoken.
Other Aramaic dialects that evolved from the historic version of the language are spoken across the Middle East, especially in Turkey and northern Iraq, said Jean-Baptiste Yon, an ancient language specialist
In Maalula, most of the houses are empty, only chirping birds interrupt the calm. The village fared better than other parts of Syria but was not spared completely. Churches and monasteries were looted or damaged by artillery fire and religious icons were destroyed or stolen.
Al-Nusra jihadists kidnapped 13 nuns from the village in December 2013, releasing them three months later.
Today, in the monastery of Saints Sergius and Bacchus, gilded candles stand once again on the chapel's white marble altar.
In the village's kindergarten, numbers have plummeted since the war started, dropping from more than 100 in 2010 to less than 30 in 2019, 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 5-6 sit behind wooden desks reciting Aramaic poems, under the watchful eye of their teacher, Antoinette Mokh.
"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."
At age 64, she has been teaching for more than a quarter of a century but "I cannot give up my job and retire," she said. "There will be no replacement."