MALOULA, Syria -- The language of Christ is heading for extinction in the last three remote Syrian mountain villages where it is still spoken.
Television and modern communications are taking their toll, as the younger generation increasingly relies on Arabic and forgets Aramaic, the lingua franca of the Holy Land 2,000 years ago.
In the steep winding streets of Maloula, the picturesque home of a first-century cave shrine to St. Tekla and a hillside monastery and convent, many villagers still greet each other in the tongue in which Jesus preached.
However, Muse Barkila, a local man who is helping a German academic to record Aramaic, fears the language could disappear within 20 years.
"I learned it from my father, and I teach it to my children," says Barkila. "But fewer and fewer young people speak Aramaic. If we do not start to teach it in school, it could be lost forever."
Western Aramaic, as it is referred to by philologists (Eastern Aramaic is still spoken in small Christian pockets in Iraq and Iran), has survived in Maloula and the nearby settlements of Jabadin and Bakha thanks to their inaccessibility.
Although the villages are just north of Damascus, they sit in high mountain passes overlooking vineyards and apricot orchards and have remained isolated for centuries. In recent years, however, many locals have left to find work in the capital, while Arabic-speaking outsiders have moved in as the tourist industry has grown.
"The bus and the television are to blame." said one local, bemoaning the language's slow demise.
About 10,000 people still have a working knowledge of Aramaic. In the Greek Orthodox church in St. Tekla and the nearby Roman Catholic church of St. George, prayers are said in a mixture of Aramaic, Greek and Arabic in an attempt to maintain the language.
The Rev. Sami Dager, a local Catholic priest, said: "We encourage the people here to keep alive the language that Christ spoke, but we can no longer rely only on it being passed down from father to son. We need some sort of school as well." At St. Tekla's convent, Pelagia Sayaf, the mother superior, echoed the message.
Toni Khuri, a shopkeeper, said, "We are proud to speak Aramaic, and we will never forget it."
After offering to recite the Lord's Prayer in Aramaic, however, he stumbled over the words.
Western Aramaic is the direct descendant of the dominant language in the Middle East 2,000 years ago. It replaced Hebrew for the Jews, and portions of the Old Testament were written in it.
Although documents and inscriptions in old Aramaic have been found as far afield as Greece and India - the oldest one dating to 850 B.C. - there is no surviving script, and the language is now purely oral. With the help of Barkila, Arnold Werner, a Heidelberg University professor, has transliterated Aramaic into the Western alphabet in an effort to breathe new life into it.