► Ma’lula is one of the main landmarks of the Rif Damascus area and hosts the last community that speaks Aramaic, the biblical language today completely disappeared.
► The city was conquered by rebel forces and strongly destroyed both by fight and with deliberate destructions of the religious heritage. Most of the destroyed area are within the modern part of the city.
► The government started the reconstruction process as a symbol of management of the reconquered areas focalizing in particular on Christian heritage sites.
Maaloula is a small village about 60 km north of Damascus, facing the Syrian-Lebanon border, nestled in the foothills of the Qalamoun Mountain, consisting of three plateaus, with 1000, 1500 and 1750 meters height. Between the first and the second plateau passes the main road which connects Aleppo to Damascus. An undulating line formed by yellow and brown rocks develops to the west, the crest of the second plateau. This chain of mountains opens up, in many places, to deep breaches where the villages are sheltered. Maaloula occupies the largest of these breaches; built in the form of an amphitheater around a central peak, it is flanked by two defiles which protect the access, on the side of the third plateau. Its fresh air, its narrow and irregular alleys, the presence of numerous springs and orchards known for their fruit, make it a picturesque place, surrounded by arid landscapes.
Maaloula is a small isolated village in the mountains, known for being one of the last places in the world where a form of Aramaic, an old Semitic dialect dating back to obscure invaders of the second millennium before Jesus Christ, is spoken. This language, one of the most important of the Semitic family, was formerly, in Persian times, the common international idiom of the whole Middle East: it was in Western Aramaic that some books of the Bible were written (Ezra, Daniel), as well as the inscriptions of Palmyra. It was also the dominant language in Palestine at the time of Jesus Christ. Nowadays, it is practically extinct and only exists in this region of Qalamun, exclusively in oral form. The dialect of Maaloula is now designated by the linguists as WNA, Western Neo-Aramaic. One of its characteristics is its unwritten character and the importance of the Arabic dialect in its transformation.
This linguistic peculiarity has always constituted for the village a mark of originality and Maaloula has seen all sorts of visitors pass by for almost two centuries, with a recent massification of these flows, in particular due to the development of domestic Muslim tourism (including Iraq and especially Iran), alongside traditional Eastern Christian or Western scholarly tourism. Today Maaloula is a mostly Christian village, the inhabitants being Greek Catholic (or Melkite), Greek Orthodox and, in part, Muslim.
What in the context of the contemporary Near East had permitted the survival of a speech that could never have been used by liturgy or literature? Contrary to the Aramaic of Edessa, which Christianity had helped to save by making it into a great literary language, also called the classical Syriac, the Aramaic of Maaloula never remained but a vulgar tongue, unwritten, whereas in Palmyra, in the same linguistic area, one quarter of the inscriptions found are in Aramaic. An Aramean identity then? None of this in Maaloula: the inhabitants are too few, have no authority in Syria to represent them as “Arameans”, or even a church of their own (they belong to the Greek-Catholic or Greek- Orthodox, Churches claiming to be “Arab”). The linguistic specificity of Maaloula does not seem to have given rise to any affirmation of identity in the classical sense.
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Syrian soldiers backed by Hezbollah fighters have driven rebels from the ancient Christian town of Maaloula, state media and activists say. Army units had “restored security and stability” after eliminating a number of “terrorists”, a military source told the state-run Sana news agency. The nearby village of Sarkha had also been retaken, the source added. Islamist rebels, some of them from the al-Qaeda-affiliated al-Nusra Front, took over part of Maaloula in December. Twelve nuns from the monastery of Deir Mar Takla were taken hostage during the initial fighting.They were only released last month as part of a prisoner exchange deal brokered by Lebanon and Qatar as the Syrian army prepared to recapture the nearby town of Yabroud, where they were being held.
Sana reported that army units had to dismantle explosive devices planted in Maaloula by the rebels after recapturing areas they had occupied. Other units were now advancing on Jabaadin, to the south-west, it added. Maaloula has changed hands at least four times since December as government forces and rebels have launched attacks and counter-attacks, according to the Reuters news agency.
A team from the Department of Antiquities of Damascus Rural visited Maaloula town to examine the damage befalling the historical buildings. The report of the team identified the damage as follows:
> The old town: the houses and alleys of the old town were completely destroyed. In addition, the roofs and walls of the houses which were built using traditional materials (rocks, clay and wood), and which sometimes consisted of three stories, collapsed. The traditional contents of these houses were subject to damage, as well.
> Cemeteries and caves: a large number of historical caves and cemeteries in the town were subject to damage, destruction, smashing, digging and breaking down doors (in search of treasures) and were converted to fortified barricades. The most damaged caves are those located within the vicinity of the Monastery of Saints Sergius and Bacchus and those near Safir Hotel.
> Monastery of St. Thecla (Mar Takla): the main shrine containing the tomb of St. Thecla was completely burned down with little or no information on the destiny of the sacred contents therein, including a large number of significant icons. Furthermore, the main entrance to the Monastery, as well as the adjacent corridor, was subject to destruction and burning.
> Monastery of Saints Sergius and Bacchus: Parts of the western and eastern walls of the Monastery were subject to severe damage and destruction as several mortar shells hit them. In addition, the big dome of the building was subject to destruction as a result of mortar shells falling on different sides
> Church of St. Leontius: the southern wall of the building together with the ceiling and the dome suffered damage down to the shelling targeting the church. Internally, the marble room of the Holy Sacrament was destroyed, and the sacred holdings were stolen, including the historical bell of the church.
> Saints Cosmas and Damian’s Shrine: the building was subject to destruction as a result of mortar shells. Furthermore, the altar was destroyed, and the valuable icons were stolen. The wooden iconostasis was destroyed, as well. .
> St. Barbara’s Shrine: the dome was subject to severe damage. The contents of the church were burnt after the valuable holdings, including the icons, were stolen.