'ABU nahti bishmo ishkata sheshma." The words are those that Jesus used, speaking in Aramaic 2,000 years ago, as he taught his apostles to say "Our Father which art in heaven, hallowed be thy name." They trip off Abu George's tongue as easily as if this village grocer was speaking his native language. He is. The town of Maaloula, tucked into a cleft in the mountains 40 miles north of Damascus, is among the last places on earth where people conduct their daily lives in the language of Jesus. Despite the intense pride that Abu George and his neighbors show in their heritage, however, encroachment by the modern world is threatening to silence this ancient tongue.
Aramaic was once spoken all across the Middle East, from the Euphrates to the Mediterranean, explains Bishop Abu Mokh, a leader of the Syrian Greek Catholic church and a native of Maaloula himself. Where the language came from, nobody knows, but "family resemblances between Aramaic, Hebrew, and Arabic show that they all descend from the same origin," the bishop says. "They are all daughters of an original language that has disappeared."
At the time of Jesus, despite the widespread use of Greek, Aramaic was still spoken by the Jews. During their long exile in Mesopotamia, they had forgotten their Hebrew and allowed the language to lapse into disuse except for liturgical purposes.
According to the bishop, early manuscripts written in Aramaic include some of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the book of Daniel, and the Gospel according to St. Matthew. "Matthew was writing for the Jews," says Abu Mokh. "It was logical that he should write in the language that they spoke at the time." (According to many Bible scholars, however, the book of Matthew was written in Greek.)
His original gospel has been lost, but scattered words of Aramaic still survive in the New Testament. Jesus' last words on the cross, for example, "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" are preserved in their Aramaic form of "Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?" (Matthew 27:46).
Maaloula and two neighboring villages are home to fewer than 10,000 people, whose seclusion has kept them on the sidelines of history.
Flat-roofed houses cluster tightly together, spilling in a cascade of lavender and pale blue facades down a cliff face dominated by the Greek Catholic monastery of Mar Sarkis.
At the entrance to a narrow gorge - reputedly struck through the mountain in answer to a prayer by Saint Tekla as she fled her Roman persecutors - the village has always been obscure.
"Maaloula is a very isolated place," says the bishop. "It was never on the big caravan routes, so there was very little contact between its inhabitants and the surrounding civilization. With the Muslim invasion of the seventh century, people in the towns began to speak Arabic, but the isolated villages conserved their language."
Since the villagers were largely illiterate, they preserved Aramaic as a spoken, rather than written, language, and the last manuscripts date from the 18th century, when monks wrote out sacred texts in Aramaic.
This means that Aramaic is not taught in Maaloula's schools, but that does not upset Abu George. "We all try to bring up our children to speak Jesus Christ's language at home anyway," he says.
"We are very proud to know this language, very proud, and it's the first language the children speak, so they don't need to learn it at school. They need to learn Arabic, rather.
"And we don't just speak Aramaic, we sing it too," he boasts, putting a locally made cassette on the tape deck in his crowded grocery store. Men's voices chant a lament that Abu George says is in honor of the intifadah, the Palestinian uprising in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.
"But other songs are religious, and another one is about schoolgirls wearing pretty dresses," he adds, keen to illustrate the cultural spread his language can encompass.
One of the men listening to the song is less sanguine, though.
"When I was born, Aramaic was more popular," says Ilya Kouba, a doctor. "Now there are more marriages outside the village, and if one parent doesn't speak Aramaic, the child won't speak it so well.
"Also our village can't offer work to everyone, so people go elsewhere for jobs, and when you are far from home it is hard to speak your tongue."
Bishop Abu Mokh is equally concerned.
"Aramaic is very threatened by the invasion of Arabic," he says. "Everyone comes to Damascus, their children who go to school here don't speak Aramaic, and I'm afraid that with time the language will disappear."
But the inhabitants of Maaloula, most of whom are Christians in an overwhelmingly Muslim country, have another link to the earliest days of their religion besides the language they speak.
The silver-domed cliff-top church of Mar Sarkis is one of the oldest in Christendom, built before AD 325 when the monastery sent its bishop to the first Council of Nicaea, the church conclave that drew up the text of the Nicene Creed.
And its central altar, a semi-circular slab of gray and white marble, is the earliest Christian altar in existence. Around its edge stands a raised lip, the last vestige of its pagan predecessors on which the blood of ritually slaughtered animals had run.
Only the very first altars were carved like that, according to Father Michel, the monk who cares for the monastery today. In AD 365, the church authorities decreed that Christian altars should be entirely flat.
Father Michel is as proud of his church as his parishioners are of their language. "Monks have been here continuously since the time of the Emperor Constantine, who died in 337," he says. "When you come here to Maaloula, you are not just visiting a museum."