Saturday, October 24, 2015

Book Notes: From the Holy Mountain by William Dalrymple

"From the Holy Mountain" is not just an unusual book, it is by any measure, an extraordinary one. The author, William Dalrymple strides through history, politics, memoir, interviews, satire and theology with some style, with all these strands flowing from a travel diary.

In 578AD, a Monk named John Moschos toured the Levant, at a time when The Byzantine Empire was in its last years of decline across the Middle East. This formally "christian" state, was starting to crumble as Moschos explored it, due to internal disintegration and external threats. The lands he traversed would fall first to The Persians, and then Islamic Armies. Moschos' work The Spiritual Meadow, recorded his research, notably of the hugely varied Christian communities (both Orthodox and heretical), he visited. The Middle East was then burgeoning with monastic communities of Copts, Syrian and Greek Orthodox, Palestinians and others.

In the 1994, William Dalrymple set out to retrace Moschos' remarkable journey through Greece, Turkey, Syria, Israel-Palestine and Egypt. His journey took him to many of the sites that are described in The Spiritual Meadow. Some of the places which Moschos described are completely lost today, long-forgotten Monasteries or Churches buried below Israeli dual-carriageways, for example. Others are ruins or archaeological sites, wind-blown desert sites where the remaining stones are used to corral sheep. In many of the places he explored still had living Christian communities in 1994, in some instances, the same monastic communities using the same music and liturgies that Moschos describes from the late 570s. In one or two instances, Dalrymple speaks to the very last inhabitants of these ancient communities which are steadily dying out.

Dalrymple writes:
The Christian population that Moschos knew and wrote about - the monks and the stylites, the merchants and soldiers, the prostitutes and the robber chiefs - all the strange and eccentric characters who wander in and out of The Spiritual Meadow, were conquered and subjugated, their numbers gradually whittled down by emigration, intermarriage, and mass apostasy.... [in a] process that has persisted ever since, greatly accelerating in this century. It is a historical continuum that began during the journeys of Moschos and the final chapter of which I have been witnessing on my own travels some fourteen hundred years later. Christianity is an Eastern religion which grew firmly rooted in the intellectual ferment of the Middle East. John Moschos saw that plant begin to wither in the hot winds of change that scoured the Levant of his day. On my journey in his footsteps I have seen the very last stalks in the process of being uprooted. (p453)
 And summarizes:

But if the pattern of Christian suffering was more complex than I could possibly have imagined at the beginning of this journey, it was also more desperate. In Turkey and Palestine, the extinction of the descendants of John Moschos' Byzantine Christians seemed imminent; at current emigration rates, it was unlikely that either community would still be in existence in twenty years. In Lebanon and Egypt the sheer number of Christians ensured a longer presence, albeit with ever-decreasing influence. Only in Syria had I seen the Christian population looking happy and confident, and even their future looked decidedly uncertain, with most expecting a major backlash as soon as Asad's repressive minority regime began to crumble. (p448)

In the light of what has unfolded in Syria over the last two years, this makes even more grim reading. Earlier in the book, I read with surprise, and a slight feeling of nausea when Dalrymple described his longing to escape from repressive Turkey into the relative freedom of Syria. The extinction of these old Christian communities which he caught the last glimpses of in 1994 - is now almost complete in many of the places he visited. From the Holy Mountain, may have been a wonderful piece of travel writing in 1994, but it now appears as a timely and invaluable historical document.

I have though done a dis-service to the book by quoting those two paragraphs though! Not, because they are in any way unworthy of quoting, but rather because they are very unrepresentative of the tone of the whole. These two more analytical quotes are very much the exception in a long book which is mostly anecdotes, stories, and adventures in unlikely places, interacting with a panoply of characters to amaze, delight and appal the reader in equal measure. From the Holy Mountain, like all the best travel writing, has the sense that the places and the people have left a deep imprint in the author - who is a good enough writer to pass that impression on to the reader. In turns it is insightful, educational, witty, exciting, bizarre, hilarious and then deeply and troublingly melancholy, From the Holy Mountain is a snapshot from the 1990s of one of the great tragedies of our age - the displacement of the Middle East's ancient Christian populations from their lands.

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