‘From The Holy Mountain: A Journey In The Shadow of Byzantium’ by William Dalrymple
That William Dalrymple is a travel writer par excellence is a well known fact. Even while being accused of being biased in his opinions, his ability to churn out brilliant stories were never disputed. This book is no different , a story which has its roots drawn from the writings of a sixth century Byzantine monk, John Moschos, it takes us through the paths that Moschos traversed in the sixth century and Dalrymple followed some 1500 years later.
In his book, ‘The Spiritual Meadow,’ John Moschos talks about the monasteries and the teachings and life styles of the monks and pilgrims that he and his pupil Sophronius met in the course of their journey through the heart of the Byzantine empire at its prime. Centuries later, Dalrymple decides to recreate the journey and retrace their steps in an attempt to chronicle a ‘dying civilization.’
Starting from a monastery on Mount Athos, Greece, in June 1994, Dalrymple takes us through the war and man torn lands of Istanbul, Antioch, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, the controversial West Bank, Jerusalem, Nazareth and finally ends a little less than a week before Christmas, in the desert of Kharga, in Egypt, once considered the Siberia of the Byzantine Empire. As he travels across arid deserts and deserted monasteries, the recurring theme is that of a sometimes abandoned , most times destroyed remnants of a once powerful empire. Churches in ruins that even now would surpass the most well known and well preserved Basilicas, forgotten caves and desolate structures that are dispersed throughout the Middle East with a few old world inhabitants who refuse to leave, the pictures that he presents are vivid and depressing at the same time.
A few of the themes that recur throughout the book is how Christianity was essentially an Eastern religion, how similar it is to Islam and how cultures across are so different yet remain similar. It is interesting to note how each change in culture mostly starts peacefully, then slowly the seeds of intolerance are sown to weed out what is not their own, finally culminating in a near total destruction of the one that was there originally. A matter of history repeating itself, or as a friend of mine put it, history echoing itself across regions and religions. Even in between all the strife and war, you can see Muslims coming to pray in obscure monasteries , bringing the weirdest of offerings and Orthodox priests assessing in these offerings in a very matter of fact way.
It is heart wrenching to read about people who are asked to leave their house overnight leaving behind belongings of their lifetime, coming back to find strangers closing these very same doors on their faces and who still continue to live in the never ending hope of that ‘some day’.
One would expect Dalrymple to be biased especially since the theme is based on Christianity and its decline. He admits,
“When I began this journey I had expected that Islamic fundamentalism would prove to be the Christians’ main enemy in every country I visited. But it had turned out to be more complicated than that.”
Be it fundamentalism , questions of ethnicity or issues of compromising to the diktats of majority, one fact is indisputable – it is the alarming decrease in the population of a minority that was once a majority. Almost everywhere that he visited, the educated young had already or were in the process of emigrating to the West or Australia.
You can glimpse the author’s innate sense of humor in places like Beirut where,
“Armageddon I expected, Armani I did not”
His conversations with the Orthodox priest Fr.Theophanes of the Monastery of Mar Saba on the Israeli occupied West Bank is particularly hilarious. Contrary to what my Sunday school nuns taught me, this priest says all Catholics will end up in hell along with Freemasons.
“I always thought Freemasons just held coffee mornings and whist drives and that sort of thing.”
“Wheest drives?” said Theophanes, pronouncing the word as if it were some sort of Satanic ritual. “Probably this wheest drive also. But their main activity is to worship the Devil. There are many steps,” he said knowingly. “But the last,the final step, is to meet with the Devil and have homosexual relations with him. After this he makes you Pope or sometimes the President of the United States.”
“President of the United States….?”
“Certainly. This has been proved. All the Presidents of the United States have been Freemasons. Except Kennedy. And you know what happened to him….”
He had seen Christian population looking happy only in Syria and had warned that this may change “as soon as Asad’s repressive minority regime began to crumble.” Ten years down the lane, we are getting glimpses of what is happening in Syria. It would be interesting to know what happened to the scores of other not so happy and clearly unhappy people that he wrote about.
The book has now left me with an imminent urge to visit that mysterious place that has been beckoning for sometime…Istanbul and its Hagia Sophia
Verdict : Not an easy read, you need to take it slowly. But definitely worth it if you love reading about long forgotten lands, mysterious monks, disappearing cultures, enigmatic monasteries rising out of vast deserts, in voices that are sad, happy, nostalgic, angry, resigned, hopeful…in short, if you love reading about history, religion and travel.