In 587 AD, John Moschos and his acolyte Sophronius started on a journey that would take them all across the Byzantine world, exploring the vast lands of Eastern Christianity. But Dalrymple does a remarkable job of telling the stories of my beloved Byzantine Empire, and what has happened to its world of wonders after the fall.
Dalrymple's book is an attempt to rediscover the traces of ancient Christian history in the Middle East, some of them surviving in unexpected ways, some of them tragically disappearing fast. In each place he discovers Eastern Christian communities and attempts to piece together what has brought them to the situations in which they currently find themselves. I was surprised and pleased, on reading Dalrymple, to find that, as late as 1997, such situations did indeed exist.
Update: For those who enjoyed this book or are interested in the Byzantines, don't miss this CBS News-60 Minutes documentary on the monasteries of Mt. Athos, online at http://www.cbsnews.com/news/mt-athos-... As I write this review, nearly twenty years after this book was first published, Eastern Christian communities as old as the religion itself are under siege yet again and that lent the story a certain poignancy. From the Holy Mountain: A Journey among the Christians of the Middle East is Dalrymples 1994 travelog retracing the pilgrimage of two monks, John Moschos and his pupil Sophronious the Sophist. Dalrymple, a Scottish Roman Catholic, is at his best when he allows his own spiritual sensibility to shine through; in those moments, he opens a door onto cultures and rituals of mystical, unearthly beauty. This book landed on my priority reading list because of an article in Hadassah Magazine about the current threat to Middle Eastern Christian communities and to their holy places. Here are two updates from William Dalrymple, writing for The Guardian in 2014 and 2012: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisf...
In From the Holy Mountain Dalrymple follows the path of the pilgrim John Moschus ( The Abstemious) who journeyed from his home in Greece in the 6th Century in order to meet various ascetics and monks in monasteries and cave sites in the Levantine corridor. William Dalrymple follows the path taken by John Moschus, stopping at the same sites and monasteries in order to examine the fate of christianity in the Middle East today.
Moschos wrote a book of these travels called 'The Spiritual Meadow' and though this book might not, from the sound of it, wholeheartedly appeal to modern minds, even those of believers, Dalrymple uses it as the guiding rope which he holds to keep him on the safeish path as he picks his way through the minefield that it the modern Middle East. The rampantly insane, as far as I can see, Fr Theophanes who is a former greek policeman from Athens but now a monk at Mar Saba who lives in great hate and loathing of the Freemasons who Dalrymple had mentioned as just organizing whist drives. Dalrymple writes with great animation and, of course, no doubt with some exageration but his genuine fondness for people and his ability to endear himself even to the Roman Catholic hating Fr Theophanes means that his accounts are never dull and the atmosphere he creates in his writing makes you feel the dryness of the desert air and feel the chill of the ice cold monastic cells. I loved the way this book kept pulling me up and made me gaze at something so real and living that i had to think again about my own sense of history and when ancient influences can truly be said to have withered. This is a tragedy for the families who are losing their sense of belonging but also perhaps a tragedy for the wider world where we have a tendency to think of the Middle east as being a place of turmoil and violence and intolerance; the haemorrhage of the long established communities flooding from resurgent prejudice from wherever it stems serves to exacerbate this false view Dalrymple seems to be implying. He has a great line which came about halfway through the book and to which i clung like a shipwrecked loser when I began to get all depressed and down about the hopelessness of it all 'In the Middle East, the reality of continuity has always been masked by a surface impression of cataclysm' Not sure if it is totally reassuring but it does undeline what i took from this splendid book, that this wonderful area, enriched by so much history and beauty and courage and character will not be able to be destroyed by the acts of brutes and tyrants. This book was witty and amusing in his asides and encounters with the characters of his travels, it was challenging and unnerving in its ability to bring the past right in front of me as I delved into my muesli bowl, tragic and shocking in its accounts of the past brutality but actually much more by the uptodate intolerance, injustice and violence that still is very much alive and active but most of all it was one of those books that made me yearn to go to those places and breathe that air.
How much daily threats will abate for the monks is still an open question.' Article here Fab work Hana.
I have waited a very long time to read this book (since 2013). I loved reading this book.
However, I didn't enjoy taking this book with me during my tour around the Middle East because in a travel book I don't think every paragraph shouldn't be about how much do the Christians suffer.
The book won the 1990 Yorkshire Post Best First Work Award and a Scottish Arts Council Spring Book Award; it was also shortlisted for the John Llewellyn Rhys Memorial Prize. From the Holy Mountain, his acclaimed study of the demise of Christianity in its Middle Eastern homeland, was awarded the Scottish Arts Council Autumn Book Award for 1997; it was also shortlisted for the 1998 Thomas Cook Award, the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize and the Duff Cooper Prize. In November 2007, William received an Honourary Doctorate of Letters, honoris causa, from the University of Lucknow University for his outstanding contribution in literature and history, and in March 2008 won the James Todd Memorial Prize from the Maharana of Udaipur.