Friday, August 28, 2015

From the Holy Mountain by William Dalrymple

Today I'm once more failing to review a vintage novel, but there's no way I can let this book go without saying something about it. I stumbled across William Dalrymple's From the Holy Mountain a couple of months back on the bookshelves of my grandparents, who have really good taste in reading matter, obviously.

From the Holy Mountain is travel non-fiction, and I've never read travel non-fiction before in my life. Still, it's about the author's trip through the Levant--Greece, Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, and Egypt--on the trail of a sixth-century monk, John Moschos, who himself wrote a popular account of his own travels among the hermits and mystics of the Christian, pre-Islamic Middle East in the Byzantine classic The Spiritual Meadow. And since Byzantium and the Levant have been my imaginative home for much of the last year, I was keen to acquaint myself with details of geography, climate, and vegetation.

Was I in for a surprise!

Sure, From the Holy Mountain contains plenty of those details. I expected olive groves and ancient cities, but this book takes you on a journey through a Middle East I'd never imagined existed. From the mountains of Anatolia to the green valleys of Lebanon, from the dead cities of Syria to the stark expanses of the Sahara, from shiny Israeli malls to ancient cliff-built monasteries in the Judaean wilderness, this book will amaze and delight you with the sheer richness and diversity of the Levantine landscape.

I expected wit and humour, but to my surprise, Dalrymple kept me chuckling aloud as he meets a host of picturesque characters, from Syrian taxi drivers and Lebanese warlords to crusty Greek Orthodox monks.
What was I, Orthodox or heretic?
"I'm a Catholic," I replied.
"My God," said the monk. "I'm so sorry."
I expected a scholarly familiarity with the region's history, but Dalrymple is formidably learned, and his vast, wide-ranging knowledge enriches the whole thing considerably. You only have to glance at his bibliography to get a whole course of Middle Eastern Studies going. Perhaps the most fascinating theory Dalrymple advances is the influence of Byzantine art on early Celtic Christian art, of all things.

I expected to be shown around some Byzantine ruins and some ancient monasteries still hosting dwindling monastic brethren, but I never expected to find the history of the past so vibrant and so present. In a Judaean monastery, Dalrymple asks when a massacre of the monks by the Persians happened, and is told, "Not long ago...Around 614 AD." In a remote Lebanese valley, he discovers an honest-to-goodness hermit. In a monastery on Mount Athos, he sees a silk coat woven with dragons and phoenixes hanging in the library:
"What is that?" I whispered.
"It's John Tzimiskes's coat."
"The Emperor John Tzimiskes? But he lived in the tenth century."
Christophoros shrugged his shoulders.
"You can't just leave something like that hanging up there," I said.
"Well," said Christophoros irritably, "where else would you put it?"
I expected to be introduced to some of the religious topography of the region, but I never expected such a quirky, fascinating mixture--for example, the Syrian convent of Saidnaya, where we hear of Muslims coming to pay their respects to the the Virgin Mary, even to sacrifice goats to her. Dalrymple, though a professing Catholic, seems a fairly standard modernist humanist skeptic, and he takes every opportunity to skewer the locals' more unsophisticated beliefs in miracles, saints, ghosts or djinn. He also provides some fascinating details on elements of early Christian practice which were co-opted by Islam. While I can't draw the same conclusions Dalrymple does (ie, Islam is so closely related to Christianity that the religions ought to be able to get on better...), he depicts a side both to Christianity and to Islam which is rarely presented and highly valuable.

Before I finish, I want to highlight a couple of the things that struck me most in this book.

In which I express some unpopular views

First, there was Dalrymple's treatment of Israel. This is a tricky one, and I don't want to offend people here, so let me begin by saying that like most modern-day evangelical Christians, I've grown up in a very pro-Israel environment. In fact my mother spent several months living on an Israeli kibbutz in the early 80s, where she fell in love with Israeli culture, and has been pretty vocal in support of the country ever since. Meanwhile, I'd always sort of accepted at face value the view current in evangelical Christendom that the Jews have a special right to the Land, based on the fact that the Lord did give it to Abraham's descendants at the beginning of recorded history. And who else wants it, anyway? ISIS and the PLO and thugs of that ilk?

But then I began studying the history in a bit more depth. I think the first really confronting moment came when I read a contemporary Christian romance novel set during the Third Crusade. In that book, the author seemed to argue quite passionately that the reason the Crusades were so wrong was that they aimed to make Palestine a Christian place when the Lord gave it to the Jews. Suddenly, I couldn't agree with her. I knew the Crusader view was that Christ had been crowned with thorns in Jerusalem and was therefore its very literal sovereign. And to be quite honest, I think their theology on this point was far sounder than that contemporary novelist's. Palestine, like every other place in the world, belongs to Christ, the true heir of David, the real son of Abraham, and to no one else.

The hillside monastery of Mar Saba
All very nice and theoretical. But then I read From the Holy Mountain, and suddenly it's not theoretical anymore. Suddenly Dalrymple is introducing me to Armenian Christians who have lived in Jerusalem for thousands of years but are now finally being bullied into leaving by Jewish antipathy and discrimination; to Palestinian Christian refugees who lost their ancestral homes in the upheavals of Jewish settlement and are now trapped in refugee camps in Lebanon; to Christian villages in the West Bank being exploited by the occupying forces; to ancient Christian shrines and churches being neglected or even vandalised; to lonely hermits murdered in the hills by extremist Jews. Dalrymple is frankly indignant (but not irate) about this in his book, and it was catching. Sure, I know the Jews have been treated badly for much of their history, and I'm sympathetic to their need for their own sovereign state where they can have the chance to defend themselves, but where do they get off, treating the church like that? Why have I never before heard of the plight of Christians in Israel? Why is the Western church praying for and supporting and sending money to Israel when the true people of Christ are being oppressed like this? It seems flatly impossible to me that Christ could have a covenant people who deny His authority and persecute Him in His Church.

OK. I am calm again :).

The other amazing thing in this book was the incredible tale of the World War I resistance of the hill fortress of Ein Wardo in Turkey. During the Armenian genocides of the 1910s at the hands of the Ottoman Empire, a group of Greek Christians in the eastern mountains of Anatolia realised that they would be the next to be killed. Unlike many others, they determined to resist. They fortified a tiny village high in the mountains, reinforcing its walls. The village of Ein Wardo had actually already been prepared for such an eventuality: because Christians were not permitted to build defensive structures, they had built a church in that village which was capable of functioning as a citadel! When the Ottomans and Kurds attacked, the local Christians--perhaps as many as 3,000 families--retreated to Ein Wardo. The imperial army--modern, well-equipped, well-fed--settled down to besiege the tiny fortress. The Christians were outnumbered and outgunned. After six centuries living under Islamic rule, they had no realistic hope of help or reinforcements from other villages or from Western powers. For the next three years, they held off the Turks and starved. Finally, in 1918 the Ottomans realised they would never take the village, and negotiated a peace. The Christians were free to return to their homes. Eighty years later, after hearing the story from one of the last survivors of the siege, Dalrymple pays a visit to the fortress church at Ein Wardo and notices that someone has been at work repairing the walls...

Of course I loved this story. What an amazing example of the power of faith and hope. Even in the darkest possible situation, by the grace of God, these people snatched life from the jaws of death. This kind of story always warms the cockles of my little postmillenial heart. Ordinary people can change the world for the better, because God is on their side. Things may look bad, but anyone who reads the right kind of story knows that cliffhangers are part of the fun.


That aside, this book was spectacular, a tour of some of the oldest and yet some of the most overlooked and lonely Christian communities in the world, with all their quirks, with all their hardships, with all their courage, with all their staggering treasure-hoard of living history. Very highly recommended.

Find From the Holy Mountain on Amazon or The Book Depository.


Kim Marsh said...

Really fascinating review Suzannah. Definitely need to read this. If you are new to this genre of writing can I recommend Patrick Leigh Fermor's Mani? Lots of material about post Byzantine Greek history easily written and one of my essential tools for warding off SAD. Not something you are likely to suffer from in Australia. Incidentally did you see the recent article on the BBC website about Tolkien's admiration of the Kalevela recently reviewed by you?

Janie said...

Oh, I so enjoyed this review! I will have to see if I can hunt the book down and read it for myself, now.

Also, if you're interested in reading more about the Israeli/Palestine conflict and the Christians on both sides, I'd highly recommend 'Light Force'by Brother Andrew.

Joseph J said...

Sounds like a great book. The Mediterranean is the most interesting area in the world!

I agree with your analysis of the Israel situation. I think the Evangelical Christians are doing a great service to the Church in actively seeking unity and fellowship with the Jews in preparation for their conversions, but they are also often doing it with great naiveté and with a simplistic understanding of the situation, and thereby doing an injustice to those whom the Israelis are injuring, including Christians themselves as you point out!

There are two things that need to be kept in mind when considering the Jews - (1) They are the special Chosen People of God and always will be. (2) They have rejected God in Jesus Christ.

Its nonsense to imagine that they have a right to a homeland that was given to them by God when they have rejected Him and have been expelled as a consequence. Until they have returned to their spiritual homeland, the Church, they have no spiritual right to their physical homeland, Israel. No doubt we need to support and help them, but not at the expense of other people's legitimate rights and needs. Otherwise we are just making the situation worse by encouraging a backlash and giving traction and legitimacy to the international enemies of Israel.

The doe-eyed, uncritical idol worship of certain Christians towards the Jews and the modern nation of Israel strikes me as immature. It seems to me to be the consequence of an ignorance of the history of the Church. One of the most anti-Semitic-sounding things I have ever read was a homily by one of the Church Fathers who was ripping into the anti-Christian persecution and violence carried out by Jewish communities in North Africa. Certainly the Church has descended into anti-Semitism at times, but there is a middle ground and a balance to be met.

I also wonder if the Evangelical Judeophilia is sparked by a desire, perhaps, for the rich traditions and rituals of the Church that were too often jettisoned since the Reformation. I hope I am not making myself unpopular here, but I think that many Protestant denominations (and for that matter, many modern Catholics) have an impoverished religion as far as tradition and rituals are concerned. The human heart longs to express itself in ancient, sensual, meaningful rituals. Since most Protestants do not view their 'Catholic' heritage as a legitimate or safe place to draw inspiration for ritual, then the Jews are a natural Biblical alternative, even if they can only be admired and not directly imitated.

In any case I look forward to the conversion of the Jews and all the great graces they will bring with them to enrich the Body of Christ.

Suzannah said...

Kim, I'm sure you'll thoroughly enjoy it. Thanks for the book recommendation! I didn't see that BBC article but I'll have a look!

Janie, I do hope you get the chance to read this! The Brother Andrew book sounds really interesting--thanks!

Joseph, wow, you know, I never expected to find myself so avidly interested in this area of the world. When I was growing up we had this awful Bible knowledge curriculum which somehow managed to make Scripture into the least romantic thing in the world. I've always thought of anything that could be described as "Bible Lands" as being deadly dull in consequence! Oh well!

Amen to looking forward to the conversion of the Jews. And of the Turks, and of the Arabs, and of everyone else out there. Let Christ be honoured in the old Jerusalem once more--not by temporal conquest (unless that becomes a strategic necessity) but by spiritual.

Anonymous said...

The only Patrick Leigh Fermor I've read so far was A Time of Gifts (1977)but I so enjoyed it that I am keen to read not only its sequel but anything else he wrote.

I also thoroughly enjoyed the 1957 film of his W.W. II secret operations on Crete, Ill-Met by Moonlight, and hope to catch up with the book of the same title by his comrade-in-arms, W. Stanley Moss (reprinted with an afterword by him: he also later published an account of the mission).

For a more 'vintage' account of some of the same ground which From the Holy Mountain covers, I would recommend trying H.V. Morton's In the Steps of St. Paul (1936) (in Internet Archive with other of his books - which I have not yet read). It has the additional interest of glimpses of the then recently 'modernized' Turkey.

An intriguing-sounded book I've only read interesting quotations from, is the very 'vintage' Armenian History finished in A.D. 661 and attributed to a bishop: see the Wikipedia article "Sebeos" (which includes a complete online translation among its "External Links").

David Llewellyn Dodds

Suzannah said...

Good to hear from you again, David!

Thanks for all the book recommendations! They all sound fascinating. One primary source I'm planning to read when I have the opportunity is the "Chronicle" of Michael the Syrian. I am very interested in learning more about indigenous Eastern Christianity, and that looks like having some useful info.


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