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 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'm a Catholic," I replied.
"My God," said the monk. "I'm so sorry."
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.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.
"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?"
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|
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.