Book: From the Holy Mountain
Author: William Dalrymple
The Convent of Seidnaya, Syria, 11th September 1994
When the travel writer Colin Thubron visited the convent in 1966, he claimed to have witnessed a miracle: to have seen the face of the icon of Notre Dame de Seidnaya stream with tears. In the same church I too witnessed a miracle, or something that today would be certainly regarded as a miracle in almost any other country in the Middle East. For the congregation seemed to consist not of Christian but almost entirely if heavily bearded Muslim men. As the priest circled the altar with his thurible, filling the sanctuary with great clouds of incense, the men bobbed up and down on prayer mats as if in the middle of Friday prayers in a great mosque. Their women, some dressed in full black chador, mouthed prayers from the shadows of the exonarthex. A few, closely watching the Christian women, went up to the icons hanging from the pillars of the church, kissed them, then lit candles and placed them in the candelabra in front of the images. As I watched from the rear of the church I could see the faces of the women reflected in the illuminated gilt of the icons.
This extraordinary journey starts at The Monastery of Iviron, Mount Athos, Greece in the year 1994. William Dalrymple is sitting in his bare cell, and through the open window he can see monks at work in the vegetable garden and the silhouette of the Holy Mountain. It is from here that he is set out to travel eastwards to Constantinople and continue his journey in the footsteps of John Moschos who traversed the eastern Byzantine empire in the year 578 A.D. with his pupil Sophronius in tow. John Moschos’ travelogue titled The Spiritual Meadow is lying on his table as Dalrymple starts narrating this colossal journey he’s embarked on.
When I first bought this book, it was in a desperate attempt to get William Dalrymple’s autograph at a literature festival. I had forgotten to take my own copy of City of Djinns, which I had so thoroughly loved. After one autograph and these couple of years later, I came around to finally reading this massive book. In his third book, Dalrymple sets out to explore the decline of Eastern Christianity in the shadow of the Byzantine Empire. He starts in Greece, and then goes to Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, and finally Egypt where he ends his journey in the exact place that John Moschos culminated his.
It’s been twenty-two years since this journey, and the current Middle East scenario has surpassed Shakespeare’s greatest tragedy. However, the revelation of one man’s account of the ground reality of a large religious faction is quite startling in parts and educative in parts. While on his journey, he visits all the monasteries Moschos describes in The Spiritual Meadow and converses with the generation that saw the civil war, discrimination, fundamentalism, and in some cases support and inclusion, as well. He also tells us about the (then) current situation in these places and how things seem to be on the brink of an escalation at any time, which, has happened. This travelogue is written keeping in mind the Christian societies of the Middle East and their gradual decline from the region, but what it also does is shed light on the Westernization of Christianity. Dalrymple talks about the various customs of the Middle Eastern Christian monks and milling crowd that is far removed from the Christianity we’re aware of. While in Israel-occupied West bank, Dalrymple writes:
As at Cyrrhus, I was left pondering the probability that if John Moschos came back today, he would be likely to find as much that was familiar in the practices of Islam – with its fasting, prostrations, prayer niches, and open prayer halls, as well as emphasis on the wandering holy man – as in those of modern Western Christendom. In an age when Islam and Christianity are again said to be ‘clashing civilizations’, supposedly ‘irreconcilable and necessarily hostile’, it is important to remember Islam’s very considerable debt to the early Christian world, and the degree to which it has faithfully preserved elements of our own early Christian heritage long forgotten by ourselves.
Not only does Dalrymple write about the injustice of war, but what I have loved about this book is how human it is. Whether it be in the stories of the severe austerity practices by monks or about the faith of an old woman while she’s been a refugee for 60 years, or it be about the stories of the miracles saints have been performing for the faithful, this book is nothing short of an encompassing human tale. I have loved the portions through Lebanon where Dalrymple is at his cheeky best. And the tales of Syria where the condition of the Christians is the best (yes, imagine the irony). All the stories of miracles and faith have helped me in some ways and thawed the jaded realist in me. When he went to Upper Egypt, the most dangerous of all places, I was scared myself, and would have been much more had I not been following Dalrymple on social media with his posts about his goats and the wonderful travels he’s still taking.
While full of treasures, this book is a time consuming read. It’s an investment you make simply because the language is top notch and history is condensed like a can of tuna. It does take some additional reading to get through. From the Holy Mountain is nothing short of colossal and breathtaking. But it’s necessary for everyone who is concerned about one’s own opinion of this world. Every once in a while, you need to have your outlook shaken up so that the dust falls off.