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I came across the work of travel writer William Dalrymple quite by accident. I had arrived early for a meeting in London, and, spotting a branch of Waterstone’s quite close to my destination, I wandered in for a spot of window-shopping. The artwork on the front cover of From the Holy Mountain (FTHM) was what initially attracted me, but on picking it up, the subject of the book was not immediately obvious. The back cover was adorned by a number of gushing quotes praising the author, and the only clues to what lay within were brief references to Byzantium and Eastern Christianity. Having been brought up in the Armenian Orthodox tradition myself, my curiosity was thoroughly piqued, and with a quick glance at my watch to ensure I had some time, I dove in to the first chapter then and there. Intrigued by the opening few paragraphs, and seduced by that “new book” smell, my brief foray into window shopping turned into an actual purchase.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
William Dalrymple is a multi-award winning writer and historian. Born in Scotland, the author spent a significant time in India, which is the inspiration and locale for four of his books - “City of Djinns” (1993); “The Age of Kali” (1998); “White Mughals” (2002) and “The Last Moghal” (2008). Apart from FTHM, his only other book on non-Indian themes was his acclaimed first book “In Xanadu” published in 1992 telling the story of his travels from his college in Cambridge to the ruins of Kublai Khan’s fabled palace at Xanadu.
The book, published by the Flamengo Press in 1997, runs to around 450 pages, not including a further 40-odd pages of glossary and bibliography. At around 5 x 7.5 inches, it is slightly larger than paperback size. That’s fine for a briefcase, but probably a little on the hefty side for a handbag. Four sections – with eight pages of captioned photographs each - are interspersed throughout the text, with the last of the bunch in colour.
The journey Dalrymple takes, and writes about in this book, re-traces the steps of two Greek Orthodox monks as they make a pilgrimage, in 587 AD, from Mount Athos in north-eastern Greece (the Holy Mountain of the title) to the Great Kharga Oasis in Egypt, which was once the southern boundary of the Byzantine Empire. The idea is inspired by a journal left behind by one of the monks, the eponymously entitled The Spiritual Meadow of John Moschos. The journey – both ancient and modern - starts in the self-governing monastic enclave of Mount Athos, a place “dedicated to prayer, chastity, and pure untarnished Orthodoxy” which is still off-limits to women. An example of the rigid thinking of his hosts is given fairly early in the narrative, when the author is asked whether he is Orthodox or heretic – the implication being that even other Christian denominations are frowned upon.
In any event, the descriptive, witty and sometimes irreverent narrative takes the reader on a journey passing through Istanbul, Ankara and Eastern Turkey, before heading south through the Levant – taking in Syria, the Lebanon, Israel (including the West Bank) and eventually Cairo, finally following the Nile down to the end of the journey at the Great Kharga. The book is set out like a journal, with dated entries accounting for each leg of the journey. As his travels conscientiously follow the footfalls of Brother Moschos and his companion, Dalrymple’s journey necessarily takes him to various religious sites and Orthodox monasteries en route. It seems, in the eyes of these pious, but quite biased old men (for many invariably are – there aren’t too many young monks around) his greatest sin is to be a Catholic. He is repeatedly damned throughout his journey, but in many cases, as apologetically and courteously as possible. An amusing example of this matter-of-fact behaviour is illustrated by a certain Father Theophanes at the Monastery of Mar Saba in Israel, as he states with utter conviction, and not the slightest hint of humour:
“The Pope… is the President of the Freemasons. Everyone knows this. Each morning he worships the Devil in the form of a naked woman with the head of a Goat…”
Most of the region covered by Dalrymple’s book have special meaning for me. My parents are ethnic Armenians, however, my mother was born in Eastern Turkey, and my father in Beirut, so we still have associations with Lebanon, where a few of my hardier relatives have been sitting out the troubles there. In addition, my paternal grandfather was originally from Aleppo in Syria (our original surname is Haleblian, which literally means “from Haleb” (Aleppo in Arabic)). As such, the book held greater interest for me than the casual reader, as I imagined how my grandparents and my forefathers before them had lived in the communities, and in the circumstances that Dalrymple so entertainingly describes.
The book is interspersed with his encounters with Armenians (and many other nationalities of course) in various of the communities on his journeys which delighted me, if only due to my fiercely patriotic glee at seeing an “odar” (foreigner) treat my compatriots so sympathetically in a mass market paperback. There is a particularly interesting section dealing with his visit to the Armenian Quarter of Jerusalem and his conversations with Bishop Hagop, a spiritual leader in the enclave.
Dalrymple travels through some of the most conflicted parts of the world – made all the more obvious by the fact that he had to take a six hundred mile detour (via Syria and then the Jordan) to travel the hundred miles (as the crow flies) from Beirut, in the Lebanon to Northern Israel. He tries his best to keep an open mind on most issues, shying away from passing judgment on the high level politics, preferring to explore the seemingly mundane, but no less interesting subject of how people get on in their daily lives. One thing comes across quite clearly in his narrative. Away from the rhetoric and rostrum-thumping of the politicians, and away from the hotbeds of nationalism, he sees people doing their best to get along with their neighbours – and doing so in relative harmony. Many sites in the Levant are revered by adherents of all the three Abrahamic faiths – Judaism, Islam and Christianity – and it is not uncommon to see believers worshipping side by side at the same sites without any hint of trouble.
In contrast, you have the hardened and polarised views of Palestinians and Jewish Settlers, each so entrenched in their version of “right” that they cannot even countenance the concept of wearing the others shoes. Dalrymple doesn’t take sides – his narrative is fairly impartial and I think he genuinely does his best to refrain from overt judgment. However, a slight bias does come through, understandably, when confronted by unreasonable people – of whatever creed, nationality or colour. One of my favourite passages describes a visit to the Jewish Settlement “Ariel” – at the time, home to eight thousand settlers on the occupied West Bank.
He speaks to a Canadian settler, who when asked what she thinks of Israeli‘s who support the return of the West Bank to Palestinians in return for peace, remarks without a trace of irony “Arafat and his terrorists are playing political games – and we’re talking about people’s HOMES! Do you know what that means?” The irony – of a foreign settler of just five years standing, living on land previously occupied by Palestinians for thousands of years more – seems utterly lost on the woman.
Along his journey, he goes to great lengths to give a platform to long-suffering and sometimes quite marginalised minorities – whether Lebanese Maronite Christians, Jewish Settlers, Christians in Jerusalem or Palestinians in refugee camps – and patiently encourages them to get on their soapboxes and expound on the issues affecting their communities and share their views of the world. That he manages to do so without being patronising or judgmental is a great credit to the writer. Make no mistake however, although Dalrymple goes out of his way to discover and interact with people of all faiths, the main thrust of this book is to explore what has become of the once-thriving Christian communities across the Levant - communities which have now dwindled or entirely disappeared.
The book is a firm favourite, and my well-thumbed copy has endured repeated reads. Curiously, although I found Dalrymple’s writing compelling and engaging, I could not connect nearly as much with the two other books of his that I have read (“City of Djinn’s” and “White Mughals”). I am certain that has much more to do with the amount of content that I personally related to in FTHM than any failure on Dalrymple’s part. This book is a tour de force – and on par with any travel writing I have read in the recent past – and I include the legendary Bruce Chatwin in that assessment. It may be a travelogue, but it is also an outstanding reference, chock fill of excellent historical and sociological learning. I picked up a lot of knowledge reading this – not only about the history of the region and its peoples – but about human nature as well.