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From the Holy Mountain: A Journey among the…
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From the Holy Mountain: A Journey among the Christians of the Middle East (1997)

by William Dalrymple

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In 1994 William Dalrymple spent five months travelling in the footsteps of John Moschos, the 6th/7th century Byzantine author of The Spiritual Meadow. This book was also a travel book - one detailing the state of Christianity of the time. As Dalrymple crosses the lands that were once part of the Byzantine Empire - from Greece to Egypt he meets different Christians and talks to them about the changes and if there is a hope for Christianity surviving in the Middle East.

Written in a diary format with historical information Dalrymple is a very good writer with a great eye for the people he meets. His travels are not always straightforward and the story he tells is a sad one in places but there are touches of humour that help to lift the mood. There are also photographs of the places he visits and some of the people which add to the text.

Sadly I know very little about what has happened to Christianity in the Middle East since this book was written nearly twenty years ago but as a picture of the time when it was written and the historical context for the different religions in the region this is still well worth reading. ( )
1 vote calm | Jul 1, 2012 |
Quite fragmented because of its format (divided into various chapters) but a good read ( )
  piano3646 | Mar 21, 2010 |
In From the Holy Mountain, William Dalrymple chronicles his travels through the Middle East and gives voice to the experiences and predicaments of the most often ignored Christians who reside there. Dalrymple’s style is excellent for the genre. His expertly sketched depictions of contemporary life in the Middle East shift into historical explanation and anecdotes that are clearly defined and yet, seamlessly interwoven. While a morbid sense of humor and appreciation for the absurd ease the tension where Dalrymple himself is in a dangerous situation, he maintains a serious and earnest voice when discusses the problems faced by religious minorities in the Middle East.
Several themes reoccur throughout Dalrymple’s travels. The first of these is the existence of a religious unity in practice among many of the inhabitants. He notes that “the Eastern Christians and the Muslims have lived together side by side for nearly one and a half millennia, and have only been able to do so due to a degree of mutual tolerance and shared customs unimaginable in the Christian West” (188, emphasis mine). Dalrymple notes a number of customs and popular expressions of piety that are shared by Christians and Muslims throughout the Middle East. At a church in Seidnaya, the attendees at the service are mostly Muslim women with their husbands seeking the intercessions of the Theotokos to help them in conceiving a child. A nun explains to Dalrymple that all are “children of God . . . the All Holy One brings us together” (190). Similar occurrences are reported throughout the book. Taken together with the statement of the nun, these incidences serve to create a sense of universal human worth and suggest the real belief in the possibility of universal salvation.
The theme of shared practice and sacred places is repeated just outside of Jerusalem at the shrine of St. George. The shrine used to be a site of pilgrimage for Christians, Muslims, and Jews, and while Dalrymple found that Israeli Jews rarely visited anymore, both Palestinian Christians and Muslims both continued to come to the shrine to request the intercession of the saint. (339-341) Interestingly, both of overlapping Christian and Muslim pious practices Dalrymple notes in the book are centered on fertility. Muslim women flock to Seidnaya to venerate the icon of the Theotokos because it is believed that she can help them conceive. While St. George appears to be a little more of a multipurpose saint, the roots of the Muslim veneration of the shrine are linked to “the legendary saint of fertility known simply as Khidr, Arabic for green” (339). The name Khidr is used by all Palestinians, Christian and Muslim alike, and he invoked for aid with fertility – either personal or agricultural (341). As Dalrymple briefly notes, the function of the saint’s cult and manner of repaying the saint for his help (sheep to sacrifice) appears related to pagan practices.
Dalrymple also reports a convergence of artistic trends and traditions. He manages to obtain permission from one of the Lebanese warlords, who in his alternate life is a mild-mannered scholar of history (225), to view his collection of Byzantine mosaics, which he preserved from the destruction of the civil war. In comparison with other Byzantine mosaics, this collection eschews humanism in the choice of subjects and demonstrates a preference for geometric designs. Dalrymple links the difference in the mood of the mosaics to a shift in cultural mood that led to the iconoclast movement in the Byzantine Empire. Additionally, this collection of mosaics provides another bridge between the Christians of the Levant and their Muslim neighbors, who turned a preference for non-figurative designs into a prohibition on the depiction of human images (234). In Alexandria, Dalrymple notes the earlier adoption of pagan motifs and images by early forms of Christian art (386). The “cross-fertilization,” to borrow from Dalrymple, of art points to back to the rich web of practices shared amongst the inhabitants of the Middle East and illustrates the existence of a strong inclusivist attitude.
The deeper and richer sense of time and history is another feature Dalrymple highlights in his journal. Introducing the monastery of Mar Saba, he comments that landscape is strange, but “it is stranger still to find many of their superstitions, fears, and prejudices alive in the conversation of this, the last of the ancient monasteries of the Holy Land to survive as a functioning community” (279). A nun, who tends the grave of John Moschos at the Abbey of St. Theodosius, repeats the theme of a long, near timeless memory. Asked when Persians attacked the monastery, she replies, “Not so long ago . . . around 614 A.D.” (284).
The long memory of the Middle East and the intermingling of religious practice and sacred places have contributed to the manner in which the effects of modern nationalism and European colonialism have played out in the region. Dalrymple dates the being of the end for religious tolerance and syncretism to the twentieth century (188). The violent political ferment of the area is not some innate and inexplicable hatred between tribes. Western colonialism, and particularly the way in which official colonialism of the Middle East was brought to an end, bear much of the responsibility. Additionally, the long memory of the region shapes the way in which conflicts have played out.
The Maronite communities of Lebanon were created as a persecuted by minority by being named heretics by the ecclesiastic authorities of the Byzantine Empire. They retreated to the mountains and lived essentially under siege until the Crusades, when they came into communion with Rome and under the protection of France. After the fall of the Ottoman Empire, they were granted their own state. (197) The Maronites have created their own national mythology and adopted the language and culture of France. Their mythology of a different ethnic extraction from the rest of the area grounded a “contempt for their Muslim neighbors” (198).
Until very recently, the Maronites were a numerical majority in Lebanon, and could thus, easily maintain political control. The echoes of their history as a persecuted minority living under siege can be heard in their response when they became a cultural and religious minority. Rather than attempting to renegotiate the political system into one that could serve all groups in the Lebanese population, the Maronites prepared for a civil war and resurrected the mythology of the Crusades as a rallying point. In this case both the memory of the distant past of the Maronite community and the constructed national mythology have played into the present political situation of the region. A lingering siege mentality seems to have informed the blanket refusal to share power, and the self-righteous brutality of the Crusades followed with the trappings adopted by the Maronite militias (198).
The manipulation of the past by the modern Israeli state differs from the manipulation by the Maronites. Dalrymple focuses on the ways in which archaeology is used by the Israeli government to create the appearance of a national history in support of the political agenda of the modern nation-state. The Armenian Bishop Hagop shows Dalrymple a newly constructed highway and described the Greek and Armenian monasteries over which it was constructed. He then points to a garden built to protect a section of wall constructed by King Herod. The Bishop describes the presence of the archaeological garden without any commemoration of the presence of the monasteries as “nationalistic bigotry” (331). He claims that the monasteries were problematic for the Israeli government because they “are evidence of a Christian-dominated Jerusalem” (330) and thus a challenge to national mythology that the Jews have a right to the land of Palestine. News reports later looked up by Dalrymple confirmed the Bishop’s indignation. The supposed archaeological identification of ancient Jewish settlements has been used as justification for new Israeli settlements on land confiscated from Palestinians (333).
Another facet of the political turmoil of the Middle East which was brought to light by Dalrymple was the way in which Palestinian Christians have been and continue to be overlooked in the coverage of the conflict by the American media which prefers to reduce the tension to a conflict between Jews and the Muslims. Dalrymple visits a Palestinian Christian family who lives in exile, poverty, and constant low-level terror in Lebanon (266-275). The American government’s near-unconditional support of the Israeli government is baffling to Palestinian Christians. A Christian priest comments to Dalrymple, “Because we are Christians no one seems to care” (359).
The erasure of Palestinian Christians by the American media seems based in a conflation of Christian with Western, European, and White. Thus, acknowledging the plight of Palestinian Christians (or to be more timely, Christians in Iraq) would conflict with American ideology of America as the chosen, Christian nation who must rescue, save, and dominate the heathen nations. The idea that Christians suffer from the political and foreign policies of the United States troubles the American national myth of messianic nation mandate. I’ve frequently heard that American dominance in the Middle East is justified because people who have never heard the gospel can be evangelized. The continued invisibility of Christians in the Middle East allows for the continuation of this reasoning.
From the Holy Mountain complicates the overly simplistic portrayal of the state of religion in the Middle East by the Western media. The idea of discrete divisions between religions is undermined by Dalrymple’s observance of overlapping pious practices held in common, presently, by both Christians and Muslims, and in the past by Jews, Christians, and Muslims. Dalrymple’s work also highlights the presence of Christians in a conflict that tends to be reduced to a battle of the Jews against the Arabs. ( )
1 vote krasiviye.slova | Dec 8, 2008 |
Luscious language describing a fantastic journey of discovery of what remains of Christianity in the Near East. ( )
  CarltonC | Oct 27, 2008 |
Dalrymple's speciality is going to dead places that the modern world has killed, and rooting around to discover those trace elements of its mysterious golden past that still exist below the surface.

He comes across as a modest man of learning and good humour; certainly he has good eyes and ears. For me this book worked at every level; finely observed cameos of people and places, most definitely educational, and sometimes powerfully moving in its evocation of the tragedies and heroism of this region. ( )
  Karen_Wells | Aug 25, 2008 |
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For my parents
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My cell is bare and austere.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0006547745, Paperback)

A rich blend of history and spirituality, adventure and politics, laced with the thread of black comedy familiar to readers of William Dalrymple's previous work. In AD 587, two monks, John Moschos and Sophronius the Sophist, embarked on an extraordinary journey across the Byzantine world, from the shores of the Bosphorus to the sand dunes of Egypt. Their aim: to collect the wisdom of the sages and mystics of the Byzantine East before their fragile world shattered under the eruption of Islam. Almost 1500 years later, using the writings of John Moschos as his guide, William Dalrymple set off to retrace their footsteps. Taking in a civil war in Turkey, the ruins of Beirut, the tensions of the West Bank and a fundamentalist uprising in Egypt, William Dalrymple's account is a stirring elegy to the dying civilisation of Eastern Christianity.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:22:45 -0400)

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"As a writer and as a traveler, Dalrymple treads the now-faint trail marked out by sixth-century monk John Moschos, who wandered the world of Eastern Byzantium, visiting the scattered Christian monasteries and hermitages and recording the rituals he saw and the preaching he heard in a book called The Spiritual Meadow. Unlike its predecessor, Dalrymple's account of his journey through the same regions leads, not to meditations upon the eternal God, but, rather, to insights into a dying culture. For whether among Surianis in eastern Turkey, Armenians in Syria and Israel, or Coptics in Egypt, Dalrymple finds only remnants of the Christian culture from which Moschos drew inspiration. The author cannot stop the often-violent persecution or the steady immigration, which are pushing Christianity to extinction in the land of its birth. Yet he can preserve the voices of the steadfast souls who guard the last sparks of a besieged faith. Thus, this book stands - like the chapels, monasteries, and tombs visited during the journey - as a monument to what once was. But Dalrymple also points the way to a better future by repeatedly stressing the similarities in origin and practice linking Christianity and Islam and by documenting real (though all too rare) instances in which mutual respect and tolerance bring the Muslim and the Christian together in prayer" -- www.amazon.com… (more)

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