From the Holy Mountain: A Journey in the Shadow of Byzantium by William Dalrymple
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This is a fascinating travel log. In 1994, the author, William Dalrymple, travelled the arc of the eastern Mediterranean – Greece, Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Egypt – to visit sites significant to Orthodox Christianity.
Dalrymple’s constant companion was John Moschos. Moschos proved to be an inspiration, despite dying the the seventh century. Dalrymple’s journey, with Moschos’ The Spiritual Meadow as a reference, was an attempt to visit many of the places Moschos had journeyed through 1400 years earlier.
This setting provided many avenues for observation and comment: the nature of eastern Christianity; the rise of Islam; the transition from Byzantine to Ottoman rule; the history of Christian orthodoxy and heresy; the policies of the modern state of Israel; the Lebanese civil war; the nature of monasticism; the intifada; etc.
One thing I most appreciated about this book is that Dalrymple did not try to collapse all his reflections into a single and simplified summary. Instead, each place or person spoke with its own character. In each place there was a different mix of history, politics, religion and belief – and Dalrymple refrains from placing it all in the ‘Middle East Blender’ to homogenise them into a smooth weirdness.
As someone who knows next to nothing about Christianity eastern and Orthodox (the capital ‘O’ is important), it was good also to learn a little about this group of denominations. Saying this, however, I was not always convinced by Dalrymple’s account of the history of Christian theology. There are times when he seems to accept the model of ‘many competing Christianities’, in which the New Testament just happened to be victorious. Poor history of theology there, but it’s not a major feature of the book.
From the Holy Mountain raised two substantial concerns for me, regarding eastern Christianity.
Firstly, culturally, there are so many threats to the existence of Christians in these areas. Turkey’s modern history has squeezed them out, sometimes with violence. (Did you know that 1955 saw Europe’s worst race riot since Kristallnacht? It was against the Greeks of Istanbul.) Emigration threatens the existence of Christian communities in Palestine, and also weakens the Coptic Egyptian church. Knowing the current troubles in Syria, Dalrymple’s comments are eerily prescient, ‘Only in Syria had I seen the Christian population looking happy and confident, and even their future looked decidedly uncertain, with most expecting a major backlash as soon as Asad’s repressive minority regime began to crumble.’
Secondly, theologically, I was terribly saddened by the way so many of the Orthodox spoke of knowing God and his blessings – there was no real gospel at all. Saints are called on for magic-like intervention (both now and historically). Self-discipline and extreme renunciation is pictured as the way to deal with sins (both now and historically). And absent is any sense of the complete victory over sin and the devil won by Jesus’ death.
For example, we read the words of a monk who lived suspended in a small cage. Why this pain? ‘Burdened with many sins, and believing in the penalties that are threatened, I have devised this form of life, contriving moderate punishments for the body in order to reduce the mass of those awaited.’ Tragic – when Jesus already declared, ‘It is finished!’
Overall, for me this book provided wonderful insight into Byzantine Christianity and its descendants, as well as making me worried about the future of these people groups.