William Dalrymple’s From The Holy Mountain: A Journey Among the Christians of the Middle East combines two of my favorite book genres: history and travel. The book records Dalrymple’s 1994 attempt to follow Byzantine traveler-monk John Moschos and his pupil, Sophronius the Sophist, on their extraordinary late 6th century journey across the Eastern Byzantine world. Moschos’ goal was to gather and record the wisdom of the Christian desert fathers of the Byzantine East before that world disappeared. His book The Spiritual Meadow is a collection of the stories, sayings, and anecdotes that he collected during those wanderings among the monasteries and hermitages of the Levant. Dalrymple weaves Moscos’ anecdotes with his own in a poignant witness to the fate of the successors of those 6th century Christians.
Like Dalrymple, Moschos and Sophronius traveled at a pivotal and dangerous time in the history of the Middle East. The declining Byzantine Empire was being attacked from the west by Slavs, Goths, Lombards and Avars, while in the east Sassanian Persia and raids from desert nomads were disrupting life. Moschos records monasteries burned and populations slaughtered or sold into slavery. Many of the great cities of the East, cities such as Antioch and Tyre, had decayed to mere backwaters. More significantly perhaps, Moschos was an almost exact contemporary to Mohammed. In fact, his young companion on the journey, Sophronius the Sophist was eventually appointed Patriarch of Jerusalem and defended the city against the first army of Islam as it emerged from Arabia to defeat all before it.
The conflict between modern day Islamic states and Israel dominates our current understanding of the Middle East. The fate of practitioners of third major religion to arise in the Middle East, Christianity, seldom occurs to us. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam share a common heritage. They have many common prophets, holy spaces, and even practices; all are mid-eastern religions. Dalrymple goes so far as to state the Islam actually preserves very ancient Christian ritual; he observes that John Moschos would feel more “at home” with Suni Islamic ritual practices than with those practiced in many of the modern Christian churches. Yet Christians, be they Armenian, Palestianian, Syriac, Coptic, or Maronite are being driven from their historic homelands.
Dalrymple witnesses to their suffering and dispossession. In Turkey and Palestine, at current emigration rates, it is probable that neither Christian community will exist by 2020. In Lebanon and Egypt, the larger size of the Christian population predicts that they will exist longer, but they are experiencing decreasing influence. Only in Syria did he see a “confident” Christian population, but they fear a severe backlash whenever Asad’s repressive regime collapses. Dalrymple points out Moschos’ significance as observer and recorder of the”beginning of the end” for Christians in the historic home of Christianity. He sees his own journey as witness to the end of that fourteen hundred year Christian exodus.
Dalrymple weaves a fascinating blend of history, politics, travel, and spirituality. He successfully evokes the clouds of incense and mystery of Orthodox worship, the dry and cruel landscapes preferred by 6th century ascetics, and the terror of traveling where wandering bands of insurgents shoot foreigners. The stories from The Spiritual Meadow greatly enhanced the story of Dalrymple’s own journey. This is a terrific book (one that I’ve actually read twice). What is missing in this book is a map. Travel books must have maps.