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on 18 December 2000
This fantastic book - unquestionably Marsden's best book, even though it was THE SPIRIT-WRESTLERS which won him the Thomas Cook prize - is in my view one of the best travel books of the 90s. And of course the secret to this is that it is not just a travel narrative but an absorbing quest into what really defines a people- a sense of history, a sense of place, a sense of depth, a sense of culture surviving against all the odds.
Like the Jews, the Armenians have survived stubbornly against genocide and against encroachment on their land, and they have survived by pulling together and rising again. Marsden uncovers the secret force of this people and his own strength in an exhausting and admirable journey, in understated prose of great honesty and beauty. If you think that travel writing is trite and necessarily patronising, then read this book and think again. It shows that Marsden is not just a great travel writer, but one of the most important and deepest non-fiction writers to emerge in Britian in recent years.
This book is utterly compelling, surprisingly funny, and beguiling even to those who know absolutely nothing about Armenia or the Armenian struggle.
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on 22 August 2000
For many people, the experience of the Armenian people, ejected from their homeland in the first genocide of the twentieth century, is difficult to understand in anything but a distant manner. The problem lies in the fact that most accounts of modern Armenian history have been written by Armenians themselves. In this compelling travelogue, Cornish writer Philip Marsden gives a detailed, well-informed outsider's account of the experience of the Armenian diaspora. He does this by learning the language, gaining the trusting cooperation of the Armenian community in each town he visits, and then communicating what they have voiced about their history to us in the pages of his book. He visits the scattered Armenians in the classical cities of Venice, Istanbul and Jerusalem as well as rural outposts in Bulgaria and Romania. We learn of the Armenians' fortitude amidst situations of conflict and oppression and start to appreciate the enormous contribution Armenians have made to all fields of science, industry and art for centuries. Philip Marsden has shown us the heart and soul of the Armenian people - anyone reading this book will come to have a new regard for the Armenians and their struggle.
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on 5 February 2005
More than an engaging travel narrative by an Englishman travelling across the Middle East, Eastern Europe, former Soviet Union and finally Armenia to discover and understand Armenians, this book tells the stories of Armenian people, stories told by different people in different countries, among different cultures, united by common heritage, language and religion, and perhaps the greatest tragedy in our history - the Armenian Genocide of 1915. The subject of Genocide is inseparable from the storyline, yet this book is not a depressive reading but an absorbing story of one man's desire to understand another culture, distinct yet interwoven with nations and peoples across Europe, Middle East, and beyond.
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on 20 September 2002
Philip Marsden clearly harbors a special interest in eastern Christian traditions, for they run like a red thread through his three travel books. In "A Far Country: Travels in Ethiopia" he visits this sole surviving Christian nation in the Horn of Africa, surrounded by Islamic countries. "The Spirit Wrestlers" explores a plethora of religious movements, which sprang up in Russia, Ukraine and the Caucasus in the wake of the downfall of the Soviet Union.
In "The Crossing Place" Marsden sets out to investigate the tragic fate of the Armenians, an ancient Christian people from the Caucasus. This mountainous region tugged in between the Black and Caspian Seas lies on the crossroads of the old Persian, Turkish and Russian realms. It is also the place were six of the world's twelve tectonic plates meet, making it one of the most earthquake-prone regions in the world. Because of this geographical position Armenia's fate is permeated with disaster, both natural and man-made. These experiences have made dislocation a continuous theme in Armenian history and provide the book with a double travel motif: not only the author is constantly on the move, but so is his subject.
Marsden became interested in the Armenians through a chance encounter in eastern Turkey. Here he stumbled on some fragmentary remains of the 1915 Armenian genocide. Intrigued by what he had found he decided to work his way back to the Armenian heartland.
The first part of the book is situated in the Near East, where Armenia had almost ceased to exist, "pushed down one of history's side-alleys and murdered". Or so it seemed, had they not been such a resilient people. Marsden picks up the trail in the Armenian quarter of Jerusalem. He learns that the Armenians first appeared on the Anatolian plains in the sixth century BC. Eight hundred years later their king became the first ruler to accept Christianity. A first glimpse of the 'essential Armenia" is caught during a visit to a famous center for Armenian Studies, the San Lazzaro monastery in Venice (where Armenians had been resident well before the city's rise to commercial and political prominence in the 12th century). According to one of its scholars the unique Armenian script developed by Mesrop Mashtot embodies an idea that can not be explained but only expressed in one word "Ararat", the mountain that is the heart of Armenia.
Marsden continues his quest in Lebanon -- by way of Cyprus -- and poses himself the question how such a mobile nation, consisting of merchants, pilgrims and adventurers, had been able to maintain its distinctiveness. Nowhere better to get a sense of that than in Beirut, which has just emerged from a brutal civil war. Here the Armenians had staunchly stuck to their neutrality but also maintained a basis for their commando-type liberation movements, operating with surgical precision in sixteen countries. Only by tapping into the efficient Armenian network of connections is Marsden able to move swiftly and inconspicuously through Lebanon and Syria. Taking the Baron hotel in Aleppo -- founded and still managed by an Armenian -- as a base camp for explorations into the last surviving Armenian villages of northern Syria, Marsden gives us a chilling account of the ruthlessness with which the Turks perpetrated their ethnic cleansing during the First World War.
From Syria the author moves into Turkey. Using the ancient city of Antioch, which for seven hundred years had been largely populated by Armenians, the ruins of Ani, capital of a long-lost Armenian state, and finally Istanbul as a backdrop, Marsden gives an excellent overview of another Armenian characteristic: their genius for building. No single ethnic group in the Middle East has made so many contributions to architecture as the Armenians. They were employed by Turkish, Persian and Indian rulers alike. Marsden conjectures that they may have been instrumental to the development of Europe's Gothic style with its pointed arch.
The second part of the book takes us to the Balkans. Since the days of the Byzantine empire, subsequent rulers of Asia Minor have used this region to exile unwanted elements. This permits Marsden to launch into one of his favorite topics: arcane religious sects. The reader is provided with a most interesting account of how the doctrine of dualism, which can be traced back to the earlier Persian religions of Manichaeism and Zoroastrianism, forms the origin of many Christian heresies. Marsden has clearly studied this issue thoroughly and makes an Armenian role in the spread of heretical beliefs to western Europe quite plausible.
Traveling through Bulgaria and Romania, Marsden "[..] became aware that the Armenians had been a much greater presence in the Balkans than [..] first imagined." More gaps in the knowledge of this, at first so enigmatic, people are filled. He penetrates deeper into their language and learns about the extent of their trading relations. In the Middle Ages they had already reached Moorish Spain, Poland and the court of the Mongol Khan. By the 18th century Armenians were connected with the Ottoman, Safavid and Moghul courts, had established an influence with Burmese and Ethiopian monarchs, and traded in Amsterdam, Calcutta, Java and Tibet.
Via the Crimea Marsden finally makes it to Armenia proper where the third part of the book is set. Recently wrested away from seventy years of Soviet domination the situation there is still very precarious. During visits to four famous monasteries in the country's northeast, the writer contemplates the so-called "Silver Age", Armenia's last period of brilliance during the eleventh and early twelfth centuries. Buried deep beneath this short period of fervent monastic activity lies Armenia's pre-Christian heritage. This atavistic past is just as much part of the Armenian identity as its unique Christian beliefs.
The book closes with an account of Armenia's more recent tribulations: a devastating earthquake and the war with neighboring Azerbaijan over the region of Karabagh. Witnessing its effects first-hand, Marsden "[..] sensed that here, where the threat was greatest, the Armenian spirit was at its strongest. It was the same spirit that had driven the Armenians through the vast improbability of their history".
"The Crossing Place" establishes Philip Marsden as a worthy successor of Colin Thubron, one of Britain's best travel writers. Not only do the two share an interest in less obvious travel destinations on the Eurasian landmass, visiting people at the fringes of so-called great cultures, but their writings have also a certain style in common; a captivating prose that unfolds the power of the English language and holds the reader's attention until the end.
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on 4 September 2003
Quite simply, a fanstastic book. I was thinking about going to Armenia when I found this book and bought it 'blind', not really knowing what it was going to be like. I was amazed with it, not only because of Marsden's lucid and engaging writing, but also because of the incredible story of one of the world's most persecuted peoples. I can not recommend this book enough. Please buy it, and make all those you know read it too.
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on 1 May 2007
From any perspective Armenia is one of the most interesting places on earth. The first Christian state, sight of Eden or resting place of Noah's Ark. The problem is, few people actually know this. Luckily Phillip Marsden took the trouble to enlighten us by learning Armenian in Jerusalem and visiting members of the Armenian Diaspora (often by complete chance). I have rarely read a travel book that tackles so many important subjects without being crushed by it's own weight. The author succeeds in being engaging without losing the complexity and academic weight of the subject. Marsden develops a real affinity for all things Armenian but always remains objective and critical. The book's greatest asset, and the main reason why I chose to recommend it, is the fact that it is like a biography of a place and it's people all rolled into one.
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on 17 March 2009
Philip Marsden's lyrical book The Crossing Places - A Journey Among the Armenians describes the lives, trials, defeats and triumphs of these people, who are still scarred from their genocide in 1915, and the loss of the centre of their spirituality and faith - Mt Ararat - to the perpetrators of that slaughter, the Turks. The Armenians, like the Jews, are an ancient race. They have been scattered across the world, and like the Jews, have established for themselves an influence entirely disproportionate to their population in almost every region they inhabit. Marsden has followed their fortunes across twenty countries with a becoming empathy and grace. However, he has let his prejudice colour his descriptions of the few Turks he meet: they appear in his eyes shifty, xenophobic, disdainful. This reminds me of the old story about a traveller arriving at a new town and asking a resident what the townfolk were like. The resident wants to know how the traveller found the people in the previous town. "Oh, they were wonderful", gushes the traveller. "Welcoming and friendly, honest and open." The resident tells him he would find this town pretty much the same. A while later, another traveller appears and asks the same resident what the townspeople are like.

"What were the people like in the last town you were in?" asks the resident.

"Oh, they were a bunch of crooks, inhospitable and cruel", says the traveller.

"Well", says the resident. "You'll find the people in this town are more or less the same."
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on 26 September 2002
Philip Marsden clearly harbors a special interest in eastern Christian traditions, for they run like a red thread through his three travel books. In "A Far Country: Travels in Ethiopia" he visits this sole surviving Christian nation in the Horn of Africa, surrounded by Islamic countries. "The Spirit Wrestlers" explores a plethora of religious movement springing up in Russia, Ukraine and the Caucasus in the wake of the Societ Union's downfall..
In "The Crossing Place" Marsden sets out to investigate the tragic fate of the Armenians, an ancient Christian people from the Caucasus. This mountainous region tugged in between the Black and Caspian Seas lies on the crossroads of the old Persian, Turkish and Russian realms. It is also the place were six of the world's twelve tectonic plates meet, making it one of the most earthquake-prone regions in the world. Because of this geographical position Armenia's fate is permeated with disaster, both natural and man-made. These experiences have made dislocation a continuous theme in Armenian history and provide the book with a double travel motif: not only the author is constantly on the move, but so is his subject.
Marsden became interested in the Armenians through a chance encounter in eastern Turkey. There he stumbled on some fragmentary remains of the 1915 Armenian genocide. Intrigued by what he had found he decided to work his way back to the Armenian heartland.
The first part of the book is situated in the Near East, where Armenia had almost ceased to exist, "pushed down one of history's side-alleys and murdered". Or so it seemed, had they not been such a resilient people. Marsden picks up the trail in the Armenian quarter of Jerusalem. He learns that the Armenians first appeared on the Anatolian plains in the sixth century BC. Eight hundred years later their king became the first ruler to accept Christianity. A first glimpse of the 'essential Armenia" is caught during a visit to a famous center for Armenian Studies, the San Lazzaro monastery in Venice (where Armenians had been resident well before the city's rise to commercial and political prominence in the 12th century). According to one of its scholars the unique Armenian script developed by Mesrop Mashtot embodies an idea that can not be explained but only expressed in one word "Ararat", the mountain that is the heart of Armenia.
Marsden continues his quest in Lebanon -- by way of Cyprus -- and poses himself the question how such a mobile nation, consisting of merchants, pilgrims and adventurers, had been able to maintain its distinctiveness. Nowhere better to get a sense of that than in Beirut, which has just emerged from a brutal civil war. Here the Armenians had staunchly stuck to their neutrality but also maintained a basis for their commando-type liberation movements, operating with surgical precision in sixteen countries. Only by tapping into the efficient Armenian network of connections is Marsden able to move swiftly and inconspicuously through Lebanon and Syria. Taking the Baron hotel in Aleppo -- founded and still managed by an Armenian -- as a base camp for explorations into the last surviving Armenian villages of northern Syria, Marsden gives us a chilling account of the ruthlessness with which the Turks perpetrated their ethnic cleansing during the First World War.
From Syria the author moves into Turkey. Using the ancient city of Antioch, which for seven hundred years had been largely populated by Armenians, the ruins of Ani, capital of a long-lost Armenian state, and finally Istanbul as a backdrop, Marsden gives an excellent overview of another Armenian characteristic: their genius for building. No single ethnic group in the Middle East has made so many contributions to architecture as the Armenians. They were employed by Turkish, Persian and Indian rulers alike. Marsden conjectures that they may have been instrumental to the development of Europe's Gothic style with its pointed arch.
The second part of the book takes us to the Balkans. Since the days of the Byzantine empire, subsequent rulers of Asia Minor have used this region to exile unwanted elements. This permits Marsden to launch into one of his favorite topics: arcane religious sects. The reader is provided with a most interesting account of how the doctrine of dualism, which can be traced back to the earlier Persian religions of Manichaeism and Zoroastrianism, forms the origin of many Christian heresies. Marsden has clearly studied this issue thoroughly and makes an Armenian role in the spread of heretical beliefs to western Europe quite plausible.
Traveling through Bulgaria and Romania, Marsden "[..] became aware that the Armenians had been a much greater presence in the Balkans than [..] first imagined." More gaps in the knowledge of this, at first so enigmatic, people are filled. He penetrates deeper into their language and learns about the extent of their trading relations. In the Middle Ages they had already reached Moorish Spain, Poland and the court of the Mongol Khan. By the 18th century Armenians were connected with the Ottoman, Safavid and Moghul courts, had established an influence with Burmese and Ethiopian monarchs, and traded in Amsterdam, Calcutta, Java and Tibet.
Via the Crimea Marsden finally makes it to Armenia proper where the third part of the book is set. Recently wrested away from seventy years of Soviet domination the situation there is still very precarious. During visits to four famous monasteries in the country's northeast, the writer contemplates the so-called "Silver Age", Armenia's last period of brilliance during the eleventh and early twelfth centuries. Buried deep beneath this short period of fervent monastic activity lies Armenia's pre-Christian heritage. This atavistic past is just as much part of the Armenian identity as its unique Christian beliefs.
The book closes with an account of Armenia's more recent tribulations: a devastating earthquake and the war with neighboring Azerbaijan over the region of Karabagh. Witnessing its effects first-hand, Marsden "[..] sensed that here, where the threat was greatest, the Armenian spirit was at its strongest. It was the same spirit that had driven the Armenians through the vast improbability of their history".
"The Crossing Place" establishes Philip Marsden as a worthy successor of Colin Thubron, one of Britain's best travel writers. Not only do the two share an interest in less obvious travel destinations on the Eurasian landmass, visiting people at the fringes of so-called great cultures, but their writings have also a certain style in common; a captivating prose that unfolds the power of the English language and holds the reader's attention until the end.
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on 11 January 2000
It traces the author's steps from the unearthing of a human bone on a Turkish hillside, through a voyage of discovery about the most ancient culture in Christendom. The history of the Armenians is one of dispersal & oppression, but their culture & sense of identity has prevailed against all odds. The book works on many different levels, travel literature, history & sociology. It tells the story of the Armenian people in a compelling way. Echoes of the book stay with you long after you have finished reading it, testimony to a rich & vibrant culture and a writer of rare talent. I look forward to reading his newer works.
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on 23 May 2012
One of the UK's leading travel writers begins with the chance finding of a piece of bone amongst the hills of eastern Turkey. Wondering where it has come from a local shepherd says., "Armenians", and so begin his wanderings amongst the Armenian diaspora into Armenia itself as the Soviet Union crumbles.

Along the way he learns Armenian, visits Jerusalem, where they have had a presence for centuries, and then to Syria where genocide survivors still showed the scars of loss from the land they had inhabited for millennia. He connects with Armenian networks around the Middle East and always finds a welcome once his interest in their culture and language are demonstrated. Moving into Europe he passes through Bulgaria and Romania in search of an elusive Soviet visa. This achieved, with the help of the diaspora again, he makes his way across the Ukraine and Russia to his goal. Here he finds a country at war with Azerbaijan, threatened by the Turks and full of enmity against Russians. Yet it is richly productive wherever Armenians live. Their scattered churches around the Middle East and Europe fascinate him and remind us that Armenia was the first nation wholly to accept Christianity in 301. Many are derelict or abandoned but their architecture and remote settings continue to inspire.

Marsden's prose is thoughtful and enjoyable to read as he gives us an insight into one of the world's oldest people groups, after the Jews. Worth reading for all who like travel writing, ancient Christianity and world cultures.
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