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Beautiful synthesis of spirituality & history,
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This review is from: From the Holy Mountain: A Journey In The Shadow of Byzantium (Paperback)
I knew William Dalrymple as a fine travel writer after his early success with In Xanadu, a re-enactment of Marco Polo's journey to China. From the Holy Mountain attempts a more ambitious journey, and the author brings it off brilliantly. His narrative is a re-enactment of the travels of a 6th century Byzantine monk, John Moschos, who recorded the religious communities and the miracles he encountered in his book, The Spiritual Meadow.
Dalrymple travels in Moschos's footsteps, from Mount Athos in Greece, to the Great Oasis at Kharga in Upper Egypt. The journey takes Dalrymple across Turkey, Lebanon, Syria and Israel before reaching his conclusion on the edge of the Sahara, surrounded by Egyptian army guards bristling with automatic weapons protecting him from Muslim fundamentalists.
The historical theme he brings to life is the way that Christianity began as a religion of the Middle East, centred on Alexandria and Constantinople, long before it became the established faith of Western Europe. But his travels take him through a series of conflicts: the Orthodox Church of Southern Turkey caught in the cross fire of civil war between Kurd nationalists and the Turkish state. In Lebanon, he walks through the remains of the Maronite Christian community who have propelled their country into a disastrous civil war. In Israel, the Orthodox monks and the Palestinian Christians are trying to cope with the growth of Jewish settlements across the Holy Land. And in Egypt, the Coptic Church is menaced by the growth of Muslim fundamentalism.
What makes the book special is the way Dalrymple can sink into Moschos's world. His eye for art and architecture brings the Byzantine world to life, and his ear captures conversations with monks who regard miracles and saints hovering above their monasteries as everyday events. The bizarre hallucinations and beliefs of the early Christian church become matter of fact occurrences as Dalrymple talks to Christians whose prayers, music and way of life have changed little over 1500 years. His outlook remains admirably compassionate. He brings off a journey through history that is intertwined with some of the nastiest conflicts of the 20th century. It's a lament to the disappearing world of Eastern Christianity, but it's also informative and spiritually very moving.