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From the Holy Mountain by William Dalrymple

Posted by RB Kollannur on July 15, 2012


Note: This review is part of a weekly book review column that I write for City Journal, an English newspaper based in Thrissur, Kerala.

Published on 16/03/2012

Publisher – Penguin; Year of Publishing – 1997; Pages – 483; Cost – Rs 399; Purchased from Landmark.

As a Christian from Kerala, we have a strong association with Christianity in the Levant. Comprising the nations of Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Palestine and parts of Turkey, Levant was the most powerful centre of early Christianity. It hosted two of the four most important early churches – Jerusalem and Antioch (The others being Alexandria and Rome). However, when the Roman Empire adopted Christianity, Levant was reduced to the wasteland of Christianity, despite its brief popularity during the Crusades. Now Christianity is seen mostly as a Western religion.

It is perhaps an indication of the antiquity of Christianity in Kerala that most of us still retain a connection with Syria and Levant in our religious practice.

In his travelogue “From the Holy Mountain”, William Dalrymple traces the path of a sixth century Christian monk, John Moschos, as he travels an arc from Greece to Egypt along the shore of the Mediterranean. He starts his journey from Mount Athos in Greece, officially the Autonomous Monastic State of the Holy Mountain and home to 20 monasteries of the Eastern Orthodox Church.

From the Holy Mountain, he moves to Istanbul which captained Eastern Orthodoxy for centuries, but now home only to a thin Christian population. During the Ottoman era, Istanbul supported a good Christian population, but since race riots in 1955 they have been on a consistent decline. It sets the tone for the rest of the book as Dalrymple traverses through a region of intolerance and hostility.

After Istanbul, Dalrymple travels to Antakya (Antioch), Urfa, Diyarkabir and Tur Abdin in Turkey, Aleppo (Syria), Beirut (Lebanon), West Bank, Jerusalem, Alexandria, Cairo and finally ending his journey in Kharga in Egypt.

Along the way, Dalrymple describes the life of John Moschos as he travelled in the region. He also chronicles the lives of other saints from the region like St Symeon Stylites and St Antony. He explores in depth the lives of the few remaining Christian populations in this region recounting their origins and histories, painting a concerned tone for a people near the end of their existence. He litters his narrative with many anecdotes and myths that he procures on his travels like that of the fish pond of Abraham in Urfa which flowed through three religions while staying divine. The Spiritual Meadow, a work of John Moschos about his journey, also provides for many anecdotes.

The story of intolerance presents a continuous thread throughout the book. The xenophobia makes you wonder what lies in future for Levant, especially in light of the current situation of the region. However, it also describes centuries of tolerance, especially during the Ottoman era, to denote that these people did coexist peacefully.

It is also significant to note that while Christians around the world fall into three major categories (Catholics, Eastern Orthodoxy and Protestants), Christians in Levant and Egypt fall into a fourth – Oriental Orthodoxy. Having separated from mainstream Christianity in 451 AD, they have stayed untouched by western Christianity and retained many characters of early Christians. In Tur Abdin, while describing the prayer rituals of the Mor Gabriel monastery, one of the oldest monasteries of Oriental Orthodoxy, the author draws parallel to Islamic prayer rituals.

Though the book does exude a strong Christian undertone, this can be easily ignored. The author describes the acts of intolerance of the Christian militia in Lebanon as well, the only nation in the region where Christianity has a formidable presence. More importantly, he goes into detail the Christian heresies that were once prevalent in the region, especially Urfa. In a bygone era, Urfa was called Edessa and was on the crossroads of the Silk Route connecting the East and the West. It formed breeding ground for many mutations of Christian faith as people of many faith interacted during trade. Among them were Elchasiates, Marcionites, Messalians, Carpocratians, Manicheans and finally Nestorians. The author wonders aloud what the state of Christianity would have been had these heresies grown root and flourished.

The Christians of Kerala have a historic connection with the Christians of Levant. Not that long ago our churches sang hymns in Suriani just like in Levant. It may be of interest to ponder over their past and even perhaps over their present. William Dalrymple has composed a beautiful narrative to enable us to do that.

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One Response to “From the Holy Mountain by William Dalrymple”

  1. […] on 13/02/2012 2)    The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman – Published on 23/02/2012 3)    From the Holy Mountain by William Dalrymple – Published on 16/03/2012 4)    The Siege by Ismail Kadare – Published on 30/03/2012* 5)   […]

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