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Staff Picks – From The Holy Mountain

[Note: Via Meadia will publish occasional reading recommendations by Team Mead associates brave enough to let WRM know they still have enough spare time for personal reading.  CFR veteran and Bard research associate Peter Mellgard currently leads the researchers and interns who collaborate with WRM on the blog.]

By Peter Mellgard

I recently finished reading From The Holy Mountain, by British journalist and traveler William Dalrymple. The book is an adventure through Middle Eastern history, on the trail of two 6th century monks John Moschos and Sophronius the Sophist. Dalrymple tracks Moschos and Sophronius, as well as other prominent, wacky and pious Christians, from Istanbul through Syria to Lebanon, Palestine, the West Bank, and Egypt. It is an amazing journey through a forgotten age of Christian prosperity in the Middle East. It is also an era that is coming to an end.

In Turkey, Christians have all but vanished. When Dalrymple is on the road (in the middle of the ’90s) he meanders from one monastery to the next, welcomed by a few frail monks and fewer novices. Caught between Kurdish separatists on one side and the Turkish government on the other, Turkey’s Christians found no friends in high places, no new recruits, and no help from abroad. In Istanbul and across the rest of the country, Christian monasteries and holy places were left to crumble.

Dalrymple discovers a similar situation in Syria, Lebanon — where Maronite Christians have fallen from power since the end of the civil war, Israel — where the Jewish government has been unenthusiastic about preserving Christian historical sites, and Egypt — where the Copts face never ending discrimination and persecution.

Besides taking the reader on a wild journey through eastern Christianity, Dalrymple does an admirable job drawing connections between early Christianity and Islam. Westerners tend to forget that Christianity is an Eastern religion. But the definition between Eastern religions are far more blurred than we remember. Even today, though certainly not at the level found during Moschos’ time, many Christians, Jews and Muslims pray at the same shrines and monasteries, to the same saints, asking for the same things: protection, children, forgiveness, or prosperity.

Many in the modern Middle East would do well to remember the history of their religion, to recognize the similar origins, rites, practices, art, and thought that pervade each faith. Tolerance would, perhaps, follow such reflection.

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  • Silke

    Of course William Dalrymple wouldn’t miss an opportunity to pick on Jews and Israel – Certainly Christians all over the world are “enthusiastic” about preserving Jewish historical sites. But who is going to resist a nice little jibe at Israel …

    Israel — where the Jewish government has been unenthusiastic about preserving Christian historical sites

    Generally he is a man for whom no “Easterner” can ever do wrong. But maybe you like to read him here – If I’d want an honest description of something William Dalrymple would never be the man I’d turn to.

    Here he is with a teaser showing of his oh so deep knowledge of Syria from 2007 – which btw has he been heard on who “made” Assad kill his own people? According to Google News this man who is so know-all on the area keeps mum which is to his credit at least when I compare him to German know-alls of the “orient”.

    an Israeli attack ‘on a nuclear facility in Syria’ — though no one has ever previously claimed that Syria has a nuclear programme. Indeed, there is much evidence that, unlike its Israeli neighbour, it has consciously chosen not to go down the nuclear route.

  • kevin bryant

    nice piece peter! all the best.

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