He was following in the footsteps of a Sixth Century Byzantine monk, John Moschos, who had embarked on a pilgrimage around the Levant in 578 AD, at a time when the Byzantine Empire was very much in decline.
Dalrymple’s journey begins at Mount Athos in Greece, and takes him through Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, the West Bank, Israel and finally to Egypt. Visiting some of the same monasteries, churches and shrines as Moschos, he uses this journey to give a vibrant, erudite account of the different sects of Eastern Orthodox Christianity that flourished during Byzantine times, as well as observations on the current state of Christianity in the Near East.
Along the way he is harassed by the Turkish army, witnesses possibly the oldest religious music in the world, and meets a whole host of colorful characters. These include war reporter Robert Fisk, a family of Christian Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, a Maronite hermit who spends all day praying and fighting off temptation, and a monk who can’t stop raving about Masonic conspiracies and claims the Pope is a devil worship per.
From the Holy Mountain is an incredibly ambitious book: a mixture of travelogue, history, theology, and contemporary socio-political commentary. The book is packed full of information, and Dalrymple sweeps effortlessly back and forth through the ages.
He covers such topics as the Armenian genocide (and the Turkish government’s deliberate policy of erasing the Armenian archaeological record), the Stylites (Byzantine hermits who spent their lives on top of a tall pillar, and were believed to act as intermediaries with heaven), and the often surprising links and overlap between ancient Orthodox Christianity and Islam.
Yet despite the seriousness of the subject matter, and its sometimes scholarly tone, the book is not heavy going in the slightest.
Dalrymple has a deft way with words, a keen ear for dialogue, and a knack for using very appropriate imagery.
Honest, engaging and inquisitive, much of his writing is also colored with a sly, self-deprecating humor.
From the Holy Mountain is both entertaining and informative, but more than anything else it is a moving, often shocking meditation on the decline of Christianity in what was once its heartland.
Looking for more recommended travel books? Check out Matador’s Focus on Travel Reading archive.
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