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From the Holy Mountain: A Journey Among the Christians of the Middle East
By William Dalrymple
Henry Holt. 483 pp. $30

At the end of the sixth century a monk from Palestine by the name of John Moschos set out from the flourishing monastic world in the Judean desert east of Jerusalem to visit the equally vibrant religious communities in the Egyptian desert. After spending some time living among the monks up the Nile River, he settled at the Lavra of Aeliotes on Mt. Sinai where he remained for ten years. His purpose was to see at first hand the way of life practiced by Christian monks outside Palestine and to collect their stories and sayings.

After returning to Palestine for a brief period he again set out, this time northward, traveling up the coast through Phoenicia to Syria and from there to Cilicia in the southeastern corner of Asia Minor (Turkey). At some point he was joined by his dear friend Sophronius, also a monk from Palestine (who as Jerusalem’s patriarch was later to have the unhappy assignment of handing over the holy city to the victorious Muslim Caliph in a.d. 638). From Asia Minor the two friends returned to Egypt where they remained for several years. Then they sailed to Rome to see at first hand the monasteries of the ancient Christian capital. But John died while in Rome, and Sophronius dutifully carried his friend’s body back to Jerusalem to be buried at the monastery of St. Theodosius a few miles south of the city. There he rests to this day, and alongside lies his friend Sophronius, who died shortly after the Muslim conquest. Today a single nun inhabits the monastery and tends the graves.

All the time John was living in the various monastic centers of the Eastern Christian world, he took notes of what he saw and heard. In Rome before he died he was able to finish a beautiful and unforgettable book called The Spiritual Meadow (now available in English translation from Cisterician Publications), a warm, edifying, and often humorous account of the holy men and women he had met.

A few years ago William Dalrymple, an English travel writer, set out with The Spiritual Meadow in his knapsack and pen and notepad in hand to retrace the steps of these ancient holy men. His route was not precisely that of Moschus––he began at Mt. Athos which did not exist in Moschus’ day as a monastic city and ended in Egypt––but with admirable persistence and at times courage, he attempted, often under such difficult and dangerous circumstances as civil war in eastern Turkey, to discover what remains of the world that Moschos inhabited and of the Christian communities he celebrated. One of the ironies of Dalrymple’s journey, however, is that he sometimes found more representatives of Middle Eastern Christian groups in London than in the places he visited. “Such are the humiliations of the travel writer in the late twentieth century: go to the ends of the earth to search for the most exotic heretics in the world, and you find they have cornered the kebab business at the end of your street in London.” From the Holy Mountain is a sad and melancholy book that evokes a time when the entire eastern Mediterranean, the territories now occupied by Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Iraq, Lebanon, Israel and the West Bank, and Egypt, was bound together by a Christian civilization and culture. And it chronicles, if only in fleeting glimpses, the slow but seemingly inevitable disappearance of Christian life in much of the region. In Antakaya (Antioch) in Turkey, the ancient city where Jesus’ disciples were first called Christians and the seat of one of the five ancient patriarchates (the patriarch now resides in Damascus as he has for some eight hundred years), only two hundred Christian families remain. Within the last generation thousands have left for Germany, Brazil, and Australia, and the gatekeeper of the Orthodox Church predicted that the Christian community would eventually die out. “The young are still emigrating, mainly to Brazil. Christians may have been here since the time of the apostles, but I doubt whether there will be any here at all in twenty years’ time.” From the Holy Mountain is not a book of history. It is a personal and impressionistic account written in the first-person style of a travelogue, a lively and engaging collection of vignettes laced with bits of Middle Eastern culture, politics, architecture, religion, and enough historical information to orient the reader, all served up in graceful and cultivated English prose. On historical matters Dalrymple is not always reliable––he has John of Damascus preaching in Constantinople when he means John Chrysostom, and he has the irritating habit of using the term “near contemporary” for figures who are separated by two hundred years––but he has done his homework and he is a keen observer of people and places and especially of ancient buildings. And he has a weighty sense of the burden of the past.

The book centers chiefly on five areas––eastern Turkey, the city of Aleppo in Syria, Beirut in Lebanon, Israel and the West Bank, and Egypt––and it offers an entertaining and illuminating way to become acquainted with the religious, social, and political worlds in which the different Middle Eastern Christian communities live. It is a sobering account. Although the present status of the Christian communities varies considerably from country to country, “the pattern of Christian suffering,” as Dalrymple puts it, “was more complex than I could possibly have guessed at the beginning of this journey; it was also more desperate.”

Some of the most heartbreaking pages in the book record the stories of elderly Armenians in eastern Turkey who recall the massacre of whole villages by the Turks early in the century. Today, reports Dalrymple, there is a systematic effort on the part of Turkish authorities to eliminate the remains of Armenian life and religion altogether. The names of Armenian villages have been changed and beautiful ancient churches are simply vanishing from the face of the earth. “Soon,” says the curator of the Armenian museum in Jerusalem, “there will be virtually no evidence that the Armenians were ever in Turkey.”

In Lebanon, Christianity is still strong, but the civil war, the divisions between the various Christian groups, the complications brought about by the proximity to Israel, the harsh militancy of the Maronites––especially their military arm, the Phalange––and the perception of the Muslims that the Christians are not Arabs make it hard for Lebanese Christians to look to the future with hope. Dalrymple is more sanguine about Syria, but the future there is equally uncertain. When Assad, to whom the Christians look for protection, is gone, some fear an ugly backlash. And in Syria, as elsewhere in the Middle East, the ceaseless stream of emigrants saps the spirit of the Christian communities. Several years ago, when I visited Hasakeh, a town in northeastern Syria with a sizeable Syriac Christian population, it seemed that everyone I met had an uncle or brother or cousin running a Mediterranean restaurant in Sweden.

In Israel, most Christians Dalrymple spoke to, whether Armenian, Greek, or Arab, felt besieged and isolated. In Jerusalem the pressure by Israelis on Christians to sell their property is relentless. Armenians began to settle in Jerusalem fifteen hundred years ago and have lived there continuously since ancient times. Early in the century thousands, fleeing the Turks, found refuge in Jerusalem’s Armenian quarter. But today the young are emigrating and even the Armenian shopkeepers who are so much a part of the commercial life of the old city are disappearing.

In the great struggle between the Israelis and the Arabs, the Arab Christians seem a historical curiosity, finding a place on neither side of the divide. To the Israelis they are Arabs, to the Arab Muslims they are Christians––and to Westerners they are invisible. In the face of the competing claims of Israelis and Arabs, the historic Christian stake in Jerusalem and the Holy Land appears irrelevant and anachronistic. Yet the Christian roots in the land are too deep, too irrevocable, and the memory too long for Christians there to imagine that there is no future in the land to which Christianity is “native,” as St. Jerome put it. When Dalrymple asked the Patriarch of Jerusalem whether he thought the end of the Christian presence was imminent, he said: “Do not judge a light by the size of its container. Even a small oil lamp can give light to a big room.”

In Egypt, home of the largest Christian community in the Middle East, the sheer number of Christians assures survival. But Egypt is the one country where Christianity is “unambiguously threatened by a straightforward resurgence of Islamic fundamentalism.” For the Copts this treatment at the hands of their fellow Egyptians is particularly bitter. In the nineteenth century Copts were active in the effort to overthrow Ottoman rule, and formed part of the intellectual leadership of the Arab cultural awakening. Today they are fearful and apprehensive. One priest at a church that had been bombed by militant Muslims refused to talk to Dalrymple. The less said about this matter the better was his message as he slammed the door in his face. But then as Dalrymple was leaving the priest came out of his house and said, “I’m sorry. I am a priest. If you want to learn to pray, I can help.... But if you want to talk about politics...  ––Shrugging his shoulders he said,  “I think you have not spent long in Egypt. When you have been here longer, you will understand.”

Alas, the hard truth is that for Christians in the Middle East politics does make a difference, for politics and religion are often one. It is beyond the ken of most Western Christians to imagine what it means to be Christian in that part of the world and to be involved in communities that have lived for centuries under Islam. With few exceptions Christians of the West have always been masters of their own destiny. Even the three hundred years during which the Greek Church lived under Ottoman rule seem but a passing moment when compared to the long centuries of Muslim hegemony in the Middle East. From the Holy Mountain is a perceptive, well-written, and nicely illustrated account of a vanishing world, but it is not a call to Christians to awaken from their passivity about the fate of fellow Christians in the Middle East. For that one has to read Nina Shea’s In the Lion’s Den, especially its chapters on the Sudan and Egypt. But Dalrymple writes with feeling, and he makes one take notice, especially in the affluent and indulgent Christian West, of a Christian world where every thought, every word, every action is viewed in light of one thing: survival.

Dalrymple is not hopeful. On his final page he writes: “Christianity is an Eastern religion which grew firmly rooted in the intellectual ferment of the Middle East. John Moschos saw that plant begin to wither in the hot winds of change that scoured the Levant of his day. On my journey in his footsteps I have seen the very last stalks in the process of being uprooted. It has been a continuous process, lasting nearly one and a half millennia. Moschos saw its beginnings. I have seen the beginning of its end.” Let us hope he is wrong.

Robert Louis Wilken is the William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of the History of Christianity at the University of Virginia.