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 is end (453–454).
William Dalrymple’s From the Holy Mountain is one of those books I wish was 4,500 pages long instead of 450 pages long, one I wish kept going and going. In it, he follows the trail of John Moschos and Sophronius, two sixth-century monks that traveled around the Middle East recording the stories and lives of their monastic contemporaries. After a visit to Mt. Athos, Dalrymple begins his journey in Constantinople, traveling southwards through Syria, Lebanon, Israel-Palestine, and Egypt, chronicling the plight of modern-day monastics as well as modern-day Christians in general. In recording their stories, his writing is captivating, engrossing, adventurous — occasionally humorous, often serious.
His journey begins on Mt. Athos at the Monastery of Iviron, where the oldest manuscript of The Spiritual Meadow, John Moschos’s book that records his and Sophronius’s travels, resides in the library. Despite Dalrymple being a “heretic” — he is Roman Catholic (like me) — the librarian allows him to see the treasured document. Here Dalrymple takes the opportunity to introduce Moschos and Sphronius to the reader, giving a helpful outline of their lives.
Dalrymple next goes to Constantinople (Istanbul), beginning his journey where Moschos ended his life in exile from the besieged Alexandria. From there he travels to Turkey, where he sees a dance recital taking place at Hagia Eirene and, at the Monastery of Mar Gabriel, he sees for the first time the threats that face the monasteries. He also experiences the aftereffects of the Armenian genocide of the early twentieth century.
With some difficulty, he crosses into Syria, where the Christians are more hopeful — their big concern was what would happen after Asad lost power. Of course, twenty years later, we know that the genocide of Christians has begun in earnest while Asad still holds something resembling power in Syria. Dalrymple’s section on Syria, especially, has caused me to grasp the enormity of the current persecution: as I googled they places he visited and people he met, I found that most had been directly involved in the current conflict — priests kidnapped, nuns kidnapped, buildings assaulted. Dalrymple transformed the stats and numbers into hospitable brothers and sisters, and has stirred me to investigate ways of helping and showing solidarity. Indeed, this is one of the major strengths of the book.
As Dalrymple crossed into Lebanon, he found the remnants of its civil war. Still he found Christians in various parts of the country, if not ruins of Byzantine buildings, and he was able to go into a refugee camp that held Palestinians and interview a Palestinian Christian family. Here we get our first glimpse of the harm that the State of Israel has had on the Palestinian population. Also in Lebanon, Dalrymple stumbles across a lone hermit, the last hermit in a valley once populated by monks. The hermit had been in his hermitage since “the end of May 1982 . . . Before that [he] was the Superior of the Monastery of St Antony at Koshaya . . . But [he] asked for a dispensation from [his] duties as Abbot so [he] could become a hermit” (249–250).
The conversation with the hermit is fascinating. When asked why he had chosen that life, the hermit replied:
It is a vocation. To be a hermit is the summit of the Christian life. not everyone can do it. For me it was very difficult to separate from my brothers, to give up meat, to live on my own. Most of all it is difficult to pray the Maronite liturgies for hermits — the ancient hermit liturgies of Antioch — which ordain long prayers to perform every day.
When asked whether the hermit life gets easier, he replied:
Every day is difficult. It is the same for all hermits. As you get closer to God your enemy attacks you more. Those who are content to live in sin do not suffer from the temptations of the Devil so badly as those who try to live with God. For a hermit temptation follows you all your life. But after a while you do feel you are making progress. You do feel you are drawing closer to God. . . . It is like two lovers. If they want to discuss their love they want to be alone. They do not want to sit in the middle of a crowd.
When asked if it was a happy life:
Yes. It is happy, but only because it is so difficult. That is why the satisfaction is so great when you succeed. The desert fathers had another saying. They said that being a hermit was like building a fire. At first it smokes and your eyes water, but later you get the desired result: after the smoke disperses, the light and the heat comes. . . . In the beginning there is a struggle and a lot of work for those who wish to come near to God and to light the divine fire within themselves. At first they feel lonely and depressed. But after that there is the indescribable joy of feeling the presence of the Lord (250).
Next, Dalyrmple travels into Israel-Palestine and eventually makes his way to Mar Saba in the West Bank. The monks there were wary of non-Orthodox, especially Catholics. While discussing the realities of demons, one of the monks told Dalrymple that “Each demon has its own personality. They live in the desert and come to the cities to make men into criminals and Roman Catholics” (292). Even though these monks were not interested in ecumenism, they are still portrayed as very hospitable and kind, even if very eccentric. It is also at Mar Saba where Dalrymple mulls over how much Christianity and Islam share. After noting several caves with prayer niches, he writes that “the prayer niche must be another of those features of the early Christian world [along with, for example, fasting, prostrations, and open prayer halls] which has been lost to modern Western Christianity, yet which is still preserved in Islam.” He adds,
In an age when Islam and Christianity are again said to be “clashing civilisations”, supposedly “irreconcilable and necessarily hostile”, it is important to remember Islam’s very considerable debt to the early Christian world, and the degree to which it has faithfully preserved elements of our own early Christian heritage long forgotten by ourselves (304–305).
Dalrymple visits Jerusalem and sees firsthand the way Israel is discriminating not only against Muslims but also against Christians. It is no wonder that Eastern Christians boggle at how the predominantly-Christian-West can so blindly support Israel. For example, St. Stephen’s, the Byzantine church that was the scene of Sophronius’s last Mass (he would become Patriarch of Jerusalem later in life) before handing over the keys to Jerusalem over to the Persian invaders was discovered by an Israeli road-building project and just as quickly reburied under the new road, as the road was deemed too important to reroute. It led to a new Israeli “settlement.” There was also tale of settlers taking over an Armenian hostel in the Old City itself.
Next, Dalrymple visited Egypt, the place in which Christian monasticism more-or-less started. At St. Antony’s Monastery, he has an interesting exchange with one of the monks.
Many people think we come to the desert to punish ourselves, because it is hot and dry and difficult to live in. But it’s not true. We come here because we love it here. . . . We love the peace, the silence. When you really want to talk to someone you want to sit together in a quiet place and talk, not to be in the midst of a crowd of other people. How can you talk properly in a crowd? So it is with us. We come here because we want to be alone with our God. As St Antony once said, “Let your heart be silent, then God will speak.”
When asked about his asceticism, the monk said that such was a tool, not an end. “It is not easy to communicate with God on a full stomach. When you have had a big meal you cannot concentrate your mind. You want to sleep, not to sit in church praying. To pray successfully it is better to be a little hungry.” He continued, “Last week, I through out my chair. I don’t need it. Now I sit on the floor. Why should I bother with extra food, with spare clothes, with unnecessary furniture? All you need is a piece of bread and enough covering for the body. The less you have, the less you have to distract you from God” (409–410).
Continuing with thoughts about the chair the monk adds, “Well, just look around this room. When I am in here I think that the chair is in the wrong place, I must move it. . . . But in the desert there is just sand. You don’t think of anything else; there is nothing to disturb you. It should be the same in a monk’s cell. The less there is, the easier it is to talk to God” (410).
Dalrymple ended his journey at the oasis of Kharga, once the southernmost part of the Byzantine empire and the southenmost locale visited by Moschos and Sophronius. Along the way, he came across some monks who had suffered multiple murderous attacks, their Upper Nile monastery being in a hotbed of extremism. In the oasis, though, Dalrymple took time to reflect on his journey.
In south-east Turkey the Syrian Christians were caught in the crossfire of a civil war, a distinct ethnic group trodden underfoot in the scrummage between two rival nationalisms, one Kurdish, the other Turkish. . . . In Lebanon, the Maronites had reaped a bitter harvest of their own sowing: their failure to compromise with the country’s Muslim majority had led to a destructive civil war that ended in a mass emigration of Christians and a proportional diminution in Maronite power. The dilemma of the Palestinian Christians was quite different again. Their problem was that, like their Muslim compatriots, they were Arabs in a Jewish state, and as such suffered as second-class citizens in their own country, regarded with a mixture of suspicion and contempt by their Israeli masters.
. . . Only in Egypt was the Christian population unambiguously threatened by a straightforward resurgence of Islamic fundamentalism, and even there such violent fundamentalism was strictly limited to specific Cairo suburbs and a number of towns and villages in Upper Egypt, even if some degree of discrimination was evident across the country (448).
Of course, twenty years after Dalrymple wrote his compelling book, Christians all over the Middle East face persecution, “unambiguously threatened” by various extremist groups.
One of my greatest wishes for this book would be to see an updated version — one that tells where all the people and places are and how they are doing in 2017, twenty years after the initial publication of From the Holy Mountain.
God of mercy and compassion,
of grace and reconciliation,
pour your power upon all your children in the Middle East:
Jews, Muslims and Christians,
Palestinians and Israelis.
Let hatred be turned into love, fear to trust, despair to hope,
oppression to freedom, occupation to liberation,
that violent encounters may be replaced by loving embraces,
and peace and justice could be experienced by all.
– Reverend Said