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From the Holy Mountain: A Journey in the Shadow of Byzantium

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A rich blend of history and spirituality, adventure and politics, laced with the thread of black comedy familiar to readers of William Dalrymple’s previous work.

In AD 587, two monks, John Moschos and Sophronius the Sophist, embarked on an extraordinary journey across the Byzantine world, from the shores of the Bosphorus to the sand dunes of Egypt. Their aim: to collect the wisdom of the sages and mystics of the Byzantine East before their fragile world shattered under the eruption of Islam. Almost 1500 years later, using the writings of John Moschos as his guide, William Dalrymple set off to retrace their footsteps.

Taking in a civil war in Turkey, the ruins of Beirut, the tensions of the West Bank and a fundamentalist uprising in Egypt, William Dalrymple’s account is a stirring elegy to the dying civilisation of Eastern Christianity.

483 pages, Paperback

First published April 7, 1997

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About the author

William Dalrymple

88 books2,651 followers
William Dalrymple was born in Scotland and brought up on the shores of the Firth of Forth. He wrote the highly acclaimed bestseller In Xanadu when he was twenty-two. The book won the 1990 Yorkshire Post Best First Work Award and a Scottish Arts Council Spring Book Award; it was also shortlisted for the John Llewellyn Rhys Memorial Prize.

In 1989 Dalrymple moved to Delhi where he lived for six years researching his second book, City of Djinns, which won the 1994 Thomas Cook Travel Book Award and the Sunday Times Young British Writer of the Year Award. From the Holy Mountain, his acclaimed study of the demise of Christianity in its Middle Eastern homeland, was awarded the Scottish Arts Council Autumn Book Award for 1997; it was also shortlisted for the 1998 Thomas Cook Award, the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize and the Duff Cooper Prize. A collection of his writings about India, The Age of Kali, won the French Prix D’Astrolabe in 2005.

White Mughals was published in 2003, the book won the Wolfson Prize for History 2003, the Scottish Book of the Year Prize, and was shortlisted for the PEN History Award, the Kiryama Prize and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize.

William Dalrymple is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and of the Royal Asiatic Society, and is the founder and co-director of the Jaipur Literature Festival.

In 2002 he was awarded the Mungo Park Medal by the Royal Scottish Geographical Society for his ‘outstanding contribution to travel literature’. He wrote and presented the television series Stones of the Raj and Indian Journeys, which won the Grierson Award for Best Documentary Series at BAFTA in 2002. His Radio 4 series on the history of British spirituality and mysticism, The Long Search, won the 2002 Sandford St Martin Prize for Religious Broadcasting and was described by the judges as ‘thrilling in its brilliance... near perfect radio’. In December 2005 his article on the madrasas of Pakistan was awarded the prize for Best Print Article of the Year at the 2005 FPA Media Awards. In June 2006 he was awarded the degree of Doctor of Letters honoris causa by the University of St Andrews “for his services to literature and international relations, to broadcasting and understanding”. In 2007, The Last Moghal won the prestigous Duff Cooper Prize for History and Biography. In November 2007, William received an Honourary Doctorate of Letters, honoris causa, from the University of Lucknow University “for his outstanding contribution in literature and history”, and in March 2008 won the James Todd Memorial Prize from the Maharana of Udaipur.

William is married to the artist Olivia Fraser, and they have three children. They now live on a farm outside Delhi.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 318 reviews
Profile Image for Markus.
472 reviews1,523 followers
March 9, 2016
In 587 AD, John Moschos and his acolyte Sophronius started on a journey that would take them all across the Byzantine world, exploring the vast lands of Eastern Christianity. Almost 1500 years later, Scottish writer William Dalrymple follows in their footsteps, through a landscape that has been ravaged by time, fate and a succession of different civilisations.

There is something strangely compelling about travel books. Reading about someone else’s journeys can give you the opportunity to join in with them, albeit only through words on paper and your own powers of visualisation.

From the Holy Mountain is the best travel book I have read. William Dalrymple is a brilliant writer, captivating his audience with knowledge, humour and skillful observation. And while this book is mostly to be read as entertainment, it has so much to teach about history, culture, politics and literally everything you can think of that takes place in the Near East.

The book is filled to the brim with passion and emotion. In a matter of pages, a book can take you from surprise at how openly corrupt Middle Eastern officials can be, to outrage at the horrible crimes committed by Turkish and Israeli governments. It can put tears in your eyes by telling you the heartbreaking stories of Armenians whose families were "deported", and it can make you laugh at the comments of the Orthodox priests Dalrymple encounters; most of whom are genuinely concerned about his soul since he is a heretic (Catholic), and one who's convinced that the world is about to be taken over by the Freemasons, who already control the Vatican and the United States.

Overall, this is a wonderful tale of a land and its peoples, of a lost civilisation, of the history and culture of a whole world region, and of a modern Western man treading the ground where ancient monks once walked.

I will of course admit to being heavily biased. As soon as a book has ‘Byzantium’ written on it, my interest and excitement automatically grow to fanatical proportions. But Dalrymple does a remarkable job of telling the stories of my beloved Byzantine Empire, and what has happened to its world of wonders after the fall.

Profile Image for Richard.
Author 4 books431 followers
July 20, 2022
As in the previous book I reviewed, a traveler decides to go on pilgrimage. Inspired by the writings of the monk John Moschus (ca. 550-619), William Dalrymple, a Scottish journalist and travel-writer, sets off to retrace the route this pilgrim and his friend Sophronios of Jerusalem had traveled so many centuries before.

Dalrymple's book is an attempt to rediscover the traces of ancient Christian history in the Middle East, some of them surviving in unexpected ways, some of them tragically disappearing fast. He travels through Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Israel and Egypt. In each place he discovers Eastern Christian communities and attempts to piece together what has brought them to the situations in which they currently find themselves.

There are curious cases of (relatively) peaceful co-existence and cooperation between various religious communities, of the type described in some of the novels of Louis de Bernieres. I had always thought his description of Turks and Greeks living happily cheek-by-jowl was idealistic and humorous but probably exaggerated for dramatic effect. I was surprised and pleased, on reading Dalrymple, to find that, as late as 1997, such situations did indeed exist.

Sadly, ethnic conflict, political upheaval, civil war and fundamentalism have contributed to some tragic situations, especially for the Syrian Orthodox, the Maronites, the Palestinian Christians, the Armenians and the Copts. Dalrymple shows, however that the fault usually does not lie all on one side. So the picture is never black and white, and no one party is totally innocent or totally guilty.

The style is very engaging. The author knows a lot about history, religion, iconography, chant and archaeology. As we accompany him on his travels, he introduces us to a colourful and variegated cast of clerics, monks, drivers, crooks, politicians, border-guards, hotel managers, refugees and others.

From the Holy Mountain was published in 1997, so by now the political situations have further altered. Some of the monuments displayed in the photographs have been further damaged or destroyed. So the book is also important as a snapshot of a certain moment in time when these storms were still gathering.
Profile Image for Hana.
522 reviews292 followers
July 16, 2015
Update: For those who enjoyed this book or are interested in the Byzantines, don't miss this CBS News-60 Minutes documentary on the monasteries of Mt. Athos, online at http://www.cbsnews.com/news/mt-athos-...

Most Westerners know little about the varied ancient communities that date back to the great Christian Empire of Byzantium. As I write this review, nearly twenty years after this book was first published, Eastern Christian communities as old as the religion itself are under siege yet again and that lent the story a certain poignancy.

From the Holy Mountain: A Journey among the Christians of the Middle East is Dalrymple’s 1994 travelog retracing the pilgrimage of two monks, John Moschos and his pupil Sophronious the Sophist. The monks set out in 587 A.D. to visit the holy places and monasteries of Byzantium and left an extraordinary chronicle of their travels. Dalrymple, a Scottish Roman Catholic, is at his best when he allows his own spiritual sensibility to shine through; in those moments, he opens a door onto cultures and rituals of mystical, unearthly beauty.


Dalrymple has a real gift for sensing the deep connectedness of the regions' religious traditions. At Mar Gabriel in Turkey, 5:15 Matins is chanted in Aramaic: “The entire congregation began a long series of prostrations. From their standing position, the worshipers fell to their knees and lowered their heads to the ground. This was the way the early Christians prayed and is exactly the form of worship described by John Moschos in A.D. 587 in The Spiritual Meadow.” It is also, as Dalrymple points out, remarkably similar to the format of the Moslem ritual prayer or salat.

Dalrymple loves the ancientness of Eastern ritual—and sometimes gets a little lost in metaphorical fancies in the process—but such ephemeral moments are hard to convey. In Aleppo he visits a congregation of Christians who came originally from Urfa in Turkey. The Urfalees nearly suffered the same fate as the region’s Armenian population, but remnants found their way to temporary safety in Asad’s Syria. The chants of the Urfalees may be among the oldest in Christendom dating back, perhaps, to the hymns of St. Ephram of Edessa composed in 370 A.D. and set to melodies derived from Gnostic sources. "A cortege of elderly priests conducted the service, accompanied by a string of echoing laments of almost unearthly beauty, sinuous alleluias which floated with the gentle indecision of falling feathers down arpeggios of dying cadences before losing themselves in a soft black hole of basso profundo. At the elevation, the altar boys rattled flabellae, ecclesiastical fans which are often depicted on Pictish and Irish cross slabs, but which died out in the West before the Norman Conquest…"

With an eye for telling detail, he finds the past everywhere: north of Damascus "littered throughout the olive groves was another complete Byzantine ghost town. At the edge of the trees the largest and airiest of the villas was still inhabited. A Syrian woman in a patterned headscarf was peeping out of a late Roman window. A washing line ran from the final pillar on her colonnade to the handle of a massive Roman sarcophagus."

Given all these layers and fragments of history, the memories of war, of inter-religious and inter-ethnic strife always lurk just below the surface. In Bsharre, Lebanon, a younger member of a powerful clan of Maronite Christians recalls the country’s descent into chaos in 1975: “I was studying to be an architect…Then suddenly this strange mentality developed: everything became polarized into Christian versus Muslim. All my life I had never asked anyone whether he was a Christian or not. Then quite suddenly you had to give up half your life: half your friends, half the places you knew…It was amazing to see how the hysteria evolved.”

I suppose I should hardly have expected it, but Dalrymple has no sympathy to spare for Israel (his second to last stop). Dalrymple is a lover of things past and ways that change as little as possible while Israelis are passionately, intensely attached to the here-and-now and to the future and tend to seize both with unstoppable energy. So it's probably not surprising that he decries Israelis for turning their land into "an American suburb" and cruelly mocks a young Jewish immigrant for her enthusiasm and Canadian accent.

Still, on balance, this a fascinating book and—in light of the latest violence engulfing the Christian communities of Egypt, Syria and Iraq—a valuable record that's sometimes eerily prescient. Standing in the Egyptian desert near the Coptic necropolis of Bagawat, Dalrymple writes, "Darkness was drawing in, and behind me at the top of the hill a chill wind was howling through the tombs."

Twenty years is a very long time in the world of Middle East politics, so I’ll add a couple of links here and in the comments section to useful updates. This book landed on my priority reading list because of an article in Hadassah Magazine about the current threat to Middle Eastern Christian communities and to their holy places. http://www.hadassahmagazine.org/2014/...

Here are two updates from William Dalrymple, writing for The Guardian in 2014 and 2012:



Profile Image for Shovelmonkey1.
353 reviews875 followers
February 3, 2012
Travel is a good thing to do. It broadens your horizons, lets you see all manner of crazy things and frequently allows you to get a tan and wear outlandish clothing which you would under no circumstances wear at home in the midst of your own community ever. The wearing of odd garb and putting together your own eclectic holiday wardrobe is a bit like wearing a disguise. You can meet new people and because of your clothes you can be all "hell yeah, look how alternative/cool/zany/ in-touch-with-the-local-culture I am!!!" This is an easy way to attract new friends and re-invent yourself from the tired grey office-dwelling prole that you normally are in real life.

The seeing and doing of crazy goings on is also a great boon allowing the collection of endless new water-cooler world-savvy anecdotes in preparation for when you shed your shalwar, fez and sherpa saddle bag and return to the tired grey office.

Of course gallumphing around the globe was not always about inadvisable outfits, wine in straw carafes and fake fendi bags. The original holy day travellers were pilgrims, seekers and seers with a much more high minded agenda and their destinations were less Club 18-30 and more 183AD.

In From the Holy Mountain Dalrymple follows the path of the pilgrim John Moschus (ὁ ἐγκρατής The Abstemious) who journeyed from his home in Greece in the 6th Century in order to meet various ascetics and monks in monasteries and cave sites in the Levantine corridor. William Dalrymple follows the path taken by John Moschus, stopping at the same sites and monasteries in order to examine the fate of christianity in the Middle East today. He highlights the fact that, following the creation of Israel, and with the ascendance of Islam as a world religion, people tend to forget that Christianity also began in the Middle East. What he finds are denuded monasteries and small communities hanging by a thread in an environment where they are now very definately in the minority.

This is very different to Moschus' own experience. In his hagiographical text The Spiritual Meadow (sometimes mistranslated as the Spiritual Garden), he provided a detailed insight into the lives and practises of pilgrims, monks, monasteries and hermits living lives of austerity and simplicity which are almost unimaginable now. The two stories are woven together with some skill and William Dalrymple is an excellent and engaging travel writer with an eye for the unusual - perhaps even John Moschus would have found him to be a worthy travelling companion?

Profile Image for Mark.
393 reviews307 followers
April 14, 2012
This was a book which came to me from two totally disconnected directions; a recommendation from Shovelmonkey but then almost on the back of her gentle nudge I was given a sharp kick in the pants by the bookshelf elf who is evidently steering my reading habits when this was also given to me quite independently as a good book to read in preparation for my, then, upcoming visit to the Holy Land by a priest friend of mine.

In the event, though I began it before heading Middle-east-side, I did not complete it until this morning. It has accompanied my breakfasting and thus has sometimes assisted the digestion but sometimes made quite a lot of stuff hard to swallow. It is the excellently readable account of Dalyrymple following in the footsteps of a Seventh Century monk called John Moschos. Moschos wrote a book of these travels called 'The Spiritual Meadow' and though this book might not, from the sound of it, wholeheartedly appeal to modern minds, even those of believers, Dalrymple uses it as the guiding rope which he holds to keep him on the safeish path as he picks his way through the minefield that it the modern Middle East.

His account ranges across the Golden Age of Christianity in the Middle East through its swiping by the Persians and then its fairly riotous rout by the rise of Islam right up to the historical confusions, pains and disasters of the present day. No stone is left unturned in his wanderings and it is interesting how many of these stones, once turned, reveal that they are not common or ordinary pebbles but cornices or pieces from some long forgotten palace or Church or somesuch wonder. This countryside, if such awards were given, would get the Gold medal for recycling as he discovered ancient pillars and architraves being piled up on top of each other to act as sheepfolds. This I found amazing though it was not a lone example as he told stories of monks using ancient and precious rolls of parchment as bottle stops and of how he found himself, whilst searching out the site of the ancient city of Oxyrhyncus....and for the record, I want to live there cos it knocks Poole of Dorset as an address into a cocked hat..., wading across piles of shattered and crushed ancient pottery and jars.

'Pulling at an amphora handle jutting out of the ground, I broke a Byzantine pot, and its contents, a pile of chaff winnowed perhaps whilst Justinian still ruled the Empire, floated away in the winter breeze'

I loved this sense of continuing history which he captured. The fact that you were looking at vistas and images that had been gazed upon by people from long ago, these people held wildly different views from mine and yet in the collected papyri from this ancient site the same worries of recalcitrant children or job insecurity or political dubious deals still held sway.

Moschos described the religion of the 7th Century with its cascade of odd and eccentric holymen but Dalrymple as he made his way from monastic community to monastic community or spoke to the different communities of nationalities that peppered the area, certainly encountered his fair share of.....hmmm how shall i put this.....unique and interestingly opinioned individuals?...yes that will do. One will be good to be going along with. The rampantly insane, as far as I can see, Fr Theophanes who is a former greek policeman from Athens but now a monk at Mar Saba who lives in great hate and loathing of the Freemasons who Dalrymple had mentioned as just organizing whist drives. This was as a red rag to a particularly tetchy bull:

'Wheest drives?' said Fr Theophanes, pronouncing the word as if it were some sort of Satanic ritual. 'Probably this wheest drive also but their main activity is to worship the Devil. there are many steps but the last, the final step is to meet with the Devil and have homosexual relations with him. After this he makes you Pope or sometimes President of the United States'.

This man was not, you understand, the norm but was a big enough character to make me ckoke over my museli on a number of occasions. Dalrymple writes with great animation and, of course, no doubt with some exageration but his genuine fondness for people and his ability to endear himself even to the Roman Catholic hating Fr Theophanes means that his accounts are never dull and the atmosphere he creates in his writing makes you feel the dryness of the desert air and feel the chill of the ice cold monastic cells.

His descriptive writing could be sublimely lovely but I also loved his simple word paintings which did the deed just as much. Describing a late antique mausoleum

'It had a six-sided pyramidal roof and its stone was of a wonderfully rich colour, like the crust on Cornish clotted cream'

i loved the setting one alongside the other. His is a lovely and easy style of writing which belies a genuine love of exploration and discovery and it enables armchair travellers like myself to imagine and walk with him.

His was a great book to challenge preconceptions one of which is the Western tendency to look upon Islam as somehow alien and Christianity to be nice and cosy. His point, well made through numerous examples, is the way in which Islam grew from the foundations of Middle eastern Christianity

'For the former grew directly out of the latter and still, to this day, embodies many aspects and practices of the early Christian world now lost in Christianity's modern Western incarnation '

He explores the development of ornament and decoration and imagery in religion and shows how influence and counter-influence ebbs and flows across not just the area he was specifically exploring but also the way it flowed to affect and transform the monastic art and liturgy of the celts and the picts and the ikonography of Eastern Europe and how in turn other touches from the Middle east may have had hidden but deeply significant influence on the whole movement of the Renaissance.

He encountered ancient languages still being used in ancient liturgies which, which like the papyri already mentioned, served to make him and his reader aware of that marvelous interconnectedness of civilizations seemingly aeons apart but echoing back and forth across those centuries. I loved the way this book kept pulling me up and made me gaze at something so real and living that i had to think again about my own sense of history and when ancient influences can truly be said to have withered. He kept coming into contact with the ancient not as something in a glass case to be admired and adored, static and unchanging but as something breathing and moving which still held power to unnerve and inspire.

He describes the vicious history of claim and counterclaim, he interviews those who have and are still being horrendously oppressed and he mourns the fact that much culture and the wonder of the interweaving communitites who so often lived side by side in peace are now being riven by artificial or unnecessary hates. I do not want to go into any great analysis of this vicious cruelty but just to say he seems to write a balanced reflection on the present situation. One example, the percentage of Christians in the Middle East has crashed through the floor in the last few decades and, from his travels and conversations I would not hold out hope for any real resurgence. This is a tragedy for the families who are losing their sense of belonging but also perhaps a tragedy for the wider world where we have a tendency to think of the Middle east as being a place of turmoil and violence and intolerance; the haemorrhage of the long established communities flooding from resurgent prejudice from wherever it stems serves to exacerbate this false view Dalrymple seems to be implying. He has a great line which came about halfway through the book and to which i clung like a shipwrecked loser when I began to get all depressed and down about the hopelessness of it all

'In the Middle East, the reality of continuity has always been masked by a surface impression of cataclysm'

Not sure if it is totally reassuring but it does undeline what i took from this splendid book, that this wonderful area, enriched by so much history and beauty and courage and character will not be able to be destroyed by the acts of brutes and tyrants. Around every corner, ruins and shrines and communitites speak of a deep vein of history which pulses and burbles along and though sometimes it might seem to flag and stumble there is always a renewal and a reinvigoration.

This book was witty and amusing in his asides and encounters with the characters of his travels, it was challenging and unnerving in its ability to bring the past right in front of me as I delved into my muesli bowl, tragic and shocking in its accounts of the past brutality but actually much more by the uptodate intolerance, injustice and violence that still is very much alive and active but most of all it was one of those books that made me yearn to go to those places and breathe that air.

Journeying to the Holy Land back in mid-March I encountered only a small part of the wonder that is this part of the world. Maybe I will get to explore more another day but even if i don't the fact that there are books like this and writers like William Dalrymple is a great comfort. A really goodread.
3 reviews9 followers
June 17, 2010
I think this book is very informative for Westerns who thinks everyone from Middle East is Usama bin Laden however it is very biased on Christianity. It is true that Christians in Middle East do suffer a lot (perhaps as a result of what Christians in the West are doing). However, I didn't enjoy taking this book with me during my tour around the Middle East because in a travel book I don't think every paragraph shouldn't be about how much do the Christians suffer. It should include the culture, especially if we are talking about one of the most hospitable and rich in culture places on earth. It might be a good theology book but not very focused on the diverse culture of Middle East. Even if we consider that this is a travel book only based on the areas that Christians live, it is so much focused on the negative things that I barely get any information about the cultures and habits of Christians that live there but just the pain.
Profile Image for Lee Prescott.
Author 1 book143 followers
April 11, 2021
This is a superb book. I found it more of an illuminating history of the middle east through Byzantine and contemporary(ish - it was published in 1997) christians' eyes rather than traditional travelogue. But no matter - Dalrymple more than covers for that in how he unfolds the historical context of the places he visits and his portrayal of how the communities there have reached their plight. The contemporary context of the region is all the sadder after reading this book.
I will be looking at books on the history of Byzantium, the Sassanids, Persians, Maronites, Armenians on the basis of the content of this book.
Profile Image for Justin Evans.
1,525 reviews798 followers
January 17, 2019
As good as advertised, and perhaps even more so twenty years after publication, given all that has happened in the meantime. If you're not inclined to sadness over lost traditions, you probably won't care, but I almost cried when the Taliban blew up the Bamiyan Buddha, and I have literally no social or cultural connection to Buddhism whatsoever, so I was basically free for the taking on this one.
Profile Image for Bettie.
9,989 reviews14 followers
November 23, 2014
Hana has done some fab research into things. Her review here

'Mor Gabriel is an ancient Syrian Orthodox monastery in Southeastern Turkey, founded in 397 AD on the ruins of a Zoroastrian temple. When Dalrymple visited in 1994 the monastery was already under siege. In 2008 Erdogan's government attempted to seize the monastery and its farmland on the pretext that the monks were "occupiers" who had built the monastery on top of a mosque--an especially strange claim since the monastery predates both the Turks and Islam.

International pressure and a lawsuit filed with the European Court of Human Rights has won an apparent partial victory. How much daily threats will abate for the monks is still an open question.'
Article here

Fab work Hana. I love the readers on this site - love 'em, I tellee.
Profile Image for Jami Patrick.
6 reviews1 follower
May 17, 2007
The idea of this book was great - explore what was Byzantium and see what has become of the Christian heritage. However, I found the author a bit off in his descriptions. I live in Turkey, and although I am a foreigner here, I have never seen evidence of the persecution he mentions. I also felt like he was very intolerant of Islam: he describes his praying driver as "bobbing up and down", or something like that. In the end, I only read the sections on Turkey and Lebanon, the two countries I was interested in learning more about.
Profile Image for Martin.
Author 7 books19 followers
April 26, 2007
The most engrossing and moving travel essay I've ever read. Once you read this, you'll want to read everything else Dalrymple has written.
Profile Image for Elena Sala.
470 reviews78 followers
April 19, 2021
In 587 A.D., Friar John Moschos and Sophronius, a young student, trekked across the Middle East, collecting precious relics and manuscripts from monasteries. They traveled from the shores of the Bosphorus to Egypt and stayed in caves, monasteries and remote hermitages and wrote about the wisdom of the stylites and the desert sages. This world was already in decay as John Moschos and Sophronius traveled around, even before the emergence of Islam.

FROM THE HOLY MOUNTAIN. A JOURNEY AMONG THE CHRISTIANS OF THE MIDDLE EAST (1997) is William Dalrymple's travelogue as he retraces John Moschos' steps. He takes us on a engrossing historical journey through regions then (and now) torn by civil wars and controlled by militant Islamism, where Christian communities are on the brink of extinction. Again and again, Dalrymple reminds us that Christianity is really an eastern religion, rooted in the intellectual ferment of the Middle East, and that for centuries Orthodox Christianity and Islam coexisted peacefully.

Dalrymple allows us a glimpse of the Byzantine world as he visits monasteries and hermitages, interviews priests, hermits, scholars, survivors of massacres and journalists. He writes about cathedrals renovated into mosques or given other rather unholy uses. In Turkey he was denied entrance to a very important basilica because there was a beauty contest going on inside. Dalrymple also discusses the Armenian genocide and the Turkish government’s policy of erasing the Armenian archaeological record. When visiting Diyarbakir, in Turkey, once one of the largest Armenian communities in Anatolia, he notes that only one church remains. This shows the degree to which the Armenians have been erased from even the physical Turkish landscape. And, of course, he also writes about the stylites - those hermits who spent their lives on top of a tall pillar, believed to act as intermediaries with heaven.

Dalrymple's prose is erudite, witty, very accessible and entertaining. His book is like a sincere and warm elegy, an attempt to preserve a shred of memory of the last generation of harassed Orthodox Christians in the Middle East.
Profile Image for Carmen.
167 reviews9 followers
July 29, 2013
Good descriptions, excellent narration, terrible explanation of facts. Partial, antijewish, antiwestern, clearly pro muslim, his explanation of the Lebanon War is a prodigy of inaccuracy and bigotry. Full of clichés, such as "islamist extremism is in a good deal the result of Western humiliation of Islam" or "Islam was tolerant with jews and christians". Well, that doesn't seem to explain where did the MILLIONS of christians and jews that inhabited the Middle East go, does it? Was Islam so wonderful that they converted massively? I don't think so.
Big disappointment. Recommend reading "Understanding Dhimmitude", by Bat Ye'or, instead, for instance.
Profile Image for Dhanaraj Rajan.
448 reviews304 followers
October 28, 2019
Four and Half Stars.

I am not sure how to express my feelings. I certainly can not say I enjoyed reading this book. For it narrates the plight of the Christians of the Middle East. It is a travelogue. The author travels in the same route that was taken by two monks in the 6th century. The two monks were John Moschos and his companion Sophronius. They started their journey on foot from their monastery in Palestine the crisscrossing the Christian Byzantium visiting various monasteries on their way. The intention was to collect the great sayings of the desert fathers. John Moscos accomplished this in the form of a book of memoirs titled The Spiritual Meadow of John Moschos. John Moschos had undertaken the journey to escape the continuous threats to the monasteries by the Persian, Arab and Muslim attacks. It was clearly he time when Islam was gaining power and Christianity was losing its hold in the Byzantium (Middle East).

Wlliam Dalrymple undertaking a similar passage in the 20th century fears rightly that if John Moschos had seen the beginning of the end of Christian Byzantium, then Dalrymple's travel revealed to him the end of the beginnings.

The travels crisscross the Byzantine Levant. Dalrymple has wonderfully divided the book into six sections coinciding with travels in six countries in the present day political scenario. He begins the travel in Greece. From there goes to Turkey, to Syria, to Lebanon, to Palestine/Israel and ends in Egypt.

The narration wears different colours depending on the different terrains. It reads like an adventure story in some places, in other places it reads like a great escapade, yet in other places it reads like a real travelogue writing depicting the pleasant surprises.

The main thrust however is the presence of Christians in these places. It was the thriving Christian Empire once. The region was filled with monasteries and churches. The deserts were populated by hermits and monks. But as the author made his journey in the 20th century, the situation had turned totally different. The Christians are reduced to a minority and in many places suffer great discrimination. There is a great migration of Christians from the Middle East. In many of the places where Christianity once thrived (eg. Alexandria), the author hints that in another fifty years there will be no presence of Christians. And certain governments (Eg. Turkey and Israel) are systematic in razing down the Christian monuments (Churches, Monasteries and even graveyards) revealing their intention to wipe the slate clean of any Christian presence.

The interviews that the author conducted with the Christians in these regions are mostly spiritually nourishing. There is a woman (Palestinian Christian) who had lost everything and lives as a refugee in Lebanon, who says that God still protected her. She never slackened in her faith. She also utters that it is the Christian duty to forgive one's enemies. There is a monk in St. Anthony's (Egypt) who theologizes the Christian suffering by a single statement ('What is Christianity without the Cross?').

There are also interesting passages where the Muslims were more helpful for the Christians (Lebanon) than the Christians themselves. There are places where all people belonging to different faiths gather together to worship depicting the tolerance and peaceful coexistence of many religions. Christians in Middle East find it difficult to understand why Christians in the West hardly come to their aid. Reading those passages hit me hard (I am not from the West. But the fact that Christians could turn a blind eye to their own brothers in the East is a solid fact to digest easily for any good Christian).

A real good book. May not be a serious research. But it is more of a history from the ground. People speak and you hear. And it is hard hitting.

More than ten years have passed since the publication of the book. But I wonder whether the situation has changed. In fact, I worry that it has only worsened in some places (Syria and Lebanon).

Why is it so? Can God truly allow such things for His faithful?
Answer: He alone knows. Let us trust Him. Let us keep trusting Him.
Profile Image for Shweta Kumar.
Author 12 books123 followers
February 11, 2014
Much as I love William Dalrymple's writing and his books, this took me a rather long time to get through. The book is about the writer following an ancient Byzantine Monk, John Moschos footsteps as outlined in his book, the Spiritual Meadow, written around 1,500 years ago.

While the book aims to talk about the similarities between Islam and Christianity - in terms of their origin in the East and their syncretic practises and also the crisis Christianity now faces in its region of origin, it ends up falling off the path as Dalrymple starts to wax forth and in great detail about every monument, ruin or pottery scrap he comes across.

While I love a good non-fiction read in the travel/historical/Archaeological genre, this one had too many words that would only be familiar to an architecture student, and perhaps only a student of ancient architecture would truly understand.

I read it for his usual stellar descriptions of the lands he passed through and the sights he saw.
Though there was not enough to whet my appetite.
Profile Image for Sagheer Afzal.
Author 1 book47 followers
April 2, 2015
Not as was advertised. The references about the two monks and their observations are few and far between. And the rest just doesn't really bring anything new to the table. Despite Dalrymple insights and observation; it all seems quite pedestrian.
Profile Image for Wanda.
629 reviews
March 21, 2015
7 MAR 2015 - This book comes very highly recommended by Dear Bettie. A five-star review from hergoodself.

I received a coupon from Barnes & Noble via email. I used the coupon to order this book. I have waited a very long time to read this book (since 2013). Now, I have only to wait 3 days and victory will be mine! I am very excited! Thank you Barnes & Noble.

10 MAR 2015 - my copy is scheduled to be delivered today. HUZZAH! I am very excited.

21 MAR 2015 -- Exquisite! I loved reading this book. I will be reading more by Mr Dalrymple.
Profile Image for Fee.
173 reviews3 followers
January 13, 2016
This book was lent to me as highly recommended, but I am not sure that I really liked it.

On one hand, I enjoyed reading about the Byzantine region/Holy Lands' history in juxtaposition with modern-day political and cultural affairs. On the other hand, the author assumes the reader has a level of prior knowledge - which I did not, so I frequently glazed over and lost focus.

For me, the writing style oscillated between engagingly personal and downright textbook boring. A major let-down.

I have another book by this author, should I read it, I wonder?
Profile Image for Bronwyn.
Author 13 books53 followers
May 18, 2013
This was recommended to me as a great read.
For me, it didn't reach those heights. Interesting, yes, but I found I had to work at completing it.
Perhaps because I already knew a lot of the history, and in part because I was often concerned that the Author didn't seem to consider the feelings of some of the people he met and relied on for his journey and knowledge.
Profile Image for Mark.
1,325 reviews65 followers
January 31, 2020
Here is travel book from the end of the last century by a writer who is clearly knowledgeable on the matter of early Christian religions in the Levant (The Levant (Arabic: شَام‎, Shām, English /ləˈvænt/) is an approximate historical geographical term referring to a large area in the Eastern Mediterranean region of Western Asia. In its narrowest sense, it is equivalent to the historical region of Syria, which included present-day Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel and Palestine. In its widest historical sense, the Levant included all of the Eastern Mediterranean with its islands; that is, it included all of the countries along the Eastern Mediterranean shores, extending from Greece to Cyrenaica in eastern Libya.)
The writer has based his travels on the writings from a sixth century Byzantium monk John Moschos' Spirtual Meadows. So William Dalrymple starts on a Holy Island In Greece and then travels to Istanbul, Anatolia, Syria, Libanon, Israel and ending his voyage in a Coptic monastery in Egypt.
While the writers seeks for the Byzantium and Christian past on his travels he is very observant in his views upon the society and its direction in the places he visits and he encounters everywhere fundamentalism that seems to rewrite the history of the region. And he also shines a light upon the experiences of religious people that live on the path he travels.
It is an eye-opening tale that also informs you about the politics of the region and somehow it feels like not so much has changed only everything is close to 25 years later but nothing changed only the early Christian religions seem to disappear from the regio as well as most physical evidence from the past
The writer actually manages to explain in depth quite a lot of recent troubles in the middle east and quite some interesting facts about how some came about.

A truly interesting and eye opener of a travel-book, I have not read any so absorbing and well informed view on a region that is most likely to cause us trouble in the near future.

Very well written and very informative about a region, its history and religion, it is not a dated book but an interesting book that does explain quite decently some of its problems.

Well advised and a book that remains interesting with good anecdotes and history insights.
Profile Image for Steve Walker.
284 reviews114 followers
January 16, 2018
A brief mention of the classic "Spiritual Meadows", itself a collection of saying from 7th Century Monks in the Middle East, in Sir Steven Runciman's "History of the Crusades" leads William Dalrymple to replicate
the journey, taken long ago, in the late 20th century. This is the story of that journey and of the story of the decline of the native Christian population of the Holy Lands.
The only other book on this topic that comes close to being this well written is "The Body and the Blood" by Charles Sennott. Dalrymple,and justifiably so, has inherited the mantle worn by the late Sir Steven Runciman and the recently deceased Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor. I read this book every year. I can't say enough good things about it.
Profile Image for Nick.
409 reviews6 followers
April 4, 2018
Dalrymple began his journey from Mount Athos in northern Greece and travelled through Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Israel and Egypt. The main reason for his travels was to visit monasteries along the way, which were founded in the late antique and early Byzantine period. He blends travel, history and politics. He reminds us that Christianity is an oriental, eastern religion, something that westerners tend to forget.

Dalrymple undertook his travels in the mid-1990’s and records a rising anti-Christian sentiment coupled with increasing Islamic extremism in parts of the areas he travelled through. Over twenty years later, travel is off-limits in so many of the countires he visited. This is highly recommended.
Profile Image for Jonfaith.
1,855 reviews1,370 followers
May 20, 2013
Very promising beginning which soon detoured into ruminations on geopolitics and along the way found it self stretched in the muddy fields of scripture and doctrine. The geopolitics appears dated, of course, which is no one's fault. The scripture and doctrine appear methodical, which I regard as alarming.

If it wasn't for the encounter with Robert Fisk I would've aborted the book while it was in Lebanon. It is a revealing view into the incestuous proximity between Islam and Christianity, even if the lengths explored lapse into Rorystewartism. That said, a neutral can appreciate the symbiosis of these desert faiths.
Profile Image for Joe Rodeck.
781 reviews1 follower
May 22, 2019
I put it down. Good style but drags too much. ** for unfinished.
Profile Image for Gordon Wilson.
69 reviews1 follower
April 18, 2022
What can I say that hasn’t been said before?
Brilliant, just brilliant.
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