William Dalrymple’s From the Holy Mountain (1997)
This book made a great impression on me when I read it shortly after it was published. Dalrymple, a Scot, had the wonderful idea of retracing the steps taken in the sixth century by John Moschos, the author of a book about the monks who then flourished in what we now call the Middle East. So he found himself on a journey from Constantinople to the upper Nile that lasted just under six months. In the days of John Moschos the territory formed part of the Byzantine Empire; now it is divided into a number of states in which, as Dalrymple makes all too clear, the position of Christians deteriorated markedly during the twentieth century.
The reasons for this vary, from country to country. In Turkey, Christians suffer because of a civil war between Turks and Kurds; in Lebanon, their attempts to achieve dominance have backfired; in Israel and the Palestinian territories they run into difficulties because they are Arabs, and in Egypt they are victims of Islamic fundamentalism. The multiplicity of factors operating is worth noting. It is impossible to see a common cause behind the decline; in this part of the world reality is always more complex than it initially seems. But a sense of doom pervades Dalrymple’s narrative.
In one area, however, he found optimism. He quotes the words of a Metropolitan: ‘Christians are better off in Syria than anywhere else in the Middle East. Other than Lebanon, this is the only country in the region where a Christian can really feel the equal of a Muslim – and Lebanon, of course, has many other problems. In Syria, there is no enmity between Christian and Muslim. If Syria were not here, we would be finished.’
These words were spoken in Aleppo. The agony of that city in these days makes the situation seem much worse than it did when Dalrymple undertook his travels. It is hard to see a way ahead.