12 May 2018

In the footsteps of Saint John Moskhos

Mount Athos

I recently finished reading William Dalrymple’s book From the Holy Mountain, his 1994 religious-historical travelogue through the Eastern Mediterranean. It’s been a stunning – and by no means an easy – read, but it is one I would highly recommend to anyone (particularly us Americans, who are in general thunderously ignorant of these things) who seeks to understand historical Christianity in its formative years, or the fate of that same historical Christianity in the context of modern political conflicts in the Middle East.

As an observer, Dalrymple alternates between an unfeigned sympathy for the communities he visits, and a bleak and uniquely-British gallows humour. He comes off, surprisingly for a British man of his education, as an observant Latin Catholic. He prays at several points for his safety on the journey, for obvious and understandable reasons, and treats the inspirer of his journey, Saint Ioannes Moskhos, with a reverence that I suspect is completely unfeigned. He is deeply affected by his time spent in monasteries; and he comes away from the desert sketes with a feeling – familiar to anyone who has read Archimandrite Tikhon (Shevkunov)’s Everyday Saints – that only the monastic world is real, and that the sæcular life is blind, spiritually-dead, headed for perdition. At the same time, when in that same sæcular life, Dalrymple is capable of some remarkable cheek. Much of the time, he simply stands back from his narrative and allows the antinomies and absurdities of Middle Eastern life to speak for themselves. But then, he’s also perfectly happy to poke outright fun at the hyper-religiosity of some of our Orthodox monastic figures, speculate on the syncretic roots of iconography, on the worldly temptations of monks, on the riotous life in cities which are now held up as paragons of Christian spirituality, and on the salacious sex lives of historical figures like Empress Theodōra. These two attitudes sit together a bit uneasily, but this dual approach seems to match his subject matter perfectly.

But his main focus, and the major draw of this book, is the fate of Middle Eastern Christendom. Although he went on this journalistic-historical-spiritual pilgrimage for the sake of describing and drawing attention to their plight, and although he expected to find a uniform oppression being carried out along sectarian lines, the situation he encountered as he journeyed from Mount Athos into the lawless deserts of Upper Ægypt was far more complex. As he sums it up at the end of his journey, writing from Asyut in the bleak and desolate uplands of Ægypt:
The problems faced by the Christians right across the Middle East had proved surprisingly diverse. When I began this journey I had expected that Islamic fundamentalism would prove to be the Christians’ main enemy in every country I visited. But it had turned out to be more complicated than that.

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. Here it was their ethnicity as much as their religion which counted against the Christians: they were not Kurds and not Turks, therefore they did not fit in. 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 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. However, unlike most of the Muslims, they were educated professionals and found it relatively easy to emigrate, which they did, en masse. Very few were now left. 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.

But if the pattern of Christian suffering was more complex than I could possibly have guessed at the beginning of this journey, it was also more desperate. In Turkey and Palestine, the extinction of the descendants of John Moschos’s Byzantine Christians seemed imminent; at current emigration rates, it was unlikely that either community would still be in existence in twenty years. In Lebanon and Egypt the sheer number of Christians ensured a longer presence, albeit with ever-decreasing influence. Only in Syria had I seen the Christian population looking happy and confident, and even their future looked decidedly uncertain, with most expecting a major backlash as soon as Asad’s repressive minority regime began to crumble.
Of course, there is far more in this book than merely an elegy for a group of religious and ethnic minorities that is disappearing from the Middle East. Art and architecture, iconography and literature feature prominently in this travelogue; with descriptions of the monasteries, ruins and other manmade landmarks he visits featuring prominently. Dalrymple seems also to have a marked interest in the historical parallels and connexions between his own native Scotland and the tradition of mediæval Celtic Christianity, and the various literary and artistic deposits that came thence from the places he visited. He dwells on the possible routes by which Scriptural fragments, eremitical practices and iconographic tropes which survived in the Christian West only in the remote areas of Ireland and Scotland, might have arrived from the Greece or the Levant or the Ægypt of Late Antiquity. These digressions are frankly fascinating and informative, even if they have a slight whiff of the chauvinistic about them.

And he observes with his usual wry wit and occasional foxhole humour the patterns of life in the modern Middle East circa 1994: whether it’s the everyday paranoia of the Kurds in Turkey; the complexity of the state’s relationship with populace in Syria; the dystopian juxtaposition of anarchic dog-eat-dog everything-for-sale gangster capitalism with pressure-cooker sectarian hatreds in Lebanon; the stark œconomic and social segregationism that separates rich Israeli settlers from dirt-poor dispossessed Palestinians; or the stark, silent fear that stalks the Copts in Ægypt even as they deny any breath of a problem with their Muslim neighbours, and beg Dalrymple not to mention their actual names in print once they talk of their troubles.

I am surprised, in fact, at how many high-profile interviews Dalrymple was able to produce. I mentioned in my previous blog post how he spoke with the (now-kidnapped) Metropolitan Gregorios Yohanna Ibrahim (may God swiftly deliver him from his captivity!). However, he also got the chance to talk with ex-President of Ægypt, Hosni Mubarak; Likud politician Ron Nachman; and veteran Middle East reporter Robert Fisk (for whom my respect, incidentally, has grown exponentially in reading this book – even as he is being discredited in the present-day press for going off-script on Syria). But it’s not his interviews with the great and the powerful that have the greatest emotional impact or are the most edifying – it’s his interviews with the common people. Cab drivers, monks, stringers, parish priests, ancient peasants, gang leaders, refugees, settlers, socialites populate his narrative, and it is through these face-to-face exchanges, in which every word spoken and left unspoken carries its own weight, that his work really shines. By Dalrymple’s account, these kinds of personal anecdotes and encounters are also precisely what lift The Spiritual Meadow head-and-shoulders above its contemporary works of Byzantine devotional literature.

If this book truly is meant to serve as an answer to, and a bookend for, the travelogue of Saint Ioannes Moskhos, then it’s clear which book has to travel to the top of my reading list! But this book stands well enough on its own merits.

Ruins in al-Khârijiyya


  1. If God's hand is in all things (and I believe that it is), the evacuation of Christians from the Middle East and Asia Minor is a puzzle hard to fathom. The apocalyptic overtones of a part of the world which seems so resolutely irreconcilable are truly terrifying.

    1. Sadly I must agree with you, Bud 1. A Middle East without Christians is a Middle East whose character is fundamentally and irrevocably altered for the worse. And I like no better than you do what that portends.