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Alan RyanWhen William Dalrymple's From the Holy Mountain was first published in hardcover, it was at once greeted as a modern classic of travel writing, as well as the record of a great solo adventure in dangerous territory, a grand work of history, and a marvelously engaging piece of writing. Reissued now in a very handsome paperback edition, it belongs on the shelf -- and the night table -- of anyone with even the remotest interest in remote places.
The subtitle of From the Holy Mountain tells the story: a journey among the Christians of the Middle East. Dalrymple, a British writer, is the author of IN XANADU and two books about travel in India. He was well prepared by study, experience, and inclination for this journey.
But he was not the first to make it. In fact, he was following in the footsteps of a much earlier traveler.
Early in the year 578 A.D., a monk named John Moschos set out -- accompanied only by his friend and pupil, Sophronius the Sophist -- to traverse all of the immense Byzantine world, beginning in what is now modern Turkey, curving around the eastern end of the Mediterranean, passing through cities and regions that even then seemed as fabulous and legendary as they do today, and ending at a desert oasis in what is now modern Egypt.
At the time, this was a largely Christian world, if a severely embattled one, caught in a troubled time of change between the end of the classical period and the imminent rise of Islam.
Moschos's purpose was to visit the Byzantine world's greatest centers of learning and sanctity and to gather the wisdom of its wisest and holiest fathers, however remote their monasteries, hermitages, and libraries might be, and however severe the difficulties of reaching them. He later recorded his impressions of the journey in a book called The Spiritual Meadow of John Moschos
Nearly a millennium and a half later, Dalrymple set off in Moschos's footsteps. For a sense of the remoteness and strangeness of his journey, imagine another writer, 1400 years in the future from now, duplicating Dalrymple's own journey of the late 1900s.
Through Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, through old Silk Route cities and modern police states, through dreamlike landscapes and bombed-out urban ruins, past Bedouin beehive domes sprouting TV antennas and telephone wires, Dalrymple seeks out the remnants of old Christian worship and draws a sharp and sad contrast between the ancient art of serenity and modern violence and chaos.
Strongly visual writing brings these remote settings to vivid life: "I climbed to the citadel and looked down over Urfa. On every side the hills were brown and parched. It was nearly noon, and beyond the town's limits nothing moved except the shimmering heatwaves and, in the distance, a single spiral of wheeling vultures. But the town itself was a riot of greens, reds, and oranges: trees and gardens backing onto flat-topped Turkish houses, with the whole vista broken by the vertical punctuation of a hundred minarets."
And again: "I have always loved the fact that in Syria you can still walk on Roman roads that have not been resurfaced since the time of Diocletian, or stand on castle walls that have not been restored since Saladin stormed them.... In the Baron Hotel you can sleep in sheets that have not been washed since T. E. Lawrence slept there, and even be bitten by the same colonies of bedbugs that once nibbled the great Ataturk."
Dalrymple's humor, obviously, never deserts him, even when, in the midst of his arduous search for surviving Christian communities, he learns that one group he seeks would be more easily located in the London neighborhood of Ealing. "Such," he writes, "are the humiliations of the travel writer in the late 20th 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 a street in London."
The book has an excellent bibliography, a very useful glossary, and plenty of good photos, some in color. Unfortunately -- and this is amazing -- it lacks a map.
It's highly unlikely that any reader will want to duplicate Dalrymple's journey -- or that of John Moschos, either -- so be glad that Dalrymple made the trip and treasure your copy of From the Holy Mountain . You'll probably read it more than once in the years to come.