Chronicling the “Last Ebbing Twilight of Byzantium”

William Dalrymple’s 1997 travelogue From the Holy Mountain is an excellent place to start for Westerners seeking to understand the devastating decline of Christianity in the Middle East.

The historian William Dalrymple is Britain’s most famous living travel writer. He is also a member of the Dalrymple clan, a celebrated Scottish family of three principal branches. William’s branch became Roman Catholic in the 19th century, and in the 20th both his Uncle John (“Old Jock”) and his brother John (“Young Jock”) were ordained Roman Catholic priests. Today “Young” Father Jock Dalrymple is the pastor of a parish church in Edinburgh.

It is not surprising, then, that William Dalrymple, whose attentions were previously focused on—and would subsequently be subsumed by—India, would become so entranced by the memoir of a sixth-century Christian saint that he undertook to follow his travels throughout the Middle East. St. John Moschos (550-619) visited several far-flung monasteries, fleeing from devastating Persian attacks, before writing his hagiographical The Spiritual Meadow. William Dalrymple’s journey comprised two short visits and the period stretching from June to December of 1994. The result was the modern classic From the Holy Mountain (1997), Dalrymple’s witness, not only to the survival (or loss) of places visited by Moschos, but to the plight of Christians in the Middle East. While the book is now nearly 20 years old, its significance has only grown as the situation of Middle Eastern Christians has worsened over the years.

Dalrymple writes, “What attracted me to The Spiritual Meadow in the first place was the idea that Moschos and [his companion] Sophronius were witnessing the first act in a process whose dénouement was taking place only now: that the first onslaught on the Christian East observed by the two monks was now being completed by Christianity’s devastating decline in the land of its birth. The ever-accelerating exodus of the last Christians from the Middle East today meant that The Spiritual Meadow could be read less as a dead history book than as the prologue to an unfolding tragedy whose final chapter is still being written.”

This is a tragedy that has gone unread by the great majority of Western Christians, whose first instruction may have come with the recent violent expulsion of Iraqi Christians from their native Mosul—a city we may know better as Nineveh—by Islamic militants. And Western Christian ignorance of the precarious position of millions of Middle Eastern Christians has arguably led to their current persecution and displacement; for example, indigenous Christians are made scapegoats for American foreign policy in the Middle East.  All the more reason for Western Christians to read as much as they can about the history of Christians of the Eastern Mediterranean. 

From the Holy Mountain would be an excellent place to start. Part true-life adventure story, part history book, part folkloristic, the volume records Dalrymple’s travels from Scotland to Mount Athos (the holy mountain of the title) to Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, the West Bank, and Egypt. Along the way Dalrymple speaks with a cast of characters ranging from a nonagenarian British don in the Scottish Borders to Coptic monks in the desert abbey of Deir ul-Muharraq. Among others he meets kindly monks, bigoted monks, and frightened, persecuted monks; elderly eye-witnesses to the genocide of Armenians in Turkey; the Syrian Christian Metropolitan of Aleppo; an eccentric English war reporter; a Druze warlord; a titled Lebanese Christian widow; self-righteous Israeli settlers from North America; Palestinian Christians who buy tickets to visit their ruined village, now a historical site of dubious Israeli importance; nostalgic Alexandrine Greeks; and petrified Egyptian Copts. The book bubbles with dialogue, thanks to Dalrymple’s copious note-taking and the police and soldiers who neglected to confiscate his notebooks.

The book is given added heft—quite literally, as the paperback edition tips the scales at 483 pages—by both Dalrymple’s physical descriptions of the people and places he visits and his historic, literary, and artistic research. His colorful word-paintings are never saccharine and his research is never dry. Indeed, a subtle humor permeates the book, particularly when Dalrymple finds his monastic hosts’ obsessions and anachronisms overwhelmingly strange. In rural Syria, the traveler asks a nun about an “unexpected photograph which was framed on the wall beside [his] table”:

“These are our Syrian cosmonauts,” she said, pointing to a picture of three men in space suits clutching their helmets under their arms rather as stage ghosts hold their heads. “They spent a month together on the Soviet space station Mir.”

“But why is the picture here?” I asked.

“It was given to us by the cosmonauts after they returned to Syria.”

“They came here?”

“Of course. All three are Muslims, but they visited Seidnaya before they went, to pray for good luck. As soon as they had returned safely they came here again.”

“To tell the nuns about their adventures?”

“No, no,” said Sister Thecla, looking at me as one might at a rather dim ten-year-old. “They came to thank the Virgin and give us presents: this picture and a sheep.”

“A sheep?”

“A sheep.”

“As…as a pet?”

“No, no,” said Sister Thecla, frowning again. The cosmonauts came here to cut the sheep’s throat, of course.” She gave me another withering look. “It was a sacrifice to the Virgin,” she said, “to thank her for their safe return from outer space.”

Dalrymple makes no secret of his delight in such examples of religious syncretism—which may partly explain his attraction to India—and belief that such religious syncretism is (or was) a sign of healthy coexistence in places like Syria. His section on Syria—which he visited in 1994, remember—is perhaps the most poignant part of the book now that what the otherwise confident Christian Syrians dreaded then—that a weakening of the Assad regime would mean trouble for them—has come bloodily to pass. But the willingness of Muslims in the Middle East to worship at Christian holy places (then) is one of the most delightful surprises in the book.

Less delightful is the news that Christians in the Middle East have not always been the good guys. In Lebanon, not only did Maronite Christian warlords battle the now-majority Muslims, they slaughtered Christian Palestinian refugees and each other. One Christian Palestinian survivor tells Dalrymple that the Christian Phalangists made her ashamed to be a Christian: “The Muslims were much kinder to us. I hated myself for being a Christian when I saw the kindness they showed us.”

And another prick to Western Christian consciences may be the sentiment, repeated from Turkey to Egypt, that Western Christians simply don’t care what happens to the Christians of the Middle East. In explaining why the Copts (then) remained reluctant to complain about (then) acceptable levels of persecution in Egypt, an elderly Copt tells Dalrymple, “To shout out our complaints will do us no good. The Christians in Europe will not help. Nor will the Americans. There is no one to help us. So we keep quiet. We have no option but to get on as best we can.”

William Dalrymple wanted to do what he thought no future generation of travelers would be able to do: “to see wherever possible what Moschos and Sophronius had seen, to sleep in the same monasteries, to pray under the same frescoes and mosaics, to discover what was left, and to witness what was in effect that last ebbing twilight of Byzantium.” Unfortunately, it seems Dalrymple was right that he would be the last. For example, the fourth century Coptic Monastery of Deir ul-Muharraq, the last inhabited monastery Dalrymple visits on his journey, was set on fire by Islamic militants in 2013.

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About Dorothy Cummings McLean 26 Articles
Dorothy Cummings McLean is a Canadian writer living abroad. Her first novel with Ignatius Press is Ceremony of Innocence. She is a regular writer for Her first book, Seraphic Singles: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Single Life, is a popular work of nonfiction.