22-Nov-2011

From the Holy Mountain – William Dalrymple


Rating - Read

This was my travel companion for the Turkey trip. As I have probably mentioned before, I like reading books either set in the places I am visiting or those that give a historical context. The book’s subtitle says ‘A journey in the shadow of Byzantium’. While not strictly about Turkey, it still covers a huge swath of land that saw early Eastern Christianity.

Dalrymple sets out to trace the journey of John Moschos in The Spiritual Meadow. Moschos was a Byzantine monk from the late 500s who travelled through Greece, Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel and Egypt, in the process documenting a lot of life back then.

For most of us used to pictures from Western Christianity, this is a fascinating journey. During my last year’s trip to Egypt, the Mediterranean looking Jesus was a bit of a surprise. Despite knowing that Christianity had its origins from thereabouts, actually seeing a non-cherubic baby Jesus is quite an eye-opener. This fascination continued in Turkey as well. Thanks to the book, I also began to notice the subtle features of frescoes that showed the transition from earlier religions to the monotheist Christianity.

Dalrymple traces Moschos’s journey but as can be seen from the list above, most of these are not easy countries to visit. Even in the relatively easy countries, the areas visited are not especially safe. Dalrymple gives a current day context to his travels. More often that not, it is quite depressing to read how current day politics and religious priorities have contributed to the slow decay of oriental Christian sites.

Some of the stories, both current and historical are wonderfully bizarre and provide much entertainment. Where the rituals have survived even now, it is amusing to note how much of oriental superstitions prevail in a religion more famous for western superstitions. Djinns and other such characters are happily believed in and the pope is a central villain for most of the orthodox types (One of them even sincerely urges the Catholic Dalrymple to change before it is too late).


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