In recent years, considerable attention has been paid to the many, multidimensional conflicts in the Middle East, with a particular focus on the influence of radical Islam. Many are inclined to see a conflict along the fault line between Western and Islamic civilizations, a “clash” that divides East from West. Perhaps this is why some do not know and others have forgotten that Christianity is an eastern religion, firmly rooted in the intellectual ferment of the Middle East. This is important to remember, as the last remaining Christian communities are driven from the region by Islamist groups or misplaced by the ravages of civil war. William Dalrymple’s classic, From the Holy Mountain (1997) provides a detailed and insightful look into this dying culture. It is a timely read as Christians around the world celebrate the Easter Season.
Writing from an austere monastery cell on Mount Athos, Dalrymple tells us in the first chapters that the journey we are about to embark upon will follow in the footsteps of a wandering monk and his student, John Moschos and Sophronius the Sophist. The purpose of their journey across the entire Eastern Byzantine world in the spring of 578 A.D. was to collect the wisdom of the desert fathers, sages, and mystics of the Byzantine East “before their fragile world – already clearly in advanced decay – finally shattered and disappeared.” Fourteen hundred years later, Dalrymple replicates their journey, staying in monasteries, caves, and remote hermitages across the Eastern Mediterranean, collecting anecdotes from the remaining inhabitants of long-forgotten communities. Dalrymple’s book is not a plodding travelogue, nor is it a dry commentary on asceticism or obscure monasticism. With witty and elegant prose, he brings to life the old Byzantine world and its modern incarnation. Dalrymple reminds us, “From the age of Constantine in the early fourth century to the rise of Islam in the early seventh century – the Eastern Mediterranean world was almost entirely Christian.”
In Antioch (now Antakya, Turkey), Dalrymple brings us to the pillars of the stylites, Christian ascetics who lived atop high, unsheltered pillars where they would preach, pray, and fast. Byzantines looked on the stylites as “intermediaries, go-betweens who could transmit their deepest fears and aspirations to the distant court of Heaven, ordinary men from ordinary backgrounds who had, by dint of their heroic asceticism, gained the ear of Christ.” Acknowledging the strangeness of the practice, Dalrymple says, “It is easy to Read more