Saturday, February 2, 2013
*From the Holy Mountain: A Journey Among the Christians of the Middle East* by William Dalrymple
Taking a break for a bit from U.S. history to read about the early Christians in the Middle East. William Dalrymple is a writer, historian and journalist who I admire on all three planes. I'm much looking forward to the publication in this country of his latest book, Return of A King: The Battle for Afghanistan, the third in his trilogy of the India Company. Holy Mountain, published in 1997, is the fifth of his books I've read, as well as the first of his books I've read that isn't centered on India. It was his City of Djinns (1993) that introduced me to Dalrymple the historian.
Dalrymple's drivers for Holy Mountain is John Moschos and his pupil Sophrojnius, the Sophist, who journeyed across A.D. 587 Christianity of the Byzantine Empire. He is following as best he can the book of their journeys that Moschos completed shortly before he died, the book which became the book of the Christian world for centuries thereafter: The Spiritual Meadow of John Moschos. This book accompanies Dalrymple through his adventures as the Polish journalist, Ryszard Kapuściński describes in his Travels With Herodotus (2004) took with him everywhere the Histories of Herodotus. The Spiritual Meadow is one of the few sources we have as to what the varieties of this Christianity were like in the region. In a very few years Islam would explode out of the Arabian Peninsula, changing everything.
Dalrymple sees these years in which we who are presently alive, the conclusion of what began so soon after Moschos's death. Dalrymple visits the rapidly disappearances of what survived this far, the ancient churches, the monasteries, the communities, the villages, dismantled by the Levant's fequent earthquakes, by deliberate violence, whether political or relgious in impluse.
None of three major religions come out looking very good at one period or another, though less time is given in this book to Judaism than to Christianity, which is the subject of the book, and to Islam, which is the religion that has had the region as subject for so many eras.
What I find unusual in Dalrymple's work is the author's insights into how much the early era of Christianity -- particularly that of the Byzantine and Armenian Churches' Patriarchs influenced the formation of Islam.
What I've liked best so far is the case he makes of the foundational influences upon the earliest Christian-Celtic art by the Byzantine artists, and how that circuit of information worked. Every time I've looked at The Book of Kells and other art from the Celtic church of the time I was reminded of Byzantine art -- and there wasn't really any secular Byzantine art. There is, to my eyes, a significant difference from the very beginning between this art of the edge of the West and the East: the Celtic Church's art conveys warmth and a sense of dimensionality, emotionally as well as superficially. here are games the artists play with themselves and the viewers in their art -- sly humor even -- that you would have to work hard to find any of in the Church art of the East.
What remains unanswered for me is the why of so many of the behaviors of the saints of the early churches of the Levant. Where did the ideas come from that standing on a pillar for one's life made one closer to God? Or being buried in the ground up to one's head? Immuring oneself in a tiny space? All these werid things these saints did convinced people they were holy and saints, who, and their body parts after death, contained the power to heal whatever ailed you or your property -- saints here, as opposed to martyrs. These are voluntary sufferings. From where did the predecessors of these ideas come? Judaism did not do this, for example.
From the Holy Mountain is sad reading. The book was published in 1997. Dalrymple, still very young, young enough to take crazy risks with his life -- and also the lives of many others, which I'm not sure he's ever quite realized -- still thinking of himself as an art - architecture student-journalist -- feels so much more safe and free in Syria, in contrast to in Turkey, particularly the Kurdish parts of Turkey, where he was in constant danger, where the destruction of the ancient Christian communities was proceeding most rapidly.
Dalrymple references constantly the contemporary growth of militant Islam in the region, understanding in great detail the reasons why. He particularly cites the centuries' long failures of the European nations and the U.S. of every having been of any help of any use to anyone of any faith in this vast, variegated region. He references constantly the current atrocities committed in the Balkans, with the atrocities that have gone on seemingly forever in this region, particularly the terror of the Armenian genocide. In fact, this is one of the primary driving forces for destroying the remaining Christian sects and their communities, villages and buildings -- they aren't supposed to have ever existed, so thus, Turkey was never responsible for genocidal acts. Get rid of the proof of the existence of those you destroyed and you're home free. Where else have we seen this ....
And now, look at Syria, home to the most ancient of all the the varieties of early Christianity -- these sites, sects and communities are now being destroyed as much by the forces fighting as they are in Kurdish Turkey.
Desolation. It feels that everything that is the natural out of which we came is being erased, whether sea, forest, prairie, animals and -- well everything that gave us sustenance and joy for all our species' existence. And in exchange what do we get? Toxic synthetics, baby talk and zombies (and keyboards and digital devices on which you can't actually, you know, work!).
William Dalrymples books are all more than worth reading, but unlike his later books, this one makes me feel it's the end of the world. That's probably because I read it now and not before Syria. So many of the people he speaks to throughout his journeys in Anatolia and the Levant express their sense that things will be getting better soon. Reading the book first, now in 2013, we know they only got worse.