William Dalrymple: From The Holy Mountain

January 29, 2015

51GPMM0P04L._AA160_One of the most fascinating, and also one of the saddest books I’ve read for quite a while. Nearly twenty years ago now, William Dalrymple travelled through various Middle Eastern countries on what seems to have been a personal pilgrimage, on the trail of the vestiges of the earliest days of Christianity.

Through Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine and Egypt he shows us how Christianity was originally an Eastern religion and how it is now gradually and finally and probably forever being driven out. Islam developed in the same area; I was already aware of some of the shared beliefs of the two faiths but was astonished to read of them sharing the same places of worship in some remote areas, of them co-existing peaceably as they had done for more than a thousand years. An eighth century saint didn’t even recognise Islam as being a different religion: he wrote of it as another of the many Christian heresies rampant at the time. And Christian monks used to have prayer niches in their cells in the desert so that they could face in the right direction when they prayed… truly the two faiths were much more intertwined in their very early days that I had known.

Dalrymple describes the remote desert churches and monasteries, many of them well over a thousand, some over fifteen hundred years old; the pictures he paints are vivid and haunting, and one realises how long places and relics are preserved by the heat and dryness of the desert; the vignettes of the monks and priests he meets and converses with are well-drawn, even though there is a lot that seems more than mildly bonkers about some of the beliefs and practices of the Byzantine churches…but the idea that there is more to this life than the purely material and the secular has been anchored there for centuries and still speaks to us today.

He contextualises well; the confusion and anger that is today’s Middle East is illuminated as far as it can be; we live in an age of fundamentalists, and Dalrymple shows us Jewish, Christian and Muslim ones, all of whom seem to have regressed from their brethren of earlier times, hence the inevitable note of sadness that permeates the book, as we see Christians forced to leave the very areas where the faith began and developed. The situation has, of course, become far more grim since Dalrymple travelled and wrote this book. I found myself wondering how much responsibility the modern idea of the nation state bears for the current madness.

I’d read a couple of newspaper and magazine articles by William Dalrymple but no books of his until this was passed to me: I look forward to reading much more.

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2 Responses to “William Dalrymple: From The Holy Mountain”


  1. […] a certain amount of overlap with the territory covered by William Dalrymple in From The Holy Mountain, which I read earlier this year, and the mental comparison is interesting. He’s far more […]

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  2. […] Elsewhere I’ve written of William Dalrymple’s travels among the vanishing Christian groups in the Middle East, where communities are dying out or being driven out by increasing fundamentalism. Russell casts his net even wider, exploring the lives and beliefs not just of small Christian churches like the Copts in Egypt, but also small Jewish sects like the Samaritans – yes, they still exist, and I had no idea, and the Druze of Lebanon. I knew there were practising Zoroastrians somewhere but had little idea what they did or believed in; I’d never heard of the Mandaeans, or the Kalasha, a pagan sect in the Hindu Kush, living surrounded by Muslims…and we have all heard of the Yazidis of Syria and Iraq, driven out by the Islamic State, but do we know what they believe in? […]

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