Posts Tagged ‘From The Holy Mountain’

William Atkins: The Immeasurable World

January 17, 2019

41dqbism+jl._ac_us218_I asked for and received another volume of desert travel writing for Christmas and I’ve just finished it: it was really good. The first thing to say is that it is a very nicely produced book, with some integral illustrations – not many – excellent maps and a very full bibliography. I was gratified to find that I’ve read a good number of the books in my own armchair desert explorations already, and I’ve added others to my long list…

Atkins visits most of the major deserts of the world and spends time in each, not so much exploring as experiencing and reporting. The only one he misses is the Namib/Kalahari, which is a shame; it’s one of the ones I know least about, too. His fascination is evident, as is his close observation and description of the places and people he encounters.

I was horrified to read about the violence done to Aboriginal ancestral homelands in the Australian desert by British nuclear testing in the 1950s; the sheer callousness and cavalier attitude is truly shocking. I have to say I was not surprised by what I read, though, given the imperialist past of the British state. We should be truly ashamed at what was supposedly done in our name.

The Gobi and other surrounding areas of desert and wilderness are what I have read most about and yet they still remain enigmatic in many ways. The Silk Route necessarily skirted either the north or the south of these regions and so, whilst uninhabitable and desolate, were nevertheless known. Atkins is interesting and informative about current issues the Chinese state has with the largely Uighur and Muslim population of the Xinjiang region, and his journey there often seems rather perilous.

The devastation and death of the Aral Sea has been well-documented by others too, and the adjoining desert areas of Kazakhstan were also abused by the Soviets for their nuclear testing programme. As I read this book I realised that humans had contrived, by their efforts to make many of these already inhospitable areas of our planet even worse…

I learned much from Atkins’ travels in the United States, too. He visits the desert areas along the border with Mexico and recounts some dreadful tales of what refugees attempting to reach the ‘land of opportunity’ endured, and that killed many others. All this is currently hidden behind President Trump’s machinations and lies and attempts to build a wall. I was heartened to read of Americans taking risks and breaking laws in order to support and rescue refugees in danger of dying in the desert regions. In many ways the visits to the deserts of the US were the most disturbing, weird and unnatural of all.

Atkins also visits the Egyptian deserts and spends time in some of the ancient Egyptian monasteries that date from the earliest centuries of Christianity. Here he walks in similar footsteps to William Dalrymple in his excellent book From The Holy Mountain.

This was a lovely books in so many ways, written by an intelligent and enquiring traveller who taught me a lot; his evident fascination with deserts, as well as his observant and reflective approach make it a read I seriously recommend.

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Gerard Russell: Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms

August 5, 2016

51XIUg+g1KL._AC_US160_I found this an absolutely fascinating read. Russell has travelled widely in the Middle East, including some extremely dangerous areas, visiting very small religious minorities whose faith, practices and very lives are now under threat, for a variety of reasons. He speaks local languages, and approaches his subjects with curiosity and an open mind, which is also a very well-informed one.

I think we tend to oversimplify things in the comfort of the West: here are Christians, there are Muslims, there are Jews, and so on. And we have a notion that there are many varieties of Christianity because that is our cultural background or origin; we have a vague awareness of Shia and Sunni Muslims and the fact that they currently don’t seem to get on; Jews are Jews…

In so many ways, the Middle East is the cradle and origin of much of what eventually became our civilisation. It is also the site of some of the very oldest civilisations on the planet. I find it desperately sad that so much of it is being wilfully destroyed, and so many people are being killed or enslaved in the name of religion. The more I read, the more I learn, and the more I come to realise that it was not always thus, that much of the warfare and horror is the product of Western interference and power politics. Historically, Islam has been a pretty tolerant religion, much more than Christianity; the Ottoman Empire permitted much religious freedom, too, although under threat and crumbling it also undertook the genocide of the Armenians in 1915…

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?

The sadness becomes all the more pointed when, in an epilogue chapter Russell visits the exiled communities of a number of these churches in Detroit. Here they have their freedom, are not persecuted or killed, but they are many thousands of miles from their homelands, their roots, the places in which their religious practice is rooted and has its many hundreds of years of history; in a strange land they must make compromises, believers become assimilated, faiths ultimately will disappear.

I carry no card for religion as an oppressor of others, of non-believers; the freedom to believe and worship is also fraught with consequences, perhaps limiting the lives and opportunities of adherents, but equally something of the richness of our common past, our roots and our history is lost forever when fundamentalism and intolerance drives peaceable people away from their lands, beliefs and heritage.

An excellent book, written by someone who understands and cares.

William Dalrymple: In Xanadu

March 9, 2016

419DJZH9NFL._AA160_Dalrymple sets off to retrace the steps of Marco Polo, to the legendary Xanadu, in China. It’s a crazy undertaking, worthy of a student in his carefree student days – though his time is limited by the need to get back to Cambridge to prepare for his finals…

He’s travelling in 1986, so not all parts of the journey are straightforward, or even allowed. Travel between Israel and Arab nations requires a certain amount of detouring, Afghanistan incompletely off-limits, and crossing the areas of China through which Polo travelled required subterfuge and illegality, passing as it does, right next to their nuclear testing grounds.

He veers between being humorous – his tone is often bemused when he encounters various oddities of travel and people – and very knowledgeable about many interesting places along the route, which is basically the ancient Silk Road. Sometimes events, accidents, conversations take on a tinge of farce; sometimes he surprises us with details and contextual background to places and events we are perhaps vaguely familiar with. This is what I’m looking for from good travel writing: knowledge, interest and enthusiasm from the traveller. The maps are rather on the vague side, though. At times, he reminded me of Robert Byron, who travelled in the Middle East in the 1930s, and who describes, and conveys a sense of place, like very few other writers I’ve come across.

It’s an uneven work, by which I mean that some sections are leisurely and the journey and places are fully described, whilst sizeable actions of the journey are dashed through against the clock, with nothing seen or remarked on, let alone described. Such are student travels, in my experience, though I never went this far afield. Despite the haphazard voyage, the many scrapes and adventures he gets into along with his companions (two different women at different times) he nevertheless succeeds, daringly, in attaining his ultimate objective. This demands respect. But his later travels in From the Holy Mountain are far more engaging, less about him and more about what he saw.

Gertrude Bell: The Desert and the Sown

November 16, 2015

51aesYOaEwL._AA160_This is a reprint of a travel journal published well over a century ago, part of Virago press efforts to bring back into print the long-lost writings of women writers. It’s not a wonderful effort: the reproduction of the text is like a rather poor photocopy, and the replacement map is very poor, showing merely a linear route and some of the placenames. But the hundreds of original monochrome photographs have all been reproduced, and many of them are wonderful; I suspect many of them are of places that no longer exist.

As a travel journal it’s a bit bald and mechanical: certainly it’s less interesting than Bell’s diaries. But she travels though wonderful territory, from Jerusalem to Antioch, via Amman, Damascus, Homs, Aleppo and lots of other marvellous places; ancient places abound, sites from the earliest years of Christianity as it spread through the Middle East, before being swept away with the spread of Islam from the seventh century onwards.

There’s 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 interested in the people he encounters on the way and questions them, and he provides a good deal of necessary contextual background, too; he’s also travelling in far more perilous times, both for himself and for the remaining Christians in those lands. Bell is writing during the final, relatively impotent years of Ottoman power in the region, before the First World War, and the subsequent Anglo-French carving up of the area, leaving consequences which are still with us today…

Syria comes across as a sleepy, peaceful and welcoming country, full of crumbling Roman towns and Christian churches; there is tension evident between various confessional groups, but no sign of the horrors to come.

This book also underlined for me something which has gradually been becoming clearer to me as I travel and read: the difference between this small and overcrowded country where I live, where space is precious and any building no longer needed or in use is demolished, removed, replaced, and other, more spacious nations where such buildings are merely left, abandoned; they crumble, maybe stones are taken and re-used elsewhere or maybe not, they remain as reminders of the past.

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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