Posts Tagged ‘Middle East’

Colin Thubron: Mirror to Damascus

December 21, 2016

517pyetfy1l-_ac_us160_This is a lovely book, by a true traveller who clearly lived in Damascus for a serious length of time and fell in love with the place. I’d never heard of it before, found it in a secondhand bookshop in the summer and felt I wanted to read something about this country that has been tearing itself apart for the last few years… it seems to have been Thubron’s first book, published in 1967. It has beautifully-drawn maps which are nevertheless not quite as informative as they look, and quite a lot of blurry black and white photographs.

Damascus is one of the oldest cities in the world, and Thubron takes us through its history, episode by episode, epoch by epoch, linking us to significant places and describing them in detail, often lyrically: we get a picture of a city of great age, rambling and ramshackle, home to many different tribes and peoples, full of historic remains from many different centuries, and cultures. There is a Roman Damascus, a Jewish one, a Christian one, a Muslim one, an Ottoman one, a French one…

To Thubron, the people are friendly, welcoming, curious; he wanders far and wide, seeking out places he has heard of, remains he’s interested in, sometimes finding and sometimes not, observing and reporting with an open mind, non-judgemental, talking with anyone who will speak with him: an ideal traveller. There’s also a fascinating chapter about the many travellers who have visited the city through the ages…

I’m not aware that Damascus has been quite so comprehensively wrecked as Aleppo or Homs in the current conflict, but have found myself wondering how much of this lovely place that he visited fifty years ago still exists. The chapter on the French Damascus reminds one just how much responsibility the West bears for the unspeakable horrors that are going on in Syria and other Middle Eastern lands, and underlines for me that it would be far better if we just left other nations to sort out their own internal affairs. Thubron’s book manages to capture some of the relative peace and innocence of earlier days, and I really enjoyed it.

Advertisements

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.

%d bloggers like this: