William Dalrymple journeys to heartland of the early church in the footsteps of the famous monk John Moschos who documented his travels sojourns across Byzantium in his work The Spiritual Meadow. Dalrymple hopes that by following in his footsteps he may gain an insight the history of Christianity in the east and its future. The author skilfully intertwines historical narrative with the travails of his long and arduous journeying, which see him l climbing into abandoned tombs, surviving in the harsh desert and fleeing from terrorists.
Throughout the book one is constantly reminded of the stark contrast between the situation for Christians in 578 AD and today. In the past Christianity enjoyed supremacy in large parts of the what we would now call the middle east and coexisted with the other religions such as Islam and paganism. The most extreme example of this being one occasion where our author is told that the same space was used for worship by both Muslims and Christians. In addition, at one point in the narrative the author meets a group of Muslims who are visiting a shrine of Saint George in the West Bank to be healed. Darlymple emphasizes throughout the narrative Christianity is contrary to popular perceptions an eastern religion and must be understood as a system of belief which emerged from the intellectual milieu of the east and the rich tapestry of competing ideologies of that region. Further, that the Church in the west was constantly looking to east as the source of inspiration. For example, Irish monastic art is almost certainly seeking to imitate work originating from Tur Abdin in Turkey. Further, the monastic cells on the island Skellig Michael off the Irish coast are copies of eastern designs that can be still seen in modern Israel.
The situation finds in the present is completely different: Christians are a tiny and oppressed minority persecuted by and increasingly militant Islam and stuck in the middle of ethnic and political conflicts some of these between different religions and some between waring Christian factions. These pressures have led to a mass exodus of the young, Christianity is vanishing from large parts of the world. In the face of such bleak facts From the Holy Mountain is also a story of resistance and fortitude. Darlymple meets monastic communities that defiantly cling on in the face of persecution and misery to traditions that go as far back as the beginnings of Christianity and acts of forgiveness and tolerance by those who should be enemies owing to race and creed.
From the Holy Mountain is a masterfully written and guides the reader through a bewildering range of emotions and places. In the hands of lesser writer such a narrative might be confused or dull because of endless historical detail. Darlymple manages to gives the reader a plentiful supply of historical data without detracting from the tempo of the narrative. Further, the journey he is on serves as an anchor that helps make sense of the bewildering number of topics, people and places both past and present.