Review: From The Holy Mountain

BY Naveed Qazi

In 587 A.D, two monks from Greece set on a journey that took them across the Byzantine world, from the shores of the Bosphorus to the sand dunes of Egypt. John Moshos, and his pupil Sophronius stayed in caves, monasteries and remote hermitages, collecting ancient wisdom of their forefathers before the eruption of Islam. In fact, Karen Armstrong, author of best seller, “History of God” calls it as ‘ pitting the idealism of the past against hatred, dispossession, and denial of the present’.

IN his book, “From The Holy Mountain”, William Dalrymple travels to Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine and Egypt to go back over the footprints of these two monks. There is a lot about history, culture archaeology, religion, iconography and architecture in his chapters. Dalrymple uses acclaimed writings of John Moshos like ‘The Spirtual Meadow’ as a guide to his travelogue book, and tries to delve on a tale of a dying civilisation. He compares Moshos as a near contemporary to Muhammad (PBUH). Through his writings, he explains how two religions embody many aspects together which are now lost in western incarnation. ‘If Moschos was to come back today, he would find the beliefs of a modern Sufi more familiar than he would with those of an American Evangelical,’ claims the author.

The author argues that Christianity is an oriental faith that is actually being ignored by its zealots in the west. In fact, the fervency of the author is such, that he actually espouses the secularity of the Arab world to the native Christian culture. There are also examples of the marvels of syncretism where Dalrymple details strong links between Islam and Christianity –  the Eastern orthodox sects praying in the same way as Muslims do, the fasting, prayer niches, open prayer halls, emphasis on the wandering Holy Man, being buried side by side, and the symbolism in Islam holding sacred in the Egyptian Muslim culture.

The early parts of the book are filled with arguings and accounts of different Arab states, each having a unique experience about Christianity. He talks about the Ottoman Constantinople as a centre of Christendom and ethnic tolerance. In the early essays, you will note about luring lectures of Moshos in Alexandria – the place of sacred relics to ancient Christians, the minority Greeks of Istanbul, the early Byzantine episcopal architecture, its university towns, the Maronites from Lebanon, the controversial Manicheans and the early Christian movement in Edessa.

In the middle parts of the reading, the reviewer browses through the plight of Surianis, and the differences of Syrian orthodox, from the Byzantine mainstream to the oldest functioning churches of Anatolia. He also mentions important historical references of the Tatian’s Diatessaron – the four canonical gospel manuscripts, from the libraries of Tur Abdin, widely debated by scholars and deemed heretical, and about the popularity of the compositions written by Christian monks of the eight century. ‘The Life of St Antony of Egypt’ by Athanasius of Alexandria, was widely read all over Europe after the Bible, which early Irish and Northumbrian gospel books took as their principal model work.

In the third study of the book, the author postulates about Persia’s large Nestorian community, where its universities in present day Tehran and Uzbekistan played a crucial role in bringing Greek philosophy, science and medicine to the place through Moorish Cordoba – which was a gateway to the works of Aristotle and Plato. Three great metropolises – Antioch, Alexandria, and Constantinople are linked to international commerce and urban life. He also talks about the rich Christian culture in Syria, the native Toroyo language of Qamishli where scenarios of Christ coming back to the world can be understood, according to the author. There are also strong links between Syrian Monks and the Church of England, and the music of Syrian orthodox sects to the Arab vocal music.

The fourth study of the book mentions about the ‘The History of Monks of Syria’, where Maronites were deemed heretical by the Byzantine Church through the theological debate of Monothelitism, the particular brand of Christology, which was promoted by Emperor Heraclius. In academics, he compares the Beirut academic degree to a Harvard one. He mentions about war between religious groups particularly in Lebanon was not only between Christians and Muslims, but it was also between Palestinian Christians and Maronities, Druze against the Maronities, and Shiites against the Sunnis. On a societal level, the author ponders over the plight of local Christians creating a mafiosi and Muslims turning into fundamentalism in Lebanon – tales of Suleiman Franjieh and coup of Hafez al Assad fill the annals of modern Lebanese history.

The fifth study of the book talks about the plight of Palestinian Christians who suffered at the hands of Jewish-Muslim wars over the occupation of Palestine. He also mentions the ideas of Iranian Revolution, when Ayatullah’s Revolutionary Guards took a station with tacit Syrian approval, by seeing the plight of Shiite farmers of Bekaa, and Iran’s anti Christian operations. The author also avidly mentions the plight of oppressed Christians of Baalbek being persecuted by local pagans. The rapines and pillages of Christian villages due to war outbreaks, mainly by the Jewish Haganah, emigrating populations, and west’s uncritical approach towards Israel baffles the author through his travelogue experience.

The other  important element in this part of the book is that the author explicitly mentions Moshos’s treatise on Islam found in ‘The Fount of Knowledge’, where John regards Islam as a form of Christian heresy derived from Arian traditions, which denied Jesus’ divinity, but nevertheless applauds the way Islam converted the Arabs into a monotheistic thought. He mentions Islam as a product of intellectual ferment much like Gnosticism, Arianism, and Monophysitism, and believes that two faiths started from the same arguments about God. ‘In an age where Islam and Christianity are said to be hostile, it is important to remember Islam’s very considerable debt to early Christian world, and the way it has preserved the old Christian heritage long forgotten by ourselves’.

The last study of the book is mainly an Egyptian reflection of The Spiritual Meadow which is filled with tales of barbarians, burning monasteries, tales of corruption by Greeks, Jews and Armenians, impoverished by corrupt State Socialism in Alexandria, Coptic Christianity and Islamisation of politics in Egypt.

The reader is all amazed by the rigour of scholarship, which is vouchsafed by the bibliography in the end. The book is clearly pro-Muslim, partially anti-Jewish, and anti-west, to say the least. It takes you to a journey of a civilisation, which is worth to be pondered upon, by being judgmental regarding the origins of important religions.

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