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A Holy (O)mission
In ce 578, John Moschos, an elderly Byzantine monk, and his pupil Sophronius set out on a journey around the Eastern Mediterranean in search of spiritual wisdom. After visiting the major religious centres of the empire, Moschos returned to Constantinople where he wrote a book called The Spiritual Meadow before succumbing to exhaustion and illness. A collection of sayings, anecdotes and holy stories in the tradition of the Apophthegmata Patrum or ‘Sayings of the Desert Fathers’, The Spiritual Meadow is also a travel book. As William Dalrymple, one of the most accomplished exemplars of the genre, observes: ‘Moschos did what the modern travel writer still does: he wandered the world in search of strange stories and remarkable travellers’ tales. Indeed, his book can legitimately be read as the great masterpiece of Byzantine travel writing.’
Inspired by The Spiritual Meadow, Dalrymple retraces Moschos’ route, from the monastic republic of Mount Athos to the Great Oasis of Al-Kharga in Southern Egypt. In the manner of his predecessor, he records spiritual marvels, miracles, conversations and anecdotes. In the remoter places he visits, he encounters the mutual respect and tolerance that once bound Muslims and Christians together under a common sacred canopy. At the abbey of Mar Gabriel in Eastern Turkey, built by the Emperor Anastasius in 512, Syrian Christians who still use the language of Christ in their liturgy prostrate themselves in the Muslim manner when praying - living proof of the way in which Islam grafted itself on to much older Middle Eastern religious traditions. The saint’s relics - ‘holes in the curtain wall separating the human from the divine’ - are still venerated by members of both faiths. In the now abandoned city of Cyrrhus in northern Syria, once the site of a great cathedral, he finds that the medieval Muslim saint buried in a much older Byzantine tomb is now identified with the unfortunate Uriah, husband of Bathsheba. Members of both religions worship there, receiving blessings and miracles from the saint; and those who fail to honour him, regardless of confession, find their purposes supernaturally thwarted. Dalrymple rightly regards such holy places where popular religious syncretism survives as vital oases of tolerance in an increasingly polarised region:
The practice emphasises an important truth about the close affinity of the two great religions easily forgotten as the Eastern Christians - the last surviving bridge between Islam and Western Christianity - emigrate in reaction to the increasing hostility of the Islamic establishment.
Dalrymple does his best to project himself back into this enchanted world common to Byzantium and early Islam, when men acquired celebrity through spectacular spiritual feats. Pausing under the pillar of St Simeon Stylites the Younger, who sat on his mountain top while the church was constructed around him, he reflects on the difficulty of reaching back across the centuries:
At the base of a stylite’s pillar one is confronted with the awkward truth that what has most moved past generations can today sometimes be only tentatively glimpsed with the eye of faith, while remaining quite inexplicable and absurd when seen under the harsh distorting microscope of sceptical Western rationality.
What really moves in this narrative, however, is not the futility of trying to grasp the numinous quality of a world that has been lost, but the much more recent catastrophes that occurred in the aftermath of its collapse. Just as the Holocaust in Europe happened after the Enlightenment, when religious hostility against Jews was buttressed by German, Polish, Romanian and other nationalisms, so the greatest disaster to have befallen Eastern Christianity occurred at the end of the Ottoman period, when pluralistic Islamic allegiances were crumbling before an emerging Turkish identity. The ghosts of the Armenians follow Dalrymple throughout Turkey, Syria and Palestine. In Diyarbakir province, where the government now fights Kurdish insurgents, with 500 unsolved murders in the city blamed on the secret police, more than half a million Armenians and Syrian Orthodox Christians (Suriani) were butchered in 1915, ‘clubbed to death like rabbits’. Thousands more were driven into the Syrian desert, to die of starvation or thirst. These crimes remain unacknowledged by the modern Turkish state, and hence unpropitiated. This denial of the past is systematic, deliberate and ideologically driven. A scholar who dares to recall (in a footnote in the Turkish edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica) that Cilicia was once a Christian kingdom is arrested and charged with ‘making propaganda with intent to destroy or weaken national feelings’; in Eastern Anatolia, Armenian churches - some of them important monuments - continue to disappear. The names of Armenian villages have all been changed. Once the churches have gone, there will be no evidence that the Armenians ever existed.
In Urfa, the site of ancient Edessa, once a flourishing centre of Eastern Christianity, Dalrymple finds the old Armenian cathedral is being converted into a mosque:
‘Are there any Armenians left in Urfa?’ [he asks one of a pair of workmen]
‘No’ he answered, smiling broadly and laughing. His friend made a throat-cutting gesture with his trowel.
‘They’ve all gone,’ said the first man, smiling.
The two looked at each other: ‘Israel,’ said the first man, after a pause. He was grinning from ear to ear.
‘I thought Israel was for Jews,’ I said.
‘Jews, Armenians,’ he replied, shrugging his shoulders.
Encounters such as these are all the more chilling, as Dalrymple’s writing is usually so genial and apparently effortless. His erudition is lightly worn. His knack of conjuring reflections out of tombs and buildings is refreshingly free from self-consciousness or high-mindedness. The cold, neo-classical faces of saints and apostles staring down from the broken apses and shattered naves of a hundred abandoned churches give him ‘very little idea of what the early Byzantine peasant or shopkeeper looked like ... what he longed for, what he loved and what he hated’. But he is happy to indulge in speculation, finding in a group of early Christian sarcophagi the thinly-veiled relics of pagan antiquity, asking himself if the people inside had still led
a version of the old life of the late classical landowner: their youth spent in the law school at Beirut or the School of Libanius in Antioch; a period as a provincial official posted to Hippo or Harran; of perhaps a spell in the army on the Rhine frontier, peering into the cold battlements of Cologne or Trier to catch a glimpse of a Gothic raider padding across the ice into Roman territory.
He finds the Egyptian mummy portraits in Alexandria ‘astonishingly familiar’, with colours and technique resembling Frans Hals or Cezanne, still conveying with
penetrating immediacy the character of the different sitters: the fop and the courtesan, the anxious mother and the tough man of business, the bored army officer and the fat nouveau-riche matron, hung with gold, dripping with make-up ... Even today behind glass in a museum, the portraits are so astonishingly lifelike that they can still make you gasp as you find yourself staring eyeball to eyeball with a soldier who had fought at Actium, or a society lady who may have known Cleopatra. There is something deeply hypnotic about the silent stare of these sad, uncertain Graeco-Roman faces, most of whom appear to have died in their early thirties. Their fleeting expressions are frozen, startled, as if suddenly surprised by death itself; their huge eyes stare out, as if revealing the nakedness of the departed soul.
An urbane, Catholic Scot who grew up on the shores of the Firth of Forth, Dalrymple engages in some plausible speculations about the transmission of Christianity from the Middle East to Ireland and Scotland. Fascinated by the similarity between the stories of the desert fathers in the Middle East and those of the Celtic monks of his childhood, he runs to ground some compelling iconographic correspondences suggestive of Byzantine influences on early Christian art in the British Isles. At the Monastery of St Antony in Egypt, birthplace of Christian monasticism, he is shown an icon of St Paul and St Antony breaking bread: the image (convincingly demonstrated in photographs) is almost identical with that of a seventh-century Pictish carving from St Vigeans, near Dundee.
Though comfortable with antiquity, Dalrymple is aesthetically tuned to the present. When descending the twisting mountain road into Beirut he notes that the shrapnel marks decorating the buildings resemble abstracts by Kandinsky - ‘a perfect peppering of dots and dashes’. He registers the bizarre ghastliness of that city’s post-modern apocalypse, where Khomeini fights for space with Calvin Klein:
It was like a morality tale, spiralling downwards through one of the world’s greatest monuments to human frailty, a huge cortex of greed and envy, resentment and intolerance, hatred and materialism, a five-mile-long slalom of shell-holes and designer labels, heavy artillery and glossy boutiques. Like a modern updating of a Byzantine Apocalypse, it was the confusion that was most hell-like: Ayatollah Khomeini, hands raised in blessing, shared a billboard with a bottle of American after-shave; below, huge American cars - Thunderbirds, Chevrolets, Corvettes - roared past building sites where monstrous machines, thickly carapaced like metal-clad cockroaches, moved earth, demolished ruins, dug holes. Occasionally there was an explosion and a small mushroom-cloud of dust as a doomed tower block crashed to the earth, nudged by one of the grunting metal beetles below.
The strength of this book, however, lies less in the quality of its descriptions than its thematic agenda. Dalrymple set out to visit and record the dwindling Christian communities of the Middle East just as Moschos had done 14 centuries before during the high summer of Byzantine civilisation, before they were overwhelmed by the Islamic tide. Guaranteed survival under Islamic empires, which recognised them as dhimmis, or protected communities, many of the Christians prospered anew under the colonial hegemony through access to modern education and the business opportunities provided by contacts with Western co-religionists. The resurgence of political Islam throughout the region is now placing these gains in jeopardy, and Christians are leaving the area in droves for countries where they feel safer and where their skills are appreciated. There are now only 14 million Christians left among a non-Christian population of 180 million, and their numbers are shrinking fast. Since the early 1990s, at least 2 million have left the Middle East to make new lives for themselves in Europe, Australia and America.
The causes of this massive decline, as Dalrymple found, are complex and by no means exclusively attributable to the resurgence of political Islam. In Turkey, the Syrian Orthodox Christians he met were caught between rival Kurdish and Turkish nationalisms, and here it was their ethnicity as much as their religion that counted against them. In Lebanon, the once-dominant Maronite Christians had virtually self-destructed. Feuding between rival Maronite clans, the Franjiehs and Gemayals, tore the community apart along with the whole country. The Maronites ‘reaped a bitter harvest of their own sowing’. They emerged from the war with their reputation for ‘ruthlessness, brutality and political incompetence enormously enhanced’, while by the war’s final stages, more than a third of a million of them - over a quarter of the entire Christian community of Lebanon - had left the area for good. It would be wrong to see the Lebanese civil war primarily in terms of a Christian-Muslim conflict: Greek Orthodox and Armenians were attacked by the Maronite Phalangist militias, along with other Maronites.
Of the countries visited by Dalrymple, Syria, the ultimate victor in this war, has by far the best record of dealing with its Christian citizens. Lebanon apart, it is the only country in the region where Christians can claim to live on equal terms with Muslims - an impression confirmed by Dalrymple’s experience of crossing the border, where ‘icons of Christ and images of his mother fill almost every shop and decorate every other car window - an extraordinary display after the furtive secrecy of Christianity in Turkey’. The population of Aleppo, the main city of refuge for persecuted Turkish Christians, is now between one-fifth and one-third Christian. Syria ‘may still be a one-party police state, but it is a police state that leaves its citizens alone so long as they keep out of politics’. Only in Syria did Dalrymple find the Christian population looking ‘happy and confident’, but even here their future looked uncertain, with most of them expecting a major backlash when the Alawite minority regime of Al-Assad collapses. Unfortunately, Dalrymple omits to mention the human cost of Syria’s religious tolerance: between 10,000 and 20,000 people were killed after the Muslim Brotherhood’s abortive uprising in the city of Hama in 1981, most of them by troops commanded by Rifaat al-Assad, the president’s playboy brother, pour encourager les autres. One of the paradoxes he might have addressed is that, in the Muslim world, religious tolerance and democracy may actually be incompatible, as the example of Turkey demonstrates. The more responsive a government is to the feelings of its Muslim majority, the less likely it is to grant minorities equal status as citizens.
The legacy of Islamic supremacism runs deep. However, of the countries Dalrymple visited, it was only in Egypt that Christians were confronted directly with the power of resurgent Islam in the shape of sectarian attacks. Armed with permission from the president, Dalrymple managed to penetrate the roadblocks to visit Asyut, the southern city of mixed Christian-Muslim population closed to foreign reporters since a massacre of Copts by Islamic militants in 1992. He discovered that the feuding in the city originated in a dispute over property. Hitmen from the Islamist Gema’a al-Islamiya had become embroiled in an argument between a Muslim and a Copt over the sale of a house. Everywhere, the priests and monks he spoke to reflected the general sense of insecurity experienced by the Coptic minority. The government was allowing Muslim terrorists literally to get away with murder. Some of these attacks followed demands for protection money, which the Copts refused to pay. Though Dalrymple omits to mention this, payment of the jizya, the poll tax demanded exclusively from non-Muslims, is part of the Islamist agenda, a symbol of past Islamic hegemony that the Islamists are trying to revive. Dalrymple’s Christian interlocutors consistently underplayed the significance of these attacks: ‘Like the Suriani in
Turkey, the Copts are very reluctant to talk about their worries; hundreds of years of living as a minority under Muslim rule has taught them to keep their heads down.’
Some of the monks even claimed to have found spiritual consolation in the persecution. ‘God is most easily discernible in times of trouble,’ explained one. ‘When your troubles cease, then you leave God. But in difficult times men go to God for help.’ His faith seemed to have been borne out by the revival of monasticism occurring in recent years. The Monastery of St Antony was bursting with monks and novices, many of them equipped with survival skills such as expertise in irrigation and chicken-farming as well as degrees in theology.
It is, above all, in Israel-Palestine - the Christian Holy Land - that this picture of general Christian decline becomes really bleak. Squeezed between the Jewish take-over of Jerusalem and its surroundings, and the rising pressures of Hamas in the occupied areas (the book was written before the Oslo accords began to be implemented), the Palestinian Christians, who may be descended from the very first Christians of all, are abandoning the Holy Land for ever. As in Turkey, archaeological vandalism is rife, with the ruins of two Byzantine monasteries in Jerusalem recently built over to make car parks, with precious mosaics destroyed for ever.
At Ariel, outside Ramallah, Jewish settlers have built a replica of an American town complete with shopping arcades, sports centres and supermarkets. Ron, the mayor, who talks fast in flawless American, has no problems with Arabs. ‘I’m no racist,’ he insists. ‘I have an Arab cleaning lady - that’s right - an Arab cleaning lady. She is alone with my babies. I can’t say everyone would trust an Arab like that.’ Dalrymple comments:
No Palestinian either Christian or Muslim ever needed to bother applying to live in Ariel: its houses were available only to Jewish settlers. When local Palestinian labourers at the settlement were forced to wear large badges reading ‘Foreign Worker’ some liberal Israeli commentators went so far as to draw comparisons with the race laws of Nazi Germany. The badges were later removed.
The Christians who used to make up a third of the Arab population of Palestine are now reduced to less than a quarter of 1 per cent. In the Old City of Jerusalem, where in 1922 Christians constituted 52 per cent of the population, they are now reduced to 2.5 per cent. If the present decline continues there will soon be none left at all. The most important shrines in the Christian world will be left as museum pieces or, as the Archbishop of Canterbury warned recently, a ‘theme park’ preserved only for tourists.
Despite this impending extinction, some priests take a remarkably sanguine view, relying on God to put things right. At Mar Saba on the West Bank, Dalrymple shared a glass of ouzo with Father Theophanes, the monastery’s tall, gaunt Guest Master, who regaled him with direful descriptions of the coming apocalypse:
Fire - fire that will never end, terrible, terrible fire - will come from the throne of Christ, just like it does on the icons. The saints - those who are to be saved, in other words the Orthodox Church - will fly in the air to meet Christ. But sinners and all non-Orthodox will be separated from the Elect. The damned will be pushed and prodded by devils down through the fire, down from the Valley of Josephat, past here - in fact, exactly the route those Israeli hikers took today - down, down to the Mouth of Hell... near the Dead Sea.
Most Palestinian Christians are much less confident of salvation and the inevitable retribution in store for Muslims, Jews, non-Orthodox Christians and others, and continue to abandon the Holy Land for richer pastures in the West. Most of them are well-educated professionals and better placed than their Muslim compatriots to find homes and jobs abroad.
Surprisingly, the demise of Christianity in the land of its origin appears to have met with very little comment or protest among churches in the West, especially in the United States, a much more actively Christian society than Europe’s. Dalrymple refrains from speculating about the possible reasons for this deafening silence, but a clue appears in his interview with Father Theophanes, who bizarrely sees in supermarket barcodes a sign of the coming Anti-Christ. In his fascinating study, When Time Shall Be No More: Prophesy Belief in Modern American Culture (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1992), an American scholar, Paul Boyer, describes how many American Protestants, convinced that the ‘end-times’ are upon us, believe that the number 666 and its various permutations, the ‘number of the Beast’, are already being encoded into the magnetic strips of credit cards and supermarket barcodes. A book on the subject published in America in 1981 sold more than half a million copies. I suspect that copies of this or similar texts may be circulating in Orthodox monasteries: where else would Father Theophanes have learnt about the apocalyptic character of supermarket barcodes? As Boyer points out, the American pre-millennialists subscribing to such beliefs (who number at least 8 million) consider the restoration of the kingdom of Israel to be a vital part of God’s plan for humanity. The foundation of the Jewish state in 1948 was the first act in an eschatological drama that will culminate with Armageddon and the Millennium, the thousand-year reign of Christ on earth. Sharing Father Theophanes’s confidence in their own salvation, American fundamentalists give Israel their wholehearted support and the Israelis (while privately laughing behind their backs) reciprocate, awarding honours to fundamentalists such as Gerry Falwell and generally extending the warmest hospitality to visiting Christians of this persuasion. A film version of Hal Lindsay’s Late Great Planet Earth, the book of which has sold more than 30 million copies to date, included an interview with the late President of Israel, Chaim Herzog. This relationship of mutual support between Protestant millenarians and Zionists is not without future complications: according to the pre-millennialist scenario, a portion of Jewry - the ‘righteous Jews’ - will convert to Christianity and be ‘raptured’ up to Christ along with Theophanes and his fellow monks. The remainder will perish horribly in rivers of blood, with the rest of the unsaved portion of humanity. Compared with a destiny of this magnitude, the future of a few thousand Palestinian Christians must seem a trivial sideshow.
Commissioned by the London Review of Books (1997), but rejected for publication.
The book reviewed was:_
William Dalrymple (1997) From the Holy Mountain: A Journey in the Shadow of Byzantium. London: HarperCollins.