Cross under the crescent

From the Holy Mountain by William Dalrymple, HarperCollins, pounds 18

When the great Byzantine traveller-monk John Moschos set out from the scorched wasteland of the Judaean hills in AD 578, his aim was to collect the wisdom of the sages and mystics of the Byzantine East before their fragile world finally disappeared. Now, almost a millennium and a half later, the travel writer William Dalrymple has spent six months following in Moschos' footsteps, starting on the Holy Mountain of Mount Athos and working his way through to the Coptic monasteries in the badlands of Upper Egypt. His aim was to witness and record the ebbing twilight of Middle Eastern Christianity.

Dalrymple travels by train, ferry, lorry and night bus, staying mainly in monasteries. He observes the flickering iconography of crumbling Byzantine churches lit by 100 candles, picks his way along the medieval lanes of bazaar towns on the Silk Route and listens to liturgies unchanged for 1,000 years. The prose rings with the sound of toponyms guaranteed to induce a Proustian rush: the Tigris, the Euphrates, Aleppo, Antioch, Alexandria, Samaria, Nazareth.

In southern Turkey the atmosphere is so tense that local newspapers can only be bought from police stations, while in the silence of a stygian crypt, Dalrymple gazes on the mummified face of a long-dead patriarch, "the left ear flat and shrivelled like an old buckle". His book is a rich stew of history and travel narrative spiced with anecdote, opinion and the bons mots of obliging locals: a hotel receptionist twirls his moustache before announcing: "Kurdistan is like a cucumber. Today in your hand; tomorrow up your arse."

Travelling alongside Dalrymple, it is clear that the position of Eastern Christians - the last surviving bridge between Islam and Western Christianity - has become increasingly untenable as a result of the hostility of the Islamic establishment. What he repeatedly points out, though, is Islam's considerable debt to the early Christian world and the degree to which it has faithfully preserved elements of the early Christian heritage long forgotten by ourselves.

Conversely, he writes that the influence of Eastern asceticism on the medieval west was "as clear and unstoppable a one-way traffic as the reverse cultural invasion of fast food and satellite television is today". In a key paragraph, he notes that while the West often views Islam as a civilisationhostile to Christianity, in Christianity's Eastern homelands you realise how closely the two religions are linked.

Moving effortlessly between centuries and millennia, Dalrymple shows how history has shaped the present. How the diversity fostered under the Ottoman Empire, for example, yielded in Ataturk's new nation to the cultural and religious homogony that has been the undoing of the Kurds. It is apparent, by the end, that the onslaught on the Christian East witnessed by Moschos was the first stage in a process whose denouement is now taking place: Christianity's terminal decline in the land of its birth.

Dalrymple uses the diary format to render this robust pottage digestible and in contentious territory he sensibly relies on great swathes of direct speech. He is an enviably accomplished stylist who has matured a good deal as a writer: the two silly girls skittering through the pages of In Xanadu and the irritating domestic trivia of City of Djinns have vanished. In three books he has metamorphosed from coltish student to dignified man of letters.

This is a book about much more than the ever-accelerating exodus of the last Christians from the Middle East. It is an attempt to penetrate the Byzantine mind. Like many travel writers, Dalrymple is at his best when he stops moving and starts thinking. As the guidebook writers colonise the last wildernesses, the future of travel literature lies in the hands of gifted authors like Dalrymple, who deploy geography to shine their torches into the shadowy hinterland of the human story - the most foreign territory of all.

Arts and Entertainment
Wonder.land Musical by Damon Albarn

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment

Film review

Arts and Entertainment
Innocent victim: Oli, a 13-year-old from Cornwall, featured in ‘Kids in Crisis?’
TV review
News
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment

 

film review
Arts and Entertainment

festivals
Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

    Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

    Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy
    Number of young homeless in Britain 'more than three times the official figures'

    'Everything changed when I went to the hostel'

    Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'
    Compton Cricket Club

    Compton Cricket Club

    Portraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb to be displayed in London
    London now the global money-laundering centre for the drug trade, says crime expert

    Wlecome to London, drug money-laundering centre for the world

    'Mexico is its heart and London is its head'
    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court that helps a winner keep on winning

    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court

    It helps a winner keep on winning
    Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

    Is this the future of flying?

    Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
    Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

    Isis are barbarians

    but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
    The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

    Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

    Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
    Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

    'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

    Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
    Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

    Call of the wild

    How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
    Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

    'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

    If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
    The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

    The science of swearing

    What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
    Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

    Africa on the menu

    Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
    Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

    Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

    The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'