BOOK REVIEW / Gilded icons, damp tombs and tragedy: 'A Crossing Place. A Journey Among Armenians' - Philip Marsden: HarperCollins, 16.99 pounds

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WHEN Lord Byron lived in Venice he sought respite from carnal pleasures by retiring to the Armenian monastery on the island of San Lazzaro. There he took tuition in what he reckoned to be about the most difficult language in the world. It was one of those Byronic interludes in which sermons and soda water replaced wine, women and song. Philip Marsden also made a brave effort to learn Armenian on his journey, and the language lit his path from that same treasure-house in the lagoon to the wilder reaches of the Armenian world.

But there the comparison ends. Although a sense of romantic adventure sent Marsden on his way, the result is a prolonged lament with nothing frivolous to relieve its catalogue of oppression, murder and gloom. It is not so much a journey as a haunting.

Everywhere, the Armenians are pursued by ghosts. Their empire crumbled in darkest antiquity and their diaspora, like that of the Jews, extended to every continent. But whole communities of Armenians clung to their roots in the Transcaucasus and around the Black Sea, only to be crushed twice, first by the medieval armies of Islam and then in a mad purge by the Young Turks. They can make tragic claim to be the victims of the first organised genocide of the 20th century.

They died like flies along the deportation routes of 1915. Those who survived the trek often perished through cruelty or neglect at the journey's end. In the remote caves of northern Syria their bones moulder in heaps. They left behind a tiny, cowed number of their people in Constantinople and a permanent, seething resentment of their unjust fate.

Marsden made friends with poets, priests and gunmen from the austere courtyards of the Armenian quarter in Jerusalem to the frozen slopes of Karabakh. His passionate interest proved a talisman. He was passed along the Armenian network, given letters from prelates and conducted into sanctuaries of this ancient, imperilled civilisation.

There is a mystical quality to Armenian religion which can intoxicate the clearest minds. From Byzantium, Marsden tells us, 'the creed had come wrapped in gold- threaded cloth, with gilded icons and saints to honour.' In Armenia it encountered both the pure air of the desert fathers and the cheerful rural paganism of the Armenian peasants. The resultant faith is rooted in the land, powerfully conducive to folk nostalgia, impervious to fanfare, yet grand. Marsden was driven onwards by its appeal. He clambered into the damp tombs of the Syrian exiles and mused in the churches of Transylvania, drank vodka till his head ached and listened to the endless songs of tragedy and longing.

In his diligent quest, Marsden crossed the Bekaa valley and dined with the garrulous Armenian proprietor at the Baron Hotel in Aleppo, who once served breakfast to T E Lawrence. In the years of the Cold War, Armenians flowed between Yerevan and Damascus, impervious to Soviet-Syrian ideology in their delighted pursuit of trade. Armenians turn up all over the place, in depressing Bulgarian hovels and desolate villages north of Bucharest, scattered like golden dust among the Slavs, Turks and Arabs among whom they are fated to dwell in uneasy neighbourhood. As Marsden feels his way along the threads of this slender ethnic fabric he becomes more and more drawn into its introspective melancholy.

He was fortunate in his guides, lucky, too, in the esoteric quality of his subject. He can write with beauty, yet words sometimes fail him when his emotions are overcome by the hopelessness of the Armenian cause. He passes over the murderous deeds of Armenian terrorism with the merest disapproval, as if murdered Turkish diplomats could somehow be held responsible for the deeds of their grandfathers. But these are the defects of an impassioned commitment. He has gone into a world that remains closed to most outsiders and brought back wonderful pictures of its inhabitants.