Our book today is From the Holy Mountain, a 1997 mixture of history and travelogue by Scottish writer William Dalrymple, recently – and very deservedly – praised for his truly important 2012 book Return of a King, about the tangled history of Afghanistan. In this earlier work, he embarks on a journey of five months through the Middle East, a journey that also doubles as a quest to investigate the lives and physical realities of the scattered and often embattled Christian enclaves of the Levant. Like virtually everything else its author has written, the book is prodigiously good, in this case filled with all the usual things the best travel-writers bring to their work, like humor (the understated kind that’s largely vanished from our “I’m a Celebrity – Get Me Out of Here!” culture):
Lunch at Mar Saba was never a very ritzy affair at the best of times, but towards the end of the week, when the bread baked days earlier had hardened to the texture of pumice, and the feta cheese had begun to smell increasingly like dead goat, eating Fr. Theophanes’s offerings became something of a penitential exercise, and sounding sincere in one’s appreciation of the monk’s culinary abilities was a task that needed advanced acting skills. I looked at the lump of rock-bread and the festering cheese and tried to think of something nice to say about them. Then I had a flash of inspiration.
‘Mmm,’ I said, taking a sip from the glass. ‘Delicious water, Fr. Theophanes.’
This, oddly enough, went down very well.
And as any reader of Return of a King will expect, From the Holy Mountain is also luxuriantly informed with history – cultural, spiritual, and literary in exactly the nexus where those three elements become one. And while the scenarios – like the one where a devout monk hands our eager young author a copy of Athanasius for his bedtime reading – may seem too good to be true (which, in travel-writing more than many less sinful occupations, always means exactly that), Dalrymple’s recountings make them priceless even so:
I spent the day reading a book lent to me by Fr. Dioscurous: The Life of St. Antony by Athanasius, the early fourth-century bishop of Alexandria. Athanasius’s Life is probably the most influential work of Christian hagiography ever written, and it was the ultimate model for a thousand subsequent saints’ Lives written across the Christian world in the centuries that followed: the Venerable Bede, for example, drew heavily on Athanasius’s example when writing his Life of St. Cuthbert. Nevertheless, to the modern reader it is a grim, humourless and rather offputting text, too much concerned with ascetic self-torture and the saint’s alarming victories over the demon hordes. At one point Athanasius has Antony’s cell overwhelmed by an invasion of devils in animal form, so that it sounds rather like feeding time at the London Zoo.
By the time I reached the final pages, I was deep in memories of my own trekking through exactly these places (before our author was born, I suspect), and I was marveling – as I always do when reading such masterful travel-writing as this – at how beautifully he evokes it all. The book’s parting scene, with Dalrymple standing at Kharga on the edge of the Great Oasis in the vast wastes of the great Libyan Desert, is instantly classic not only in its very accurate depiction of how travel stretches time inside the mind:
As I walked, I realised I had now been on the road for more than five months. I had left Scotlan in midsummer. Next week would be Christmas. On the front of my diary was a damp-ring left by a glass of ouzo I drank on the Holy Mountain. Inside were stains from a glass of tea knocked over in Istanbul. Some sugar grains from a restaurant in the Baron Hotel have stuck to the pages on which are scribbled my notes from Aleppo. Around these marks, this book is filled with a series of names, places and conversations, some of which even now seem strangely odd and distant.
But also simply in its unassuming lovely prose, in its utterly memorable last lines:
As I was standing there a flight of brilliant white ibises passed overhead, circling down to roost at the pool beside the old temple. I pulled up the collar of my jacket and headed back out of the desert into the oasis, ready now for the journey home. Darkness was drawing in, and behind me at the top of the hill a chill wind was howling through the tombs.
The UK edition of From the Holy Mountain I recently found (at the Brattle, naturally) sports blurbs from such journeyers as Sara Wheeler and John Julius Norwich – and from Eric Newby himself. Newby of course wrote the classic A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush, and I’m guessing he could sense the presence of a similarly great book. It belongs in the library of great travel-writing that every far wanderer – armchair or other – should have.