I reported earlier in the year that I had rather bounced off Dalrymple's The Age of Kali. This prompted responses from my wife, inulro and sammymorse to the effect that I should try From the Holy Mountain instead, and it also came up in conversation with ianmcdonald over the weekend.
It is a tremendous book. Dalrymple travels through Greece, Turkey, Lebanon, Syria, Israel, the West Bank and Egypt, following the seventh-century travels of John Moschos, looking for the remaining evidence of Christianity in archtitecture, culture and population. It is a terrifically sad book. Many of the communities he visits were dwindling at the time of writing, in 1994; several of them wonder if they will even still be there in ten years' time. He is fantastic at capturing the characters he meets, especially among the dwindling Christians: some are stupid, some are bigoted, some are deluded, but all are part of a chain of culture going back two thousand years.
He is also at pains to stress that Islamic fundamentalism is not really the problem. In south-eastern Turkey, the local Christians are bit-players in the war between the Turkish state and the PKK. In Lebanon, sections of the Christian community have been the authors of their own misfortune. In the Holy Land, Christian Palestinians face the same pressure from Israel as their Muslim neighbours (and do not understand why their co-religionists in the West do not speak up for them). In 1994, Islamic fundamentalists were a big part of the picture only in Egypt.
Turks and Israelis may well feel that Dalrymple's picture is not balanced. I would agree; but I think it is fair. He is writing here of a particular religious tradition at a particular time, and the systematic destruction of their monuments and erosion of their population base is a big part of the story. Of course there are and have been Christian cities and countries where other religions have been oppressed, but that sort of point-scoring is not relevant to Dalrymple's approach. Instead he is at pains to avoid essentialism; to attribute government policies to government leaders themselves, rather than to their religion or race; and to look for links between the cultures of the region, and for insights into how the past remains present.
It would be interesting to read a follow-up of what the situation is now for some of these communities. I can't imagine that many of them (except perhaps the Lebanese) have seen much improvement in their lot since 1994. Anyway, this is fascinating stuff. Strongly recommended.