In From the Holy Mountain? William Dalrymple tells the story of the fishponds of Abraham in a remote part of Turkey. These fishponds are a relic of one of the most ancient fertility cults in the Middle East. These ponds then became a Christian shrine and now the ponds and the fish in them are sacred to Muslims. The name? the religion and the sex of the deity have changed? but the culture of the sacred fish has remained the same.
But with the conflict in the Middle East over the last 50 years? this kind of fluidity between faiths has all but disappeared. Religious flux has become religious violence.
In From the Holy Mountain? William Dalrymple gives an account of a journey that he took in the footsteps of a wandering 6th century Byzantine monk named John Moschos.
Reading from From the Holy Mountain :
Overlooking the monastery ruins on top of a low hill a short distance out into the desert lay the Coptic necropolis of Bagawat. I walked over there in the bright red evening sun. The necropolis was like a Byzantine village sitting amid the dunes? long streets of simple café-au-lait mud brick tomb houses and chapels: some flat-topped? others with domes? a few decorated with blind arcading? or naive frescoes? many severely plain. Some of the tombs had clearly held the bodies of saints or holy men for their walls were marked with pious Byzantine graffiti: 'Pray for the soul of Zoe'? 'Blessings on 'Theophilus'? 'Remember Menas'. But the tombs had decayed in the winds of 1500 winters? so that the brick was cracked and brittle and many of the buildings were left like skeletons? without a roof or a bck wall. The whole complex was windswept and eerie? and a gathering breeze wailed through the broken doorways.
These tombs? I realised? must have been the last thing that John Moschos saw before he left the great oasis on the Alexandria road en route to his final exile in Constantinople. Sitting there? looking out over the temple monastery where his friend Abba Leo had lived before being carried off into slavery? Moschos must have known that his whole world was crumbling. But I wondered whether even he realised the extent to which he was witnessing the last days of the golden age of the Christian Middle East. Christianity is an Eastern religion which grew firmly rooted in the intellectual ferment of the Middle East. John Moschos saw that plant begin to wither in the hot winds of change that scoured the Levant of his day. On my journey in his footsteps? I have seen the very last stalks in the process of being uprooted. It has been a continual process lasting nearly one-and-a-half millennia. Moschos saw its beginnings? I have seen the beginning of the end.
Lyn Gallacher:: William Dalrymple spoke to me from London about the kind of discoveries he made as he followed the trail of this long-dead ...