{WROTE ITSELF} Once upon a time, in the desert on top of a pillar …

All bloggers will know the experience of having a post write itself. It comes pouring out in minutes. Little or no editing is required. It just wants to be.

The following post was like that. It was originally published in February 2011, and a few months later, the country it celebrates as an extraordinary miracle – Syria – was changed forever. After thousands of years, history turned in those few months, and Dalrymple’s brilliant book was transformed into elegy.

I’m still very moved by the post for that reason and many others. The incantatory opening to the ancient book, written by that long-ago monk, still thrills me, as do the timeless characters he encounters.

This is the post.

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Once upon a time, in the desert on top of a pillar …

… there lived a monk named Simeon. Wanting to escape the growing horde of pilgrims attracted by his fame as an ascetic, Simeon climbed on to a pillar in Syria in 423AD and “remained there till his death 37 years later.”

Simeon inspired many imitators including Saint Alypius, who after standing upright for 53 years …

found his feet no longer able to support him, but instead of descending from his pillar, lay down on his side and spent the remaining 14 years of his life in that position.

The Stylites (from the Greek stylos or pillar) are just some of the characters whose lives and bizarre feats the historian, William Dalrymple, discovers on his journey across the Levant following in the footsteps of a journey taken 1400 years earlier by a monk named John Moschos.

Dalrymple recorded his journey in the splendid book, From the Holy Mountain, and I’ve just had the pleasure of reading it.

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In my opinion, the meadows in Spring present a particularly delightful prospect. One part of this meadow blushes with roses; in other places lilies predominate; in another violets blaze out, resembling the Imperial purple. Think of this present work in the same way, Sophronius, my sacred and faithful child. For from among the holy men, monks and hermits of the Empire, I have plucked the finest flowers of the unmown meadow and worked them into a crown which I now offer to you, most faithful child; and through you to the world at large …

So begins The Spiritual Meadow written by John Moschos who set out in the year 578AD from a monastery near Bethlehem, with his companion, Sophronius the Sophist, to journey across the Eastern Byzantine world to the famous monasteries in the deserts of Syria, Palestine and Egypt. Their journey was taken in the dying days of the surprising and little-known interregnum of about 300 years, between the fall of the Roman Empire and the rise of Islam, when the Middle East was

an entirely Christian world, and indeed the very centre of Christianity …

William Dalrymple begins his journey 1400 years later from Mt Athos in Greece where he cajoles the deeply reluctant monks of the monastery of Iviron, wary after the plunders of earlier British historians, to unlock their library to show him the earliest manuscript of The Spiritual Meadow.

In the next five months, he follows Moschos’s path through modern-day eastern Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Israel and Egypt, visiting amongst many others, the monastery of St Antony, the home of the monks of the famous “Sayings of the Desert Fathers”, and ending at the furthermost point of Moscos’s path at the desolate Coptic necropolis of Bagawat on the edge of Great Kharga Oasis in upper Egypt.

Along the way Dalrymple discovers many surprising things. He discovers that the world witnessed by Moschos was one of startling syncretism. In architecture, in worship, in everyday life, he finds pagan mixed with Christian mixed with Muslim. He discovers, for example, the Muslim style of prayer of kneeling and bowing was first used by the Christians, and that Christians and Muslims regarded themselves as kind of religious cousins.

What’s even more surprising is that in Syria he finds this syncretism continues still.

In the monastery of Seidnaya, he finds a churchful of “heavily bearded Muslim men,” their wives spending the night before the altar praying for a child.

Dalrymple whispers to one of the nuns,

And you have no objection to so many Muslims coming here and praying in your church?

We are all children of God, says the nun. “The All Holy One brings us all together.”

But Seidnaya is the exception that proves the rule.  Everywhere he goes outside Seidnaya, and to a lesser extent Syria as a whole, he finds cities and lands with a long provenance of vivacious multiculturalism – great ancient metropolises like Constantinople and Alexandria, pulsing for 2000 years with varied ethnicities and religions – transformed in the 20th century into a series of “mono-ethnic, mono-religious blocs.”

He finds Alexandria emptied of Greeks, an Israel for Jews only (he pulls no punches on the topic of Jewish settlements in the West Bank) and a Turkey emptied of all Christians, with one last Armenian woman living in a region of south-Eastern Turkey previously full of Armenians, old and frail and needing the protection of two male Kurdish neighbours simply to continue her existence.

In what was the birthplace of Christianity – Christianity being an Eastern religion, not a Western one, as Dalrymple reminds himself and the reader repeatedly, each time with a degree of shock – he finds Christianity almost totally obliterated, and the monasteries, once dotted in their thousands, barely surviving.

Writing in 1994, Dalrymple gives Christianity 10 years in some places, 15 in others.

Only in Egypt, with its significant minority of Christian Copts, can he imagine the persistence of Christianity.

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Contrary to his expectations, Dalrymple does not find Islamic fundamentalism to be generally responsible for the passing of Christianity in the Middle East. In the frightening region of Upper Egypt he visits there is severe persecution of the local Copts by Muslims, but, in general, the fall of Christianity has been a much more complex picture.

What he does find, rather, is evidence of the great tolerance of Christianity by Islam for century after century. Until the 20th century.

As he says,

How easy it is today to think of the West as the home of freedom of thought and liberty of worship, and to forget how, as recently as the seventeenth century, Hugenot exiles escaping religious persecution in Europe would write admiringly of the policy of religious tolerance practised across the Ottoman Empire. The same broad tolerance that had given homes to hundreds of thousands of penniless Jews, expelled by bigoted Catholic kings from Spain and Portugal … despite the Crusades and the continual hostility of the Christian West. Only in the twentieth century has that traditional tolerance been replaced by a new hardening in Islamic attitudes; only recently has the syncretism of … Seidnaya become a precious rarity.

Dalrymple’s book leaves the reader, and the writer, with one giant unanswered – unanswerable? – question. What was it about the 20th century that overturned 1400 years of great tolerance, even cross-fertilisation, between religions?

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When Simeon ascended his pillar it was about four metres high. However, his supporters kept replacing it with others, “the last in the series being apparently over 15 metres from the ground.”

Yet even on the highest of his columns, Simeon could not escape the world. As Wikipedia notes,

If anything, the new pillar drew even more people, not only the pilgrims who had come earlier but now sightseers as well.

At some point Simeon must have accepted his fate, and he began “making himself available” – in the delightful Wikipedia phrase – to visitors every afternoon.

By means of a ladder, visitors were able to ascend, and it is known that he wrote letters, the text of which survive to this day, that he instructed disciples, and that he … delivered addresses to those assembled beneath, preaching especially against profanity and usury. In contrast to the extreme austerity that he demanded of himself, his preaching conveyed temperance and compassion, and was marked with common sense and freedom from fanaticism.

According to Edward Gibbon, the author of the History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Simeon died in situ:

He sometimes prayed in an erect attitude, with his outstretched arms in the figure of a cross, but his most familiar practice was that of bending his meagre skeleton from the forehead to the feet … The progress of an ulcer in his thigh might shorten, but it could not disturb, this celestial life; and the patient Hermit expired, without descending from his column.

The remains of Simeon’s pillar can be seen today in the church in Syria that bears his name, and in the picture below.

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Notes

All references and quotations about Dalrymple’s journey from two sources:

1. William Dalrymple, From the Holy Mountain

2. The Religion Report, ABC radio, broadcast April 21, 1999

All references and quotations to Simeon from Wikipedia.

Images: Icon showing Simeon on the left with leg out, presumably ulcered, courtesy of Wikipedia (top); necropolis of Bagawat, the Great Kharga Oasis, Egypt, courtesy of gyst on Flickr (second from top); monastery of Mar Saba in the wilderness of Judaea (third from top); remains of Simeon’s pillar (with boulder on top) at the Church of Saint Simeon Stylites, near Aleppo, Syria (bottom).

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