Travels back in time.

Some travel books are considered great because they capture the essence of a place. Other travel books are worth going back to because they freeze time. They capture moments spent in places which have changed or may have gone forever, and this is something to value for its own sake in a world which continues to change apace. 

A case in point is Michael Palin’s characteristically engaging book Around the World in Eighty Days, which was published to tie in with his late-80’s TV series of the same name. I loved that programme when it was first shown, but I only read the accompanying book for the first time a couple of weeks ago.  Reading it, I was struck by how quickly the world has changed, even in less than 25 years. To pick two examples from many, Dubai when he was there was not the developed desert megacity it is now. And early on in the journey Palin took the ferry from Venice to Alexandria, via the Corinth Canal and Crete. You can still get the same ferry- in theory at least- but the route has altered to take in a stop in Syria. Needless to say the service is suspended until further notice.

This brings me on to another travel book I read a couple of years ago.

“From the Holy Mountain” by William Dalrymple is a decent read. However, I found it very hard going at times. With hindsight, though, the things that exasperated me about it could now be seen as strengths of a sort, given the ongoing civil war in Syria and general unrest in the region.  The narrative framework for this book is provided by a Byzantine monk, John Moschos, who travelled throughout the Eastern Roman Empire from Mount Athos in Greece, through Turkey and the middle east, and ending in Egypt. These modern states all cover the territories held at one point or another  by the Byzantine empire, and as such they form the ancient heartlands of Christianity.

In undertaking his journey, Dalrymple was keen to find out what echoes of the past could still be caught in these former Byzantine states. He also sought to reveal the current state of Christians and Christianity in the area. At its best I found the book enlightening, particularly good in those passages dealing with southern Turkey, the Armenian people and Syria. Up to around page 300, I found the author was able to maintain the balancing act between giving an account of his journey, sketching the historical background and letting the Christians he met along the way tell their own story. However, despite the blurb on the jacket of my copy, this is NOT a consistently “witty” or “funny” book. While Dalrymple is an agreeable guide, I didn’t find his attempts at humour particularly strong or well judged. Besides which the tale he unfolds is, by and large, a consistently sad one, telling of persecution, suffering and mutual misunderstanding between peoples, religions and governments.

Dalrymple at his best turns a vivid phrase. On the other hand his approach errs towards being lumpen and over-detailled and he can be long-winded. For instance, while he clearly spoke to a lot of people along the way, every encounter seems to be rendered verbatim. Similarly, while the copious bibliography proves that the author has done his background reading, this often results in clumps of factual details choking the narrative (instances like the two page diversion on the significance of St George to various nations had me wishing he’d just get on with it). At times like these Dalrymple doesn’t wear his learning lightly: he is one of those who keeps it on at all times like an anorak.

In hindsight, however, it’s perhaps as well that some of the more lengthy interviews were spared the editor’s blue pencil. As things get ever more vicious, especially in Syria, it could be that this book becomes one more useful point of reference for anyone wanting to know how some people in the region got by in the last few years before events took their most recent turn.

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