Saturday, March 31, 2007

Christian Monasteries, Middle East

I heard a lecture this afternoon by William Dalrymple, a Scot, who is in the long line of briliant, and intrepid Brit travel and history writers. I read his first book quite some time ago, following the Silk Road. His current book is called THE LAST MOGUL, a messy piece of history of the British Raj. But what he was talking about was an earlier book called HOLY MOUNTAIN, which was about the many Christian monasteries in the crescent shaped geograhical arc from Istanbul to Southern Egypt -- the monasteries that were built during the Byzantine period when Christianity first became an accepted religion. He and a companion followed a pair ot traveling monks but he talked about what exists today.

Little understood by Americans is that Christianity is a Middle Eastern religion and the roots, its earliest writings and art and litergies were maintained in the monasteries of the Western Mediterranean. It is not a Roman or European religion at base although both have greatly changed it from it's beginnings. When the Dark Ages settled on Europe after the fall of Rome, the Byzantine Empire continued and was officially Christian until it fell to Islam centuries later. But even so, the Byzantine era monasteries continued and even today harbor texts from that time, the monks wear the same robes and beards and beleive the old beliefs. He showed pictures illustrating how a motif of saints sharing a holy waffer was almost the same in a 6th century Egyptian monastery and on a Celtic era chruch in Scotland.

Dalrymple offered two major points: One is that the Middle East is far more complex than American media portray it. Part of that is because Christianity has always been tolerated in the Islamic world, and Christians, until quite recently, have not at all been persecuted the way Europeans have persecuted Muslims [kicking all out of Spain and Italy, for instance] and Jews -- we know what happened to them! Bagdad, says he, had a sizable Christian population until the current war. But now almost all Christians have fled Iraq, mostly for Syria [Damascus] because an intolerance has been let loose that did not exist before.

There were many more points, lots of wonderful slides,great anecdotes about ancient monastics and current day dislike of Catholics. A very good talk, bringing together coherently various things I knew about but didn't grasp in the large picture.

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