William Dalrymple, the Scottish Catholic adventurer, wrote in his book From the Holy Mountain about the modern remnants of Byzantium, the following:
‘John Moschos did what the modern travel writer still does: he wandered the world in search of strange stories and remarkable travellers’ tales.’
Note that Dalrymple did not say that travellers go to discover new things, or places, or people. He sets the modern travel writer on a different plane, as one who adventures through the human narrative by means of travel.
That is certainly true of the opulent works of Dalrymple, for who travelling to places is merely a starting point for an intellectual journey through past civilizations and cultures. At his best, Dalrymple delivers writings that reveal intellectual continents, through which run his riveting historical and moving personal revelations.
When Dalrymple spoke of travel writing and John Moschos, he was referring to an ancient traveller whose footsteps he would retrace in his quest, from Greece through the Levant to Egypt, to find the monasteries and cities that Moschos had previously written about. With John Moschos’ book, entitled The Spiritual Meadow, in hand Dalrymple journeyed to the ports of Sidon, Tyre, Beirut, Alexandria – to see what Moschos had seen, or to discover if anything Byzantine was still there in any incarnation at all.
A huge gulf of time separated Dalrymple from Moschos and yet in several appealing ways they had much in common.
An Oxford graduate from the leisured classes of Scotland, when Dalrymple set out for Byzantium he had already written a best-selling travel book In Xanadu: A Quest. For this, he travelled to China while an impecunious student accompanied by relays of girlfriends. He had also written City of Djinns: A Year in Delhi based on an uneasy year he spent in the city with his young artist wife, Olivia. In his much later book White Mughals, it would emerge that Dalrymple’s Anglo-Indian origins were the reason for his fascination with India.
Prior to setting out to discover Byzantium, Dalrymple consulted with a veritable slate of geniuses and eccentrics: Sir Steven Runciman, Robert Lacey and Robert Fisk among them. On his Byzantium odyssey, Dalrymple started his journey at the monastery of Mount Athos on the Greek mainland in 1994. He began here because he went to see an early Greek manuscript of Moschos’s book.
John Moschos began his journey from the gates of the great desert monastery of St Theodosius overlooking Bethlehem. The year was 578 A.D., nearly 1500 years before Dalrymple set out from Mount Athos. Moschos was ‘an almost exact contemporary of Mohammed.’ This ‘wandering Jew of a monk’ as a biographer of Moschos wrote, travelled with his pupil Sophronius, who in old age would become Patriarch of Jerusalem, and ‘it was left to him to defend the Holy City against the first army of Islam as it swept up from Arabia, conquering all before it.’
Moschos wanted to see and write about Byzantium when it was under assault. Justinian’s efforts to re-establish the Roman Empire had failed. Now Byzantium was threatened in the west by Slavs, Goths and Lombards and from the east by ‘desert nomads and the legions of Sassanian Persia’.
Dalrymple wanted to write about a civilization that is largely forgotten and its remnants growing few and remote from modern life. It is not commonly realized that for 300 years Byzantium was the dominant culture of Eastern Europe and the Levant. It was a distinct cultural era between Rome and Islam, and yet so little of it remains in the Western consciousness, except in Eastern Orthodox religious traditions.
Both Dalrymple and Moschos wanted to recover, record and preserve a phase of history most remembered in the adjective ‘Byzantine’ or faintly remembered from the portraits in mosaic of Justinian and Theodora at Ravenna.
John Moschos and his companion ended their journey in Constantinople where he wrote his book. It was hailed as the masterpiece of Byzantine travel writing even then and in a generation or two was translated into several languages.
William Dalrymple ended his journey in Egypt and sojourned in the home of a friend in Somerset, England where he wrote his book. With From the Holy Mountain Dalrymple came of age as a writer. Some would say it was his greatest work. Today Dalrymple the family man divides his time between a farm outside Delhi, London and Edinburgh.
With From the Holy Mountain, he did what he wanted to do. ‘I wanted to see wherever possible what Moschos and Sophronius had seen, to sleep in the same monasteries, to pray under the same frescoes and mosaics, to discover what was left, and to witness what was in effect the last ebbing twilight of Byzantium.’