I travelled with my family in India in 2008 and my most useful guide was the writing of a Scot named William Dalrymple. This past spring we travelled in Syria, Lebanon and Jordan and found that Dalrymple has done it again in his book From the Holy Mountain: A Journey in the Shadow of Byzantium, which was first published in 1997. Dalrymple searched out and described Christian communities in Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Israel (including the occupied West Bank), and Egypt. While the book is a bit dated, it remains a compelling and useful resource describing the disturbing reality that Christians are either being forced out or are leaving the countries that he profiles. The most accommodating nation in the region is Syria and even there Christians fear for their future.
Dalrymple says that the great flowering of Christianity in the Middle East began after the Roman emperor Constantine declared in the 4th century that Christianity would be the official religion of the empire. The golden age, embodied in the Byzantine Christianity, lasted for about 300 years, until the rise of Islam in the 7th century. During that time, Dalrymple writes, “the Levant was the heartland of Christianity and the centre of Christian civilization.” But he writes that Christianity is suffering “a devastating decline in the land of its birth.”
Dalrymple certainly is not anti-Muslim. He says that for centuries the predominantly Muslim countries of the Ottoman Empire practiced a far greater tolerance for Christians and Jews in their midst than Christian countries of Europe did for either Jews or Muslims. “Only in the 20th century has that tolerance been replaced by new hardening in Islamic attitudes,” Dalrymple says, adding that this is in great part due to a series of humiliations visited upon Muslim countries by the West. “Almost everywhere . . . the Christians are leaving,” he says.
At one level Dalrymple’s book is a travelogue. He seeks out the remnants of Christian communities from Turkey to Egypt. These are often monks living in remote monasteries but he also finds the beleaguered and usually elderly survivors of other Christian communities as well. In Istanbul (formerly Constantinople) he finds that descendants of the Byzantines continue to leave what was once the first city of Christendom. In Eastern Turkey, he finds that the Syrian Orthodox church has been almost entirely wiped out. Turkey continues to insist that the Armenian genocide never actually occurred and the state is attempting to remove evidence that Armenian Christians ever existed there. The few remaining Christians in the region are mistrusted and victimized by both the Turks and the Kurds, who are advocating, often violently, for their own homeland.
In Lebanon, Dalrymple blames the Maronite Christians for fomenting the calamitous civil war that occurred between 1975 and 1990. Following the First World War, the League of Nations granted France a mandate in the region and in 1920 the French carved the Lebanese state out of greater Syria. Dalrymple says that this was done at the request of Maronite Christians and was at least partly aimed at maintaining a sympathetic Christian beachhead in the predominantly Muslim region. Dalrymple says the Maronites were contemptuous of their fellow Arab and Muslim citizens. Rather than negotiating a sharing of political power, the Maronites chose to arm themselves and prepare for battle. Dalrymple says they lost that war and the stranglehold they had previously held on power. The war also provided an opportunity for the fundamentalists in Iranian-backed Hezbollah (army of God) to consolidate their power base in Lebanon and to add to the region’s instability. By the war’s end, at least one third of Lebanon’s Maronites had fled. Signs of the civil war still exist. In 2010, we saw people in Beirut living in the hollow skeletons of buildings that had been destroyed during the fighting years ago.
Dalrymple says that when the state of Israel was created in 1948, an estimated 55,000 Palestinian Christians were driven from their homes or fled — in addition to 650,000 Muslim Palestinians. In the 1967 war, Israel captured East Jerusalem and the West Bank from Jordan and they were placed under military occupation. Israel has undertaken a relentless colonization by creating Jewish settlements in the occupied territory, including East Jerusalem. Early in the 20th century, Christians comprised more than half of Jerusalem’s population, but Dalrymple says their numbers have declined to about three per cent. Christians now make up about two per cent of the population in the country as a whole. The Israeli government, says Dalrymple, is systematically erasing the landmarks and history of Christian presence.
In Egypt, Dalrymple writes, the Coptic Christians experience discrimination from the authoritarian Mubarek regime and suffer increasing violence at the hands of Muslim fundamentalists. Dalrymple says that Christians in Egypt “are well aware that things are likely to get much worse if President Mubarek falls and an Islamic revolution brings the fundamentalists to power.”
It is in Syria, under another authoritarian regime, where Christians are most free to practice their religion and to participate more equally in society. It was in Syria that Armenian and Syrian Orthodox Christians found sanctuary from neighbouring Turkey. The northern city of Aleppo is home to hundreds of thousands of Armenian Christians who provide a distinctive atmosphere in business, culture and cuisine. While there on a Saturday evening in April, we went in search of Christian churches and came upon a wedding occurring at the Armenian cathedral. The bride’s mother invited us to stay and although we had to decline we did see the wedding car a short time later decked with flowers and announced by blaring horns in the old city’s narrow streets. In Aleppo and the capital city of Damascus, the spires of Christian churches dot the skyline along with the minarets of mosques and we heard the tolling of church bells as well as the frequent calls to Muslim prayer.
Dalrymple says that Syria has been a “Noah’s ark” of shelter and safety for Christians but that to some extent there is a Machiavellian reason for it. Hafez al-Assad, who seized power in 1970, was an Alawite, a Muslim minority within Syria that is considered heretical by the majority Sunni population. Hassad remained in power and ruled with ruthless authority by forming an informal coalition of religious minority groups including the Christians who form about 10 per cent of Syria’s population. Hassad died in 2000 and his son Bashare took over for him. Dalrymple says that Syrian Christians fear that they may suffer a savage backlash when and if the Assad dynasty falls — and he reports anecdotally that those Syrian Christians who can afford it are attempting to obtain second passports as a precaution.
Dalrymple believes that the disappearance of Christians from the Middle East has important consequences beyond the stories of discrimination and violence that so many people have experienced. He quotes from his interview with Lebanese historian Kemal Salibi, author of the classic book A House of Many Mansions. “Since the 19th century the Christian Arabs have played a vital role in defining a secular Arab cultural identity,” Salibi told Dalrymple in an interview. “It is no coincidence that most of the founders of secular Arab nationalism were Christians . . . If Christian Arabs continue to emigrate, the Arabs will be in a much more difficult position to defend the Arab world against Islamism . . . Everyone is frightened by the spread of fundamentalism.”
One reviewer has said that Dalrymple’s book is not an optimistic one about the future of Christians in the Middle East — and it is not. Yet, Dalrymple reminds us of the great similarities between the two world religions: “Today the West often views Islam as a civilization very different from and innately hostile to Christianity. Only when you travel in Christianity’s Eastern homelands do you realize how closely the two religions are really linked. For the former grew directly out of the latter and still, to this day, embodies many aspects and practices of the early Christian world now lost in Christianity’s Western incarnation.”