A Journey in the shadow of Byzantium
William Dalrymple

Note from Marthame and Elizabeth: you will find, below, sections that we have written, taken from Dalrymple's written notes and our memories.  We have marked them as such.  Any fault with them lies with us. 

In the spring of the year 587 A.D, had you been sitting on a bluff of rock overlooking Bethlehem you would have been able to see two figures setting off, staff in hand, from the gates of the great desert monastery of St. Theodosius. The two figures - an old grey-bearded monk accompanied by a tall, upright perhaps slightly stern younger companion - would have headed off South East through the wastes of Judea, towards the then fabulously rich port-metropolis of Gaza.

It was the start of an extraordinary forty year journey that would take John Moschos and his pupil Sophronius the Sophist in an arc across the entire  Eastern Byzantine world, from the shores of the Bosphorus to the sand dunes of desert Egypt. Now Byzantine caravanserais were rough places and the provincial Greek aristocracy did not enjoy entertaining: as the Byzantine writer Cecaumenus put it "houseparties are a mistake for guests merely criticise your housekeeping and attempt to seduce your wife." So everywhere they went, the two travellers stayed in some of the thousands of monasteries, caves and remote hermitages which then littered the Middle East. There they dined with the monks and ascetics. In each abbey, Moschus jotted down onto papyrus accounts that he heard of the sayings of the stylites and desert fathers, the sages and mystics of the Byzantine East, before this world, clearly on the verge of collapse, finally disappeared for ever.

Later, exiled in Constantinople, Moschos wrote an account of his travels; entitled The Leimonarion or Spiritual Meadow, his book received an enthusiastic reception in monasteries across the Byzantine Empire. Within a generation or two it had been translated into Latin, Georgian, Armenian, Arabic, and a variety of Slavonic languages. It was, if you like, the greatest travel bestseller in Byzantine history.

Now as you all know the monastic world described by John Moschos was a very different scene from the settled world of the mediaval western cloister; it was a place where: St. Cyril could applaud his Coptic monks for lynching and murdering the pagan lady philosipher Hyperia  as she passed in her litter though  Alexandria; where oracle-like stylites settled the domestic disputes of E. Christendom from atop their pillars, where dendrites took literally Christ's instruction to behave like the birds of the air, and who therefore lived in trees and built little nests for themselves in the branches - and where other hermits walled themselves up in hermitages, suspended themselves in cages and where one gentleman named Baradatus even sowed himself up in animal skins so that he would be baked alive in sweltering Syria midsummer heat - a sort of Byzantine  boil-in the bag monk.

Yet for all this, there is a great deal in the period and in the ideals of Moschos's monks that is still deeply attractive: the Great Orthodox monastic tradition which aims at the purification of the soul through the taming of the flesh, where the material world is pulled aside like a great heavy curtain to allow man's gaze to go straight to God. Moreover the monasteries where this spiritual warfare took place were fortresses that preserved everything that had been salvaged from the wreck of classical civilisation, so preserving the learning of antiquity from the encroaching barbarism.

Moschos's Spiritual Meadow has an attractive carefree scholar-gypsy feel to it, and there is an endearing lightness of touch and sense of humour evident in its stories. One typical tale concerns a novice from Antinoe in Upper Egypt 'who,' according to Moschos, 'was very careless with his own soul'. When the novice dies, his teacher is worried that he might have been sent to hell for his sins, so he prays that it might be revealed what has happened to his pupils soul. Eventually the teacher goes into a trance, and sees a river of fire with the novice submerged in it up to his neck. The teacher is horrified, but the novice turns to him saying, 'I thank God, oh my teacher, that there is relief for my head. Thanks to your prayers I am standing on the head of a bishop.'

Yet reading between the lines these were clearly dangerous times: Empire was under assault, from West: from Slavs, Goths and Lombards, while on the East you had the whole fabric was cracking under raids by desert nomads and the legions of Sassanian Persia. In 614 Moschos's home monastery of St. Theodosius was burned to the ground  by the Persian army and all their brethren - hundreds of unarmed monks - put to the sword. Nevertheless, when John Moschos died in 619, the empire still ruled, however shakily, from the Veneto to Southern Egypt. But Moschos's companion, Sophronius, was to live to see this entire Eastern Byzantine world finally shatter and fragment.

In his old age, Sophronius was appointed Patriarch of Jerusalem: left to him to defend the Holy City against the first great army of Islam as it swept up from Arabia, conquering all before it. Now Arabs not great at seigecraft: when outside Damascus had to borrow ladder from monastery to get over the walls - but with the Imperial legions already ambushed on the banks of theYarmuck, and no prospect of relief - hopeless struggle.

On a February day in the year A.D 638, after a seige lasting twelve months, the Caliph Omar entered Jerusalem, riding upon a white camel. Sophronius handed over to him the keys of the city and through his tears was heard to murmur: "Behold the abomination of desolation, spoken of by Daniel the Prophet." He died, heartbroken, a few months later. He was buried in the monastery of St. Theodosius; beside him, in the next niche in the crypt, was laid the body of his friend John Moschos.

Though he did not know it, Sophronius had witnessed the first act in a tragedy whose denouement is taking place only now.

Even a century ago, over a quarter of the population of the Levant was still Christian; in a town like Istanbul that proportion rose to nearly 60%.

[note: our summary of his notes.  But twentieth century has brought wars and - more dangerously - nationalisms.  As a result, this has ended centuries of co-existence.  This does not mean that all was well under the Ottoman Empire, but they were certainly better than they are now.  In this part of the world, it has meant everything from the Turkish genocide of the Armenians to the Christian slaughter of Muslims in Srebrenica.]

Now the last of the Christians of the East are leaving en masse.

Today they are a small minority: 14 million struggling to keep afloat amid 180 million non-Xtians, their numbers reduced annually- emigration: last 20 years 2million Eastern Christians have left Middle East to make new lives for themselves in Australia, Europe and America. Now more Jerusalem-born Christians living in Sydney than in Jerusalem itself, those that remain could be flown out in just nine jumbo jets.

This matters: Christianity is not a Western religion. It was not founded in London (however much the Victorians liked to believe that God was an Englishman) nor in Rome. It was born in Jerusalem and received its intellectual superstructure in Antioch, Damascus, Constantinople and Alexandria. Those Eastern Christians who are now leaving the Middle East preserve many of the most ancient liturgies, superstitions and traditions which hold the key to understanding early Christianity, and without which we can never really understand the roots of our own Christian-based culture. Without the local Christian population, the most important and the most ancient shrines in the Christian world will be left as museum pieces, preserved only for the curiosity of tourists. Christianity will no longer exist in the Holy Land as living faith; a vast vacuum will lie in the very heart of Christendom.

Yet despite this gloomy picture, a surprising number of the monasteries visited by Moschos and Sophronius still, just, survive. Like timeless islands of Byzantium, with their bells and black robes and candle-lit processions they are still occupied with elderly monks whose heavily-whiskered faces mirror those of the frescoed saints on the monastery walls. The monk's vestments remain unchanged since Byzantine times; the same icons are painted in the same way. Even the superstitions remain unchanged: relics of the True Cross and the Virgin's Tears are still venerated; demons and devils still lie in wait outside every monastery wall. Only last year there was great excitement in the Christian Quarter of Cairo when Our Lady was clearly seen floating over the domes of the Coptic Cathedral. Today, sitting under a candle-lit iconostasis, listening to plainchant still sung in the language of the sixth century Byzantium, it is still- just- possible to forget the intervening millennia and feel that the lifeline of tones and syllables, fears and hopes, linking us with the time of John Moschos is still intact.

The oldest manuscript of The Spiritual Meadow to survive can be found today in the library of the monastery of Iviron on Mount Athos. In June 1994 I set off to spend six months circling the Levant from Athos to the monasteries of Southern Egypt, following very roughly in John Moschos's footsteps, to discover what was left, intent on seeing the last twilight of Byzantium before its sun finally set.
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To see the earliest manuscript of John Moschos's book The Spiritual Meadow, I started the journey by visiting  Athos, the last Byzantine Republic to survive into the twentieth century.

The first monastery on the mountain was founded in the ninth century A.D by St. Euthymius of Salonica, who having forsworn the world at the age of eighteen, took to moving around on all fours and eating grass. So renowned was the holiness of this saint that twenty other monasteries soon sprung up around his original foundation.

All well until it reached the ears of the Byzantine Emperor, that the monks were in the habit of debauching the beautiful daughters of the shepherds who came to the mountain, ostensibly to sell milk and wool. Thereafter it was decreed that nothing female - no cow, no mare, no hen - could step within the limits .

So it has remained. Shepherdess's apart, Athos is in many ways much as it was in the days of St. Euthymius: Byzantine time is still kept, there is no electricity, and the monks still eat, sleep and pray beneath ancient frescoes.
* * * * *
[summary of his notes: Iviron was a monastic library, and the task before me was easier said than done.  It is an eccentric place, and a major struggle to enter, thanks to Fr. Christophores the charming but totally clueless librarian.  First, he lost his keys.  When he found them, we also found total chaos inside - disorderd books, priceless manuscripts lying around and it soon became clear that Christophores no idea about what was in his shelfs and had lost his index. So I had to walk ten miles uphill to Karyes - which with its one shop, one restaurant, and the only phone box on Athos.  The Las Vegas of Athos.  I borrowed enough drachma pieces made urgent phone calls to a don in Cambridge and eventually discovered the right manuscript number: MS Georgian 9.  I walked back - now late evening - and found the librarian feeding the cats.  The male cats.  I got back in, unlocking all the bolts with a huge bunch of keys like a sort of mediaeval jailor.]

read: pp 8-11 From the Holy Mountain
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What was once the greatest bastion of Christendom against Islam - for one thousand years it withstood repeated seiges by Arabs, Persians and Turks - it is now 99% Muslim. This is a very new development: as late as the early 1955's there were still 100,000 Greeks in Istanbul; but following a bloody anti-Greek pogrom in 1955 - the biggest race riot in Europe since the Second World War - and a continuing series of shootings and bombings on Greek churches, few Greeks now wish to remain, and the younger generation are all emigrating: only 500 left; and they will probably have gone by end of the next decade. The recent electoral success of the Muslim fundamentalist Welfare Party is only likely to speed up that process.

Already in Turkish law it is forbidden for Christians to build new churches or to open schools or seminaries [note: new Turkish reforms may change this, but it may be too late for the future of the Church]. So as it is impossible to train or ordain new priests, monks getting older and older, and the remaining monasteries on the Prince's Islands just off the coast of the city are being abandoned, one by one. The Greek Patriarch, the primus inter pares of Eastern Christendom, can barely fill the first three rows of the pews in his cathedral.

[summary of his notes:  Now in Moschos' day, Constantinople was clearly a much more lively place.  St.John would cry that it was an altogether evil place.  There was sorcery against horses and charioteers, as well as a proliferation of nude classical statues, which he said aroused the carnal passions.  He considered it a city of sin, which is always a good sign.]

read From the Holy Mountain, 82-83
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Because of the forcible eviction of the Greeks from Anatolia in 1922 and the massacre of the Armenians in 1916, today if you want to see living monasteries in Anatolia today you now have to travel to the Tur Abdin, the Hill of Slaves, in the far South East of Turkey, in the area 19th century travellers knew as Kurdistan.

I received lot of warnings in Istanbul about going there, most memorably from the hotel receptionist.  As I checked out he twirled his moustache and said: 'Watch out: Kurdistan is like a cucumber. Today in your hand, tomorrow up your arse.'

This is the last Christian community of any size to survive within modern Turkey. They speak Aramaic, the language of Christ, and they worship in very grand early Christian monasteries that date, in many cases, from less than four centuries after Christ's death, and were founded and built under the direct patronage of Byzantine Emperors.

[summary of his notes: But the present situation very bad.  In the "Dirty War", 60 were killed a day. The earth was burned, stumps of olive groves burned.  One thousand villages were cleared, including mostly Christian ones.  Today, only 500 Syriac Christians remain in the entire area.  The Kurdish didn't fair well, either.  Fifty-some Kurdish journalists were "mysteriously killed" in the course of the war.  When I was in Diyarbakir a local Kurdish newspaper editor had just mysteriously tumbled from the roof of his office, and the situation was so tense that that newspapers could only be bought from police stations.

Christians were caught in the middle of a war between the Turkish government and the Kurds.  The PKK would arrive in Christian villages, demanding food.  As a result, the government would burn the village.  It was quite a scary time, not least because the PKK respond with mines on the dirt tracks.  There were kidnappings, so you can't light fires, so have to eat raw snake and hedgehog.  They're not good. My driver belatedly admitted that he had received death threats.  There were no foreign journalists.  On one occasion he lent out the car; the driver was shot.  Travel in the area was also difficult: there were check points every two to three miles.

We made a visit to Deir ul Zafaran.  We had been shadowed all the way from Diyarbakir.  It was a ludicrous cavalcade: spies...police... army... heavy machine guns... fanned out all around.  The monk who greeted me said, "My God!  Is it war?"

At Mar Gabriel, we were greeted outside the front gate by a burned out minibus.  It had landed on a mine one month previously.  But inside, we found golden mosaics, magnificent buildings, all built by the Emperor Arcadius in the 490s.  Now, all that remains are five monks, along with forty forty children and refugees.]

This is not the first time Syriacs have suffered.  The reason that the Syriacs are still where they were before the first World War while the Armenians are either dead or dispersed is simple: the Syriacs were prepared.  During WWI, over one million Armenians were massacred by the Turks - not by the sophisticated machinery of the Nazis.  Instead, the Armenians were shot, starved, burned or knifed to death, the women often raped before being murdered. Unable or unwilling to make a distinction between different Christian communities, Ottoman authorities set about massacring, the Syriacs

[summary of his notes:  In Aynwardo, I met an old monk who was able to tell me how the Syriacs escaped, how they had gathered in the fortress during the siege.  He was 12 at the time and remembered everything.  There was massive preparation.  Overnight, ten villages evacuated and took shelter, twenty families to a house.  The fortress was laid siege by 12,000 Ottomans and 13,000 Kurdish neighbours.  Inside were 160 families, eating rats - but it was better than submitting to the besiegers.  They also engaged in counter attack, breaking out at night, eventually chasing the Muslims back to Midyat.  But elsewhere 90,000 Syriacs were murdered in Eastern Turkey during WWI.]
* * * * *
From Tur Abdin we headed back to Antioch, modern Antakya. Once the rival of Rome as the principal Christian centre of the Ancient World, it was now almost completely 'cleansed' of any Christian presence. But the interest for me was that there survives in this region the best evidence of what for me is certainly one of Byzantine monasticism's weirdest incarnations: the Stylites, those hermits who live in the desert on top of antique pillars. These Stylites were once very fashionable in Antioch - visiting them was a popular afternoon's outings for the smart and pious ladies of Byz Antioch.

[summary of his notes: Atop a wonderful mountain stood St. Symeon Stylites the Younger, the greatest showman among the stylites.  In realitiy, he was the Christian version of an oracle.  The church was built to orient not towards the altar and to God, but backwards, to this grotesque figure at the back of the nave on his pillar.  The church was built during the stylite's lifetime, a magnificent structure crafted by the  finest masons, architects, and sculptors.  A walnut wood enclosure stood around the top of the pillar to prevent St. Simeon's vertigo (as well as a pipe for the removal of  his bodily wastes).  It was deluxe stylitism: like holding a hunger strike at the Ritz.

St. John Moschos a great admirer of Simeon and tells several stories.  One is of the Antiochene who accused Simeon of sorcery.  His hand immediately turned putrid and fell off. Only after begging at the base of the pillar did Simeon agree to put it back on.

In the course of things, one of the worst dangers about being a stylite was not just heat and the cold, but lightning - stories are legion of a stylite who, immediately after preaching some kind of heresy from his column, was immediately struck dead, a sort of theological lightning rod.

St. Simeon the Younger's inspiration was, of course, the original St. Symeon Stylites who lived thirty miles away, over the modern Syrian border at Qalaat Semaan, the father of Stylitism.  After his death, a  great battle ensued for his body. Constantinople won, and to make up for this, in 491 the Emperor Leo mollified the locals by building what was then the most magnificent church complex in the empire.  There were hostels... shops... gates... a church... and, of course, a pillar.]

Unsurprisingly the habit of sitting on top of pillars did not outlast the Middle Ages, except in Georgia where it survived up to the 18th century.  But you'll be glad to hear the Syrian Orthodox church has plans to bring it back: the metropolitan of Aleppo is raising a pillar in the middle of new monastery and have a relay of Stylites up top.
* * * * *
[summary of his notes: It was the home of Theodoret, the most famous celebrity biographer in Byzantine Syria.  He went around digging his way into hermitages, knocking down the doors of monks who had walled themselves up in hermitages, hung themselves suspended in cages, or even sewed themselves up in skins so that they would be baked alive in the sweltering Syrian mid summer heat-  a sort of Byzantine boil in the bag monk.  Ascetics were the real celebrities, the rock stars of their day.  Egyptian monks were so jealous of the Syrians that they excommunicated St. Simeon Stylites.  Theodoret relates this story about Simeon's visitors:]

"as his fame circulated everywhere, everyone hastened to him, not only the people of the neighborhood, but also people many months distant, some bringing the paralysed in body, others requesting health for the sick, and they begged to received from him what they could not receive from nature. So with everyone arriving from every side and every road resembling a river, one can behold a sea of men standing in that place, receiving rivers from every side. Not only the inhabitants of our part of the world, but also Ishmaelites, Persians, Armenians and even inhabitants of the extreme west: Spaniards, Britons and Gauls. Of Italy it is superfluous to speak. It is said that the man became so celebrated in the great city of Rome that at the entrance of all the workshops men have set up small representations of him to provide some safety and protection for themselves.'

[summary of his notes:  But things were clearly beginning to get out of control.  Nothing illustrates that ludicrous state than the  fight over saints' bodies which Theodoret describes:]

read From the Holy Mountain, 136
* * * * *
If Byzantium is very difficult to visualise I think this is partly because very little except churches survives: in Istanbul, for example, not a single Byzantine domestic house still in existence. One place where Byzantine domestic architecture does survive is in the area known as the Dead Cities of northern Syria. Most of the villages and towns of the area were newly deserted around the time of John Moschos, after some mysterious disaster led the population to flee. They remain much as he must have seen them in places like Ruweiha, Jeradeh, Serjilla, and al-Bara.
* * * * *
Living monasteries in Syria are not so plentiful. One that does survive here is...

[summary of his notes:  It is one of the most famous shrines to the Virgin, the image painted by that most prolific artist, St. Luke. It still a great centre of pilgrimage, not just for Christians, but also for Muslims: in this picture you can see well-chadored Muslim ladies climbing the steps. Barren women come and spend the night in front of the altar and are supposed to conceive miraculously. Not - I hasten to add - because of monkly intervention: Seidnaya is a nunnery.

It is also much sought after by people about to embark on a long journey: when I spent the night there, there were several cosmonauts.  What did they do? Did they give the nuns a lecture on space station Mir?  No: they brought a sheep and slaughtered it.]
* * * * *
Moschos passed fairly quickly through Lebanon so I'm going to omit it from the lecture tonight and pass straight onto Palestine where the Christian presence is nearly extinguished.

In 1922, soon after the British took over Palestine after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, nearly a tenth of the population were Christian Arabs. They were wealthier and better educated than their Muslim counterparts, owned almost all the newspapers and filled a disproportionate number of senior jobs in the Mandate Civil Service. Now only 170,000 Christians are left in Israel and the Occupied Territories. They are leaving, fast, fleeing outright violence and a hundred other of the more subtle forms of oppression suffered by all Palestinians under Israeli rule: forcible expropriation of vast tracts of church and private land, diversion of water from ancient Christian villages to new Jewish settlements,  imprisonment, torture and deportation. Last year Michel Sabbah, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, issued a warning that by the turn of the century Christianity may well have died out in the land of its birth.

[summary of his notes:  There is decline, demoralisation and impotence in the Christian population.  This has obviously affected the monasteries.

Pharan was founded by St. Chariton in the early fourth century, the first monastery in Palestine.  John Moschos lived here for ten years when he first became a monk.  It was finally deserted only in 1976.  When I was in Athos, I met the last monk who had taken care of the site.  He fled the area after his friend and neighbour Fr. Philloumenos was knifed and then incinerated by an Israeli settler while taking care of Jacob's Well in Nablus.  Pharan has now been wired into a new Israeli West Bank settlement.
* * * * *
But most monasteries face a different problem: the Greeks won't ordain Palestinians as it would allow the Arabs to become bishops.  The result is empty monasteries.  St. Theodosius once had four hundred monks, including a smaller wing which was a lunatic asylum - 'a monastery within a monastery for those disturbed by excessive asceticism'.  Now, just two Rumanian nuns.  The crypt is where John Moschos and his traveling companion Sophronius are still buried.  The same is true everywhere else, including St. George's in Wadi Qelt, Lavra of Douka, and St.Gerasimus.

The one exception: Mar Saba, where 15 monks still going strong.  They are a slightly eccentric bunch, particularly my friend Fr. Theophanes.  When you arrive at Mar Saba (if you are a man - women are forbidden), he will greet you at the door, asking if you are orthodox or heretic.  He then informs you that unless you convert you will be among the damned.]

Allow me to read you a little extract:

"See that river down there at the bottom of the cliff?" said Fr. Theophanes. "Nowadays it's just the sewage from Jerusalem. But on Judgement Day that's where the River of Blood is going to flow. It's going to be full of freemasons, whores and heretics: Protestants, Schismatics, Jews, Catholics.  More Ouzo?"


The monk paused to pour another thimbulful of spirit into a small glass. When I had gulped it down, he continued with his apocalypse:

"At the head of the Damned will be a troop composed of all the Popes of Rome, followed by their deputies, the Vice-Presidents of the Freemasons..."

"You're saying the Pope is a Freemason?"

"A  Freemason? He's the President of the Freemasons. Everyone knows this. Each morning he worships the devil in the form of a naked woman with head of a goat."

"Actually, I'm a Catholic."

"Then," said Theophanes, "unless you convert to Orthodoxy, you will follow your Pope down that Valley, through the scorching fire.

"We will watch you from this balcony," he added. "But of course it will then be too late to save you."

Mar Saba was once famous for its scholarship. But you would never guess any of  this from talking to Mar Saba's current inhabitants:

"So you're a writer are you?" asked Fr. Theophanes when he brought me my supper on a tray at the end of vespers. "I've stopped reading books myself. The Divine Liturgy contains all the theology I need. Once you've read the word of God I can't see the point of reading anything else."

"They say books are like food," pointed out Fr. Evdokimos, philosophically. "They feed your brain."

"But Father, " said Theophanes quietly. "Monks should try to eat as little as possible."

It was nearly dark. As we talked Theophanes took out a box of matches and began to try and light a pair of battered old paraffin storm lanterns (there is no electricity in Mar Saba).

"What did you do before you became a monk?" I asked as Theophanes sat trimming the wicks.

"I was a policeman, in Athens. I came here for the first time on a pilgrimage. As soon as I saw this monastery I recognised it as my true home.. Since then I've left only once. I went back to Athens, but I hardly recognised my old city. There were so many new buildings. New buildings and new crimes."

"Being a monk must all have been a quite a change from your previous work."

"Not so different," replied the monk. "Demons are very like criminals. Both are very stupid. Both are damned."

Over the course of the week Fr. Theophanes raved on intermittently about the Freemasons, and how they had masterminded the Ecumenical movement and invented the supermarket bar code, but it was only towards the end of my stay I finally plucked up the courage to ask Fr. Theophanes why he was so worried by the Freemasons.

"Because," he replied , "they are the Legions of the Anti-Christ."

"I always thought Freemasons just held coffee mornings and bridge evenings and that sort of thing."

"Breedj evenings?" said Theophanes, pronouncing the word as if it was some sort of Satanic ritual. "Probably this breedj drive also. But their main activity is to worship the Devil. There are many steps," he said, nodding knowingly. "But the last, the final step, is to meet with the Devil and have homosexual relations with him. After this he makes you Pope or sometimes President of the United States."

"President of the United States...?"

"Certainly. This has been proved. All the Presidents of the United States have been Freemasons. Except Kennedy. And you know what happened to him..."
* * * * *
From Palestine, I crossed down through the Sinai to St. Catherine's monastery, the Southernmost Greek Orthodox monastery where the 20 remaining Greek monks still preserve the icons given them by Justinian, but whose spiritual life is sorely impeded by the unstoppable flow of pilgrims and tourists which in reality, for all the sanctity of the site, has turned them into little more than a community of postcard sellers. One can only feel very sorry for them: they've tried to withdraw from the world to the remoteness of the Egyptian desert, only to find themselves surrounded by millions of people in shorts and bikinis. It can only be a matter of time before they follow the example of the monks of the Meteora who eventually left their monasteries and fled en masse to Athos. From there across the Suez Canal to Alexandria.

read From the Holy Mountain, 387,392
* * * * *
From thence south into Coptic territory. Now Egypt has always had the largest Christian minority of any Middle Eastern country and today there are still some eight million Copts living in Egypt. They are the direct descendants of the ancient Egyptians: they've never intermarried and for this reason and still preserve the distinctive physiognomy of the ancient Pharaohs.

Copts are monophysites and thus, in they eyes of Fr. Theophanes damned, a view I'm sure John Moschos would have shared. But the Copts more immediate worry is that although they are sporadically protected by the government, they are now under bitter assault from the resurgent Muslim Brotherhood and the Gemaat al Islamiyya.

Yet, oddly enough, in this tense atmosphere the Coptic monasteries have never been fuller. Just as the greatest blossoming of the monasteries of Eastern Christendom took place in the uncertainty of the dying days of classical civilisation so now as the Christian villages of Upper Egypt dieing and are forgotten, the monasteries are fuller than ever. Like the last bright flickerings of a long-lit lamp, Egyptian monasticism is undergoing what must certainly be its last spiritual renaissance.

To see a more optomistic side of things, it is best to visit Northern Egypt St. Anthony's, the oldest monastery in the world, founded in the early fourth century when St. Anthony fled here in an effort to escape the attentions of a stream of admiring Graeco-Roman intellectuals from Alexandria. Through no fault of his own, St. Anthony had became the darling of Alexandria's fashionable intelligentsia, who revered him for his earthy asceticism and his reputed power over demons. For this reason the Alexandrian intellectual establishment turned up in streams at St. Anthony's cave causing the baffled hermit - who had initially retreated into the sand dunes with the express purpose of avoiding other human beings, not attracting them - to flee from his admirers further and further into the desert. But when his fan club followed him even to the site of the present monastery - several weeks camel caravan from the nearest town the saint realised that he was never going to shake off the attention of his followers and decided instead to organise them into a loose-knit community while he kept watch over them from to a cave a safe distance further up the mountain. So was born monasticism.

 No one today disputes St. Anthony's claim to be the oldest Christian monastery in the world, and the present buildings still show all the signs of being an experimental prototype: anyone expecting to see elegant cloisters will be disappointed.

It is full of contemporary miracle stories: exorcisms, miraculous healings and ghostly apparitions of long-dead saints. Wonderful conversations:

 "See up there? said one of the monks Abuna Dioscorus at one stage, pointing to the space between the two towers of the abbey church . "In June 1987 in the middle of the night our father St. Anthony appeared there hovering on a cloud of shining light."

"You saw this?" I asked.

"No," said Fr. Dioscorus. "I'm short-sighted."

He took off his spectacles to show me the thickness of the glass.

"I can barely see the abbot when I sit beside him at supper," he said. "But many other fathers saw the apparition. On one side of St. Anthony stood St. Mark the Hermit and on the other was Abuna Yustus."

"Abuna Yustus?"

"He is one of our fathers. He used to be the sacristan."

"So what was he doing up there?"

"He had just departed this life. [pause] Officially he's not a saint yet, but I'm sure he will be soon."

And then: "But you won't believe this -"  I thought what coming next: flying nuns or levitating relics "You won't believe this - we had visitors from Europe two years ago - Protestants - who said they didn't believe a word of all this!"

[summary of his notes:  St. Anthony is sometimes forgotten in the West today, but not at the time.  there is a clear link between the ancient Copts and the earlier Celtic Christians.  In the Book of Kells, the portrait of the  Madonna seems almost certainly modelled on Coptic original.  There is strong literary evidence of links as well.  In the life of John the Almsgiver, it speaks of a voyage to Cornwall.  The Book of Leinster remembers the feast day of "the seven Egyptian monks buried at Disert Ullaigh".  In addition, there are many inexplicable analogies: the style of the monks' cells, the crowns worn by bishops, the use of bells and of flabellum (fans).  Moreover, the Book of Antiphons of the monastery of Bangor says quite clearly: "This house full of delights was built on rock, and on the true vine coming out of Egypt.]
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To see the grimmer side of the Coptic coin you must follow Moschos up the Nile and visit the monastic centres of Upper Egypt, and in particular the area around Assiut. One of the worst outrages against the Coptic monks took place while I was in Cairo, when fundamentalists attacked the monastery of Deir ul Muharraq. I decided to finish my pilgrimage by going there and finding out what had happened:

It was at last stage of the journey that I set off to investigate: from Cairo the road had followed the Nile.  There were peaceful looking villages, groups of men were sitting outside under the vine trellising smoking their hubble-bubbles, women were washing clothes by the canals. Fat sheiks in dirty blue shifts ambled along on frail-looking donkeys.

In Minya, the atmosphere began to change. We began to pass police checkpoints - at first every ten kilometres or so, but then more frequently. By the time we got to the town of Mallawi the police were everywhere. Sandbag emplacements dotted the roof tops; brick fortifications guarded the police stations and banks. Much of the local population seemed to have been issued with assault rifles which they carried as they inspected their fields or drove into town to go shopping, the barrels of the Kalashnikovs poking out of their car windows as they drove.

We stopped to wait for escort: expected a single conscript with an old gun; what we got, rather alarmingly, were eight heavily-armed paramilitary policemen in a souped-up Japanese pick-up with which we had to struggle to keep up. Every time we neared a village the pick-up driver increased his speed, while one of the guards would load his rifle, balance on the back-flap, and search the rooftops for snipers.

Before long, we arrived in Sanabu, which the Gema'a al-Islamiyya had attacked two years before, initiating the current militant campaign. On that occasion three convoys of militants had swooped down early in the morning on a small Christian hamlet on the outskirts of the town. By the time they withdrew, twelve Coptic farmers had been hunted down and murdered in their fields; the Coptic high school headmaster had been shot dead in front of his pupils; and a Coptic doctor had been riddled with bullets as he opened up his surgery.

Ten minutes later, the fortified walls of the Coptic abbey of Deir ul-Muharraq, reared up out of the cotton fields. The Burned Monastery is said to mark one of the resting places of the Holy Family on their flight into Egypt, but six days before our visit it had become famous for a less salubrious event.

[summary of his notes:  There had been an attack on three monks and two laymen who had borrowed a lent wedding car.]

"And do none of the monks want to move to a safer area, if only for the time being?"

"No," replied Amba Beiman. "This is a Holy Place for us. There have been Christians here ever since the Holy Family took shelter here from King Herrod. In dreams some of the fathers still see the Holy Family still wandering around here. As monks we should overcome evil, not let evil overcome us. This is a place of visions: we cannot ever leave it."

[summary of his notes:  His bravery typical of the attitude all over, but the end of Eastern Monasticism is now in sight.  It can last only another five years in Turkey, another 15-20 in Palestine.  In Egypt it will take longer, but the prospects are grim for Christians with the growth of ultra-militant Islam.]

When I started I assumed that the causes of this flight would basically boil down to the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in the area. But I was quite wrong: its much less simple and much more interesting than that. There is great variety in the causes of the problems faced by the Eastern Christians.

[summary of his notes:  In Istanbul, it is the rise of nationalism - Greeks and Turks don't get on at all.  In Eastern Turkey, the Christians are caught in the middle of an inter-Islamic civil war.  In Syria, the situation is stable for the moment.  Asad rules through a coalition of minorities.  In Lebanon, the Maronites lost civil war they helped bring about through their own intransigence.  In Israel and the West Bank, Christians are Arabs in a Jewish state, a stumbling block in the way of Zionism.  Only in Egypt does the case of fundamentlists apply, and even then it is not black and white, but rather shades of grey.]

It was getting late, and the sun was sinking low. The leader of the escort urged me to hurry up: he didn't want to be on the roads after dark. But before we left, Amba Beiman insisted on taking us into the inner courtyard to show us the keep that the Byzantine Emperor Zeno had built to defend the monks against in the sixth century A.D.

"We Copts have always been attacked for our faith," said Amba Beiman. "And you know compared to some of those attacks this present trouble is nothing."

I said :"When was this?"

"Not so long ago- during the persecution of [the Roman] Emperor Diocletian for instance- now there was serious trouble for the Copts...."
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