The Travel Writer As Intellectual Adventurer

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 human narrative by means of​ travel.

That is​ certainly true of​ the​ opulent works of​ Dalrymple,​ for whom 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.”

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