Stories of a Westerner exploring Middle Eastern Christianity normally leads to such disasters as When Angels Fall, so I came to Dalrymple’s book a bit skeptical. As I expected, Dalrymple never escapes his western notions about religion. Some were simply annoying, like constantly calling a censer a thurible. Others, such as praising religious relativism and bashing religious particularism, were distressing. While Dalymple is obviously well read and highly intelligent, I got the feeling throughout the book that he had simply read up on the religious and social histories of the groups he met, and never thought to bother with examining their theological literature. It comes as no surprise then when he writes how aghast he was with the fundamentalism of Mount Athos and Saint Saba, or that he is highly skeptical of relic veneration. What it boils down to, eventually, is that his book is little more than a superficial travelogue, and nothing near the thing he was trying to imitate, The Spiritual Meadow.

Having been in some of the places and met some of the kinds of people mentioned in the book, Dalrymple has an uncanny way to make the idiosyncrasies of the people and places of the Middle East shine through. Most amusing was his account of the brand-new Syrian church in Turkey, all dressed up in the finest neon and flashing lights. As a fellow westerner of Dalrymple, I sympathize fully with his reaction of horror. His method of dealing with the political climate was also amusing, demonstrating the patience and long-suffering needed to wrangle with Middle Eastern politics.

Having lived in Jerusalem for some time, I found his experiences in Palestine to be most interesting. Having personally seen the rows of cactus plants surrounding bombed out rubble, deserted on the sides of roads or within mostly useless National Parks, the devastation is staggering. The displaced Maronite village Dalrymple visits is no small secret, my professor told my class their story when we passed their current village in the bus, yet their situation is far from resolved. The overarching sentiment of the Palestinian Christians, that they fail to understand the western “Christian” support for a state which mistreats their Christian brothers and sisters, I also felt acutely. The dichotomy between the local Christians who are trying to scrape together their traditional existence and western Christians who seem to believe that the only real people living in Israel are Jews and the Arabs and their history should cease to exist, is so great that they seem to exist on different planets. 

While the current Israeli government seems to be, as Dalrymple says, trying to co-exist with its Christian population peacefully, not everything is roses. Having met Canon Naim Ateek myself, I hardly consider him to be an accurate source of information, just propaganda. The Israeli army now undergoes sensitivity training to Christianity, though this is done at a pro-Israeli Catholic monastery. The main problem is that western money, whether from Jewish or Evangelical Christian sources, is concerned with preserving “biblical” sites, which fits into the Israeli national history nicely, but leaves Byzantine history out in the cold. My school took field trips to two major monastic centers in the Judean desert which have long been in ruins, including the monastery of St Euthemius. Both are under the National Park Authority, though both were nearly impossible to find and lacked proper facilities. The reason for this was simple, our group was likely the only visitors they got all week, if not all month. Another major Byzantine site which had over five ancient basilica churches was slated to come under the National Park Authority soon, though it was uncertain if this was being done in interest of the site or because the site had a great view of the sunset over the Lake of Galilee. Jewish and western tourists being uninterested in Byzantine things, Byzantine sites lack economic potential. Turning a Maronite village into an ancient Jewish revolutionary camp automatically turns it into a money making place. So the mistreatment of Palestinian Christians, currently, is more of an economic enterprise rather than racial discrimination. 

One of the most striking omissions in Dalrymple’s book is his failure to visit the Christian Old Quarter of Cairo. His reliance on the Spiritual Meadow shows its bias very clearly here. Since John Moschos considered it to be a heretical holdout of the uneducated Copts, Dalrymple apparently saw little need to put it on his itinerary, hence he leaves out a great chunk of Coptic history. Furthermore, his references to “screaming Coptic monks” sacking Alexandria and his comments about how Coptic sounds inherently “incantational” may be his personal opinion, but it displays his western bias quite clearly. For Dalrymple, the Copts are among the strangest of the strange, and he clearly has done little to understand them or their religious outlook.

Dalrymple, it becomes obvious, is most at home among the Maronites. He spends an inordinate amount of time talking about them considering that John Moschos never mentions them. For Dalrymple’s point of view, because the Maronites are western he understands them better, therefore he regards them more highly. Maronite practices such as speaking English and French fluently, being educated in the west, and their clergy wearing street clothes, are obviously reassuring to Dalrymple, and so he judges them quite favorably. Byzantines are, to Dalrymple, barely tamed westerners, the Byzantine-like Armenians and Syrians are odd in a cute way, but the Copts are beyond the pale of his cognition. At St. Anthony’s he can do little more than speculate for many pages how an artistic motif there also shows up in Scotland, and praise the ancient western-focused Coptic missionaries. Redeemable, by anyone’s guess, that they were smart enough to go to Scotland, unlike their modern compatriots who think the desert is the only place to learn anything. 

Also, the attitude of Dalrymple towards relics and saints is little more than cynical. He goes to ridiculous lengths trying to explain away a miracle recounted in the Spiritual Meadow, and for no point, except, perhaps, to appease his offended rational mind. He is overtly suspicious of legends and saints, preferring to question them rather than learn what they have to say about the people who believe in them. This gives the impression that Dalrymple does not want his worldview to be challenged, even if it is to recognize a parallel one. In Dalrymple’s worldview the dead do not appear in dreams, people who think they do are deluded. While this is a very common western perception, I would have expected someone as widely traveled and read as Dalrymple to have overcome it enough to not dwell on it in his book. Perhaps he has, but he believes that these things made fascinating reading for westerners, so he puts in these oddities for entertainment purposes. However, in the end it does little but reconfirm the superiority of the western worldview to the readers and make the Middle Eastern Christians worldview look childish and stupid. 

Dalrymple’s praise of the glory days of Alexandria was interesting, but mostly had very little to do with the Spiritual Meadow or Middle Eastern Christians. Instead, it was a time for Dalrymple to bemoan the loss of a western city to “Arabism”. John Moschos really would have cared less if the theatre left Alexandria, he would say good riddance, but for Dalrymple this is blasphemy. Dalrymple incessantly praises the previous multi-culturalism of Alexandria, going to far to suggest that Alexandria is the place where Christian theology came into existence because it was there that Christianity syncretized with the world’s religions, only to be strayed by murderous “howling” Coptic monks. Here Dalrymple’s lack of understanding about religious history and development becomes more than painfully obvious.

While Dalrymple has the vague notion that the current situation of Christians in the Middle East is on the brink of disaster, his ideals about these Christians is mostly romantic. Dalrymple exudes the feeling that the Middle Eastern Christians should just be like the Maronites, educated, rational, peaceful and tolerant, and give up their fundamentalist notions, and everything will be better. Dalrymple seems not to realize that with the current anti-western propaganda in Middle Eastern Islam, the further the Christians keep away from the West and Israel, the better it is for them. This is not to say that the current Western practice of ignoring Middle Eastern Christians should continue, simply that the current Maronite practice of adopting everything Western does little than confirm in Islamic minds that Christianity is a western plot. 

Overall, Dalrymple is a very good writer in that he does a wonderful job painting the landscape and feeling of a place and culture. However, his cultural and religious bias gets in the way of him actually understanding what is going on. I came away from the book with the feeling of sadness, both for what Christians in the Middle East are presently going through and for insurmountable gap that exists between the worldview of western Christians and that of their religious birthplace.