The Allure of Ancient Religions

In From the Holy Mountain, William Dalrymple travels through crowded cities, hot, dusty plains and inhospitable mountains in search of the remnants of ancient Christianity: Eastern Christianity, the original form before it was appropriated in the West and stripped of all its mysticism and symbols. He visits churches where the Urfalees sing their ancient hymns, perhaps the most ancient form of Christian music anywhere in the world. He visits monasteries in the desert and stumbles upon middens bearing artefacts from the Byzantine era. In tracing the seventh century journey of John Moschos, he sees some of the same sights and listens to some of the same music. So little has changed in some respects; and yet, in political as well as religious terms, the entire landscape of the Levant is transformed from fourteen centuries ago. Places that were once vibrant hotspots of culture and learning now lie razed or burnt to the ground; blame has always been easily pinned on the crime of heresy. It would be wrong to ascribe this only to the Levant, of course, because I can hardly think of any part of the world where people have not been persecuted for siding with a belief that does not find favour with the establishment. Nor is this a thing of the past alone, but this is a subject for another day.

The vivid descriptions of the glory of ancient cities, of their way of life, are immensely fascinating. Ponder on this description of the mummy portraits that scared grave-robbers:

Indeed, so contemporary are the features, so immediately recognisable the emotions that play on the lips, that you have to keep reminding yourself that these sitters are not from our world, that they are masks attached to Graeco-Egyptian mummies, covering the desiccated corpses of people who possibly saw the world through the glass of an initiate in the cult of Isis, who maybe married their brother or sister (as late as the third century Diocletian was still trying to outlaw incest in Egypt) and who perhaps studied in the great Alexandrian library before it was burned to the ground by the howling monks of the Egyptian deserts.

What wouldn’t I give to be able to express things that way! But I can tell you this is exactly how I felt at the British museum, peering into the coffins of long-dead people and looking at their mummified bodies. But it bothered me that their hopes had been belied: they must have been buried with so much fanfare and grandeur several centuries ago, hoping their soul would cross the Styx unchallenged and on towards glory. What, then, brought them to modern-day London and had their corpses laid out in glass boxes in front of the uncomprehending eyes of a bewildering milieu of strangers from a different time? Did they ever reach the after-life or did unscrupulous grave-robbers deprive them of the chance of eternal rest? Death is a mystery in itself, and coupled with the inscrutable lives of people we understand little about, the mystery takes on a bewildering magnitude.

I have grown up venerating deities worshipped for millennia on the subcontinent (albeit constantly evolving); the antiquity of Egyptian, Roman, Greek or American gods probably shouldn’t leave me awestruck. But now that they stand destroyed, there is an allure to them, a fascination that springs from the knowledge that they are beyond revival. Think of all the spectacular architecture and the rich legends they gave rise to: the Parthenon, the Pyramids, ziggurats, Machu Picchu. Their worshippers were people with an advanced knowledge of science, mathematics and astronomy, who explained certain concepts much before the scientists who currently get all the credit for them. Of course, this isn’t to say that they were perfect, but it is unfortunate that these ancient civilisations and their deities now stand reduced to being subjects of disinterested, scholarly discourse or commercial tourism.

Dalrymple wanders through the home of ancient civilisation and culture, describing a magnificent journey populated by remarkable characters. However, a sense of unrest is palpable throughout, for religion can never entirely detach itself from politics. The thrill of revisiting ancient rituals is tempered by the roughness of some neighbourhoods. I understand his concern about Eastern Christianity losing its place in its ancient home and I do not condone violence of any sort; but I cannot help feeling that it is merely history repeating itself, this time with different characters. Who is to say what will happen to our present beliefs, and how they will be viewed several millennia later?


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