This book has several levels. Ostensibly it is a travel book of a quality which, because of its wit and human interest, has been compared by reviewers with that of Robert Byron, Patrick Leigh Fermor and Eric Newby. But it is much more, comparing religious life today with that of Byzantine culture before the arrival of Islam.
Dalrymple became fascinated with an ancient classic The Spiritual Meadow, written by John Moschos (550-619). Moschos retired from worldly life in 575 to become a monk in the monastery of St. Theodosius near Jerusalem. But he later journeyed widely to visit the most notable centres of monasticism. He gathered a large collection of anecdotes and holy stories of monastic life and turned them into a spiritual classic, which became a devotional manual for centuries to come.
Dalrymple decided to visit as many of the same sites as Moschos. He started off at the monastery of Iviron at Mt. Athos in Greece (hence the title of the book). He then proceeded to Istanbul, through Eastern Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Israel to Egypt-Alexandria, Cairo and the desert monastery of St. Antony, with whom monasticism had begun in the third century.
The book follows this journey at two levels. There is an exciting account of Dalrymple's own adventures, often facing tensions and dangers; and there is a better description of monastic life in the Byzantine period than you will find almost anywhere else. Dalrymple had carried through a great deal of research before he began. Yet in this travelogue, the academic material is never tedious but readily absorbed.
Who would have guessed, for example, that there were once over 150 monasteries in the mountains of Judea, even though only three remain. How many realise that Jerusalem remained a substantially Christian city even after the Islamic invasion, that been controlled by Christians for a longer period than it ever was an Israelite or Jewish city and, as recently as 1920, more than half of the inhabitants of Jerusalem were Christian.
This book will startle any who think Christianity took only one form. What it included by way of belief and practice, both in the ancient world as well as the present world, will surprise and even shock. In these days when the orthodox Christianity of the West is coming under severe criticism, the kind of things discovered by Dalrymple, himself of Roman Catholic background, will demonstrate how necessary it is to exercise a critical mind.
This is a book both to enjoy and to learn from.