I was first introduced to William Dalrymple’s writing a few years ago when he visited King’s College to speak. I missed the talk, but went on to read In Xanadu: A Quest and was completely taken up into the story he tells. It is an exciting, engaging, and interesting way of telling history. In two words, Gonzo History.
Dalrymple is a Scottish born Cambridge educated historian who has numerous publications under his belt, all meticulously researched and beautifully presented for the general reader. For many of his books, including my favourites In Xanadu and From the Holy Mountain, he takes a hands-on approach to the research and puts himself in the locations he researches.
In Xanadu is Dalrymple’s first book (1989) and was written following a journey he took along the Silk Road.One of Marco
Polo’s adventures took him from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem all the way to Shangdu in Inner Mongolia where King Kublai Khan spent his summers. Kublai Khan had requested that Christian scholars travel to his Khanate to spread the knowledge of Christianity. He also requested a quantity of oil from the lamps which burned inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre be taken to him. Dalrymple and his travelling companion begin their journey at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and trace Marco Polo’s route through the Middle East and Asia all the way to Shangdu (Xanadu). Without using more modern means of travel like airplanes they are bound to foot, hitchhiking, and buses. The book chronicles their journey, including all of the odd encounters they have along the way, interspersed with accounts of the original journey taken by Marco Polo in the 13th century.
John Moschos was a 6th century Byzantine monk who undertook a great journey around Eastern Byzantium visiting Eastern Christian groups and ascetics along the way, all the while collecting sayings and writing down his encounters and stories which they told to him. It culminated in his writing The Spiritual Meadow, still an important and often read book today full of that ancient ascetic wisdom.
Just as he traced and followed Marco Polo’s route, Dalrymple takes up a similar route to Moschos, travelling through Greece, Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Israel and ending–as Moschos did–in Egypt. In this excerpt, Dalrymple is staying briefly at the Monastery of Iviron at Mount Athos, Greece hoping to have a look at a particular manuscript they hold there. An older monk, Christophoros (who feeds the monastery’s cats, named after Orthodox Saints) takes him in to their archives and library one evening:
Three locks had now opened without problem; and eventually with a loud creak, the fourth gave way too. The old library doors swung open, and with the lamps held aloft, we stepped inside.
Within, it was pitch dark; a strong odour of old buckram and rotting vellum filled the air. Manuscripts lay open in low cabinets, the gold leaf of illuminated letters and gilt haloes from illustrations of saints’ Lives shining out in the light of the lantern. In the gloom on the far wall I could just see a framed Ottoman firman, the curving gilt of the Sultan’s monogram clearly visible above the lines of calligraphy. Next to it, like a discarded suit jacket, hung a magnificent but rather crumpled silk coat. Confronted dragons and phoenixes were emblazoned down the side of either lapel.
‘What is that?’ I whispered
‘It’s John Tzimiskes’s coat.’
‘The emperor John Tzimiskes? But he lived in the tenth century.’
Christophoros shrugged his shoulders.
‘You can’t just leave something like that hanging up there,’ I said.
‘Well,’ said Christophoros irritably, ‘where else would you put it?’
This is a short example of the style in which Dalrymple writes. Not dry, nor pompous, nor overly meticulous but written as if it were the diary of an adventurer of a bygone age. For this reason Dalrymple’s writings appeal not only to those interested in history, as it does give the historical account of a scholar, but it appeals as well to lovers of travel and adventure writing precisely because he writes from a first-person, hands-on perspective.
We currently have in stock The Age of Kali ($19.00), From the Holy Mountain ($19.95), In Xanadu ($18.95), and Dalrymple’s newest Return of a King ($22.00).