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Glasses of Sweet Tea and an Absence of Goatskin: A Review of Two Books by William Dalrymple

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“It was still dark when I left Sheik Jarrah.  At the Damascus Gate, the first fruit sellers were gathered by a brazier, warming their fingers around glasses of sweet tea.”

So begins In Xanadu the debut work of author William Dalrymple who undertook this difficult, not to say dangerous journey, over the course of one Summer in the late 1980s, while still a student at Cambridge University and accompanied by two ladies (although not at the same time) Laura and Louisa.

Beginning in Jerusalem  the plan was to follow in the footsteps of Marco Polo carrying a phial of holy oil from the Holy Sepulchre to the site of the ancient palace of Kublai Khan in Xanadu.   It was generally agreed that Polo would have carried his holy oil in a goatskin flask.  However in the 1980s most available goat skin was required by the goats that inhabited it and therefore Dalrymple used a plastic phial from Body Shop in Covent Garden. Was this oil, the author asks not unreasonably of the monk who has been assigned to help him acquire some of the precious substance, pressed from those very trees that adorn the Mount of Olives itself?  ‘No’, comes the reply, ‘it’s ordinary sunflower oil from a box in the sacristy.’

If this journey was tricky in Marco Polo’s 13th century,  it was hardly much better in the 20th century.  The route would take them through the Ayatollah’s Iran – not friendly –  and a way had to be found to get from Israel into Syria.  In 1985 you could not enter any of the Arab states if you had an Israeli stamp on your passport. The travellers avoided this issue by making sure Israeli customs didn’t stamp their passport.  They took ship to Cyprus, passing through Larnaca and Limassol then on into Syria.  Passage through Turkey and Iran presented a perilous stage during which Laura has to travel in full chador.    When some weeks later, they made it across the border into Pakistan, Dalrymple writes:

“It was like coming up for air.  I rolled up my shirtsleeves for the first time in over a fortnight. Laura whooped, tore off her black headscarf, tossed her black stockings over the barbed wire and danced a jig on her chador, to the delight of the Pakistani customs men.”

Eventually they reach Lahore from where the redoubtable Laura must return home to Delhi.  She has to be dissuaded from illegally crossing into India on foot with camel trading nomads when she discovers the Indian border is closed owing to some dispute.  Instead she is persuaded to fly home with Pakistan airlines. It seems sensible.

The departure of the redoubtable Laura however, who seems to have contacts from the palace on down,  weighs heavily on Dalrymple.   She is replaced by the beautiful and evanescent but much less redoubtable Louisa who arrives at Lahore ‘dressed for the King’s Road.’

The expedition must still obtain permits to to up the Karakoram Highway in Pakistan and to cross into China over the Kunjerab pass.  Either or both of which documents may take six months or arrive never.

The opportunities to throw in the towel during this expedition – like all journeys that break new ground – must have been many, varied and tempting.  Yet no towels are thrown and there is an underlying humour that levens the most potentially difficult or ludicrous situations such as when they are told that a hotel room does not come with a bed, it is necessary to pay extra if a mattress is required!

The resulting book (written when the author was aged 22) heralded  the arrival of a major new adventurer, explorer, writer and poet, a new Patrick Leigh Fermor whose books I also loved.   Dalrymple went on to write many more books all of which won various prizes.  And when one sees paragraphs like this, I mean is one surprised really?

“When I think back to that time in Lahore,in my mind’s eye I always see the town at twilight.  It is the best time of day.  The great Indian sun hangs over the domes and the chattri, and it is then that you notice the smells: the sweet heavy scent of dung fires, a whiff of monsoon wet casuarina, the odour of sweating coolies.”


After finishing In Xanadu Dalrymple moved to Delhi to live and write his next book City of Djinns.  I have not yet read this but moved on to read  From the Holy Mountain.  The author was in his early thirties when he wrote this third book,  so in a different situation to his student days;  already married with his wife expecting their first child.

The proposal was to follow in more footsteps, this time those of John Moschos, a sixth century monk and traveller,  who wrote a manuscript known as The Spiritual Meadow.

When the book begins,  Dalrymple is at the Monastery of Iviron on Mount Athos in Greece where the oldest known copy of the Moschos’ manuscript survives, jealously guarded by Fr Cristophoros and his cats.  The Spiritual Meadow was written at a time when Justinian’s attempt to revive the Roman Empire was:

“under assault from the West by Slavs, Goths and Lombards from the east by a crescendo of raids by desert nomads and the legions of Sassanian Persia.”

And therefore it follows that Moschos himself journeyed in difficult and dangerous times, barely making it out of Alexandria on the last boat before the Persians entered the city and wandering after that in the desert to exile in Constantinople.

The Persians themselves gave way before the forces of Islam, which continue to hold most of the middle east to this day.

This is a journey even more complex, both physically and spiritually, than that undertaken by the author’s younger self as a student.  It is a search for the history and survivors (where there are any) of Christian communities across the ancient realm of Byzantium.  Dalrymple went in search of the remaining monastic traditions of modern day Syria, Lebanon and Egypt and those individuals who maintain them.

Always erudite yet  entertaining and with a life saving sense of irony and humour which intensive travel of this kind must necessitate, Dalrymple is a must for anyone interested the vanishing of ancient civilisations.  It is hard to put into any kind of box what Dalrymple does, because he does so much, and he does it brilliantly.    The depth of his knowledge on just about everything seems fathomless.

Of Moschos the author writes:

“Soon after his return to Alexandria, the city was to fall to the Persians.  It fell again in 641 this time to the Muslims.  Islam has held it – and most of the rest of the Middle East ever since.  The Christian population that Moschos knew and wrote about – the monks and the stylites, the merchants and the soldiers, the prostitutes and the robber chiefs – were conquered and subjugated, their numbers gradually whittled down by emigration, intermarriage and mass apostasy.”


Thank you so much for persevering thus far.  I’m not entirely sure what my autumn reading will be although I will next review The Burning Wave by Jennifer Hayashi Danns which I looked forward to so much and was disappointed by.  I am also having an Iris Origo moment but have discovered that her Life of Leopardi is out of print.  I don’t know what the world is coming to.

4 responses to “Glasses of Sweet Tea and an Absence of Goatskin: A Review of Two Books by William Dalrymple”

  1. I’m sure I’ve read something by Dalrymple, though my blog and reading journal index both draw blanks. Maybe – shock! – before I started my reading journal! Anyway, these look very enticing!

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The Volatile Muse

Poetry, literature, film and all things in between

Runes are ancient scripts, magical signs for secret or hidden laws.   I chose a name which I felt brought to mind the infinitely variable nature of the written word.


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