William Dalrymple examines the similarities between Islam and Christianity
Seidnaya is a Greek Orthodox convent in Syria, three hours' walk from Damascus. The monastery sits on a great crag of rock overlooking the orchards and olive groves of the Damascene plain.
According to legend the monastery was founded in the early sixth century, after the Byzantine emperor Justinian chased a stag on to the top of the hill during a hunting expedition. Just as Justinian was about to draw his bow, the stag changed into the Virgin Mary, who commanded him to build a convent on the top of the rock.
The abbey quickly became a place of pilgrimage and to this day streams of Christian, Muslim and Druze pilgrims trudge their way to Seidnaya from the mountains of Lebanon and the valleys of the Syrian jebel.
When I visited the church at Seidnaya in 1994, it was filled not only with a Christian congregation, but also with Muslim men and their shrouded wives. As the priest circled the altar with his thurible, filling the sanctuary with great clouds of incense, the men bobbed up and down on their prayer mats as if in the middle of Friday prayers in their mosque. Their women, some dressed in full black chador, mouthed prayers from the shadows of the exonarthex. It was truly an extraordinary sight, Christians and Muslims praying together in a fashion unimaginable today almost anywhere else in the Near East. Yet it was, of course, the old way: the eastern Christians and Muslims have lived side by side for nearly one and a half millennia.
Seidnaya is a reminder of the amazing way in which Christians and Muslims had succeeded in living together for so many centuries, in closely knit communities in town after town, village after village across the Middle East. If that coexistence was not always a complete harmony, it was at least, with very few exceptions, a kind of pluralist equilibrium. This is the history that commentators today ignore, as they glibly speak of "Islamic fundamentalism" and "Muslim terror" in the wake of the bombs in Nairobi and Dar-es-Salaam.
It is also a history that has been forgotten across the length of what was once the former Ottoman Empire. Here, with the rise of education, self-consciousness and modern nationalism, the 20th century has unravelled the complex tapestry of pluralism - most recently and painfully in Bosnia, but before that in Cyprus, Palestine, Greece and Turkey. In each of these places pluralism has been replaced by a savage polarisation. In dribs and drabs, and sometimes in great tragic exoduses, religious minorities have fled to places where they can be majorities, and those too few for that have fled the region altogether, seeking out places less heavy in history such as America and Australia. If the 20th century has seen Europe change to a multicultural society, the same period has seen country after country in the Middle East change in the opposite direction, to a series of monolithic monoethnic blocs.
Only in a few places, such as Syria, does the old intricate patchwork survive. Shortly after seeing Muslims coming en masse to pray in the Christian basilica at Seidnaya, I saw Christians coming to sacrifice a sheep at the shrine of a Muslim saint in the ruins of the old Byzantine city of Cyrrhus, north-west of Aleppo. I was told that a Syrian Orthodox girl struck down by some apparently incurable sickness had had a dream telling her to visit the shrine of Nebi Uri at Cyrrhus. She had done so, spent the night in his shrine, and the next day had been healed. A sheep, covered with flowers and ribbons like the Old Testament scapegoat, was being slaughtered as an offering.
"We believe that if you are generous and give a good sheep to fulfil your vow," said the Sufi sheik who presided over the shrine, "then you will ride that sheep at the Day of Judgement. That sheep will carry you into Paradise."
"And the Christians believe this too?" I asked.
"There is no difference between ourselves and the Christians on this matter," said the sheik, "except that sometimes the Christians make the sign of Christ over the forehead of the person they want cured. …