Most people who call themselves Caucasian know nothing about the Caucasus

The Caucasus, a popular saying goes, is a ‘mountain of tongues’. Describing this region requires a strong constitution, determination and brilliance because, as Christoph Baumer writes in this magnificent book, ‘in many ways, the Caucasus region is a puzzle’. That is something of an understatement. For one thing, the mountains usually referred to as the Caucasus are in fact part of two geologically distinct ranges: the Greater Caucasus that is around 100 kilometres wide and ten times the length, spans the land between the Black and Caspian Seas and acts as a climatic valve, blocking off like a plug cold Arctic air from passing south; and the Lesser Caucasus, that

By banning what we dislike, we create a secular shariah

‘Interior silence’ is not a phrase I associate with Sarah Sands, until recently the editor of the BBC Today programme and formerly my superb deputy at the Daily Telegraph. All her friends love her worldly, witty talk. Yet The Interior Silence is the name of her new book, whose subtitle is Ten Lessons in Monastic Life. Sarah knows that the contrast between author and subject is intrinsically funny, and laughs at herself — her struggle to fast in Assisi, parasites mercilessly biting her face while she sleeps in her Coptic desert cell. She is epigrammatic about monasticism: ‘Effortlessness is hard.’ But she is also appealingly sincere. She does want to

Learning to listen: Sarah Sands goes in search of spirituality

It was the 13th-century wall of a ruined Cistercian nunnery at the far end of her garden in Norfolk that turned Sarah Sands’s thoughts to exploring monasticism in her final year as the editor of BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. She already had a soft spot for the ‘Thought for the Day’ slot — ‘an oasis of reflection’. But she was finding it increasingly hard to set aside any time for reflection in her busy, noisy, anxiety-filled ‘5G life’ — office meetings from pre-dawn to dusk and evenings of emailing with the phone beeping every few seconds. In this charming and quirky homage to A Time to Keep Silence by

Downside’s downfall: the dissolution of a monastery

The monks of Downside Abbey in Somerset elected a new abbot last Thursday, according to sixth-century rules laid down by St Benedict. The next day, they sent an email notification saying they had voted ‘to make a new start and to seek a new place to live’. It was a shock to those who know the place. The monks will leave behind a beautiful abbey church built in the Gothic Revival style — its 166ft tower visible for miles around — a monastery and cloisters, the largest monastic library in Britain and a grand-looking public school with more than 300 pupils. It’s as if a piece of English Catholicism, like

The art of the hermit

Late in the afternoon on Valentine’s Day, I walked through an almost empty Uffizi. Coronavirus was then a Wuhan phenomenon. Our temperatures had been taken at the airport, but there were no restrictions on travel and those wearing masks looked eccentric. I congratulated myself on finding Florence so quiet. Off-season, I thought smugly. That’s the way to do it. Heaven knows it’s empty now. The painting that caught my eye on that distant-seeming visit was a long, low cassone-shaped painting on the theme of the Thebaid attributed to Fra Angelico (c.1420). The Thebaid is a collection of texts telling of the saints who in the first centuries of Christianity retreated