Journey of the Magi: In Search of the Birth of Jesus

by Paul William Roberts

Published by Raincoast Books

399 pages, 2005






Heart of the Heart

Reviewed by Linda L. Richards


Like the trek he writes about, Paul William Roberts' Journey of the Magi: In Search of the Birth of Jesus is unexpected. Whatever you're anticipating when you set out on this literary journey, chances are, you won't find the thing you thought you'd find. But it's a worthwhile trip -- one that will exceed your expectations -- and Roberts is an ace guide.

For Roberts himself, the journey began one Christmas morning when he discovered an antique copy of The Travels of Marco Polo with his name on it under the tree. He didn't love it:

After reading a mere sixty pages of the musty old tome, I began to view it more as a penance than any kind of prize. The immortal Venetian had been a merchant, not a poet, but no one had ever told me that he possessed such a radiantly mercantile mentality.

A reference to the tomb of the three wise men piqued his interest, partially because what had been set down there by Marco Polo and included in Roberts' 1870 edition of Travels had been edited out of most later editions.

I'd had 191 pages of the "traveller's effusions" by this stage and knew that Polo habitually made no discernible distinction between folklore and facts of history. However, I also knew that he was incapable of the kind of imaginative leap that creating this story would have entailed.

Roberts had the heart of a puzzle. More pieces, he would discover, were yet to come. By then, though, he had developed a passion for his topic. A passion so large, it bordered on obsession at least, one would think, if you were to ask his wife:

By now I'd also accumulated enough information about the Nativity Magi and Magi in general to make my wife warn visitors they'd sorely regret bringing up the topic in my presence. But no one had to bring it up: it was my sole topic of conversation, and I began to develop a missionary fervor for the task of preaching the Gospel of the Magi.

But preaching couldn't be enough, could it? Not for this journalist, scholar and author. Before long, he found himself organizing an expedition:

Consulting no less an authority than Lawrence of Arabia, I conservatively estimated that the whole trip could be achieved by camel in under a month. Iran, Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Israel! By camel! In retrospect, I'm only surprised that my plan didn't involve being disguised as an Hassidic rabbi and dancing all the way from Iran yodelling "Hava Nagila" while waving a huge stars and stripes flag.

The resulting book, first published in Canada in 1995 and in the US the following year as In Search of the Birth of Jesus: The Real Journey of the Magi, is nothing short of brilliant. Revised and updated on the 10th anniversary of its first publication, Journey of the Magi is the sort of travel book with soul that Paul Theroux has written beautifully and for so many years. Though the trek itself, as the author himself points out, is only one part of the whole:

There are really three journeys in this book. One is physical.... A second is mental.... The third journey arose from the second one and still continues, in that place where the mind is contained by something greater and less subjective: the heart of the heart, the source of the self.

It's lovely to see this book republished in such a significant way. It was a great book in 1995, but it's an even more relevant now. So much has transpired since the book's first publication. One of the things that's happened is The Da Vinci Code, a book that raises some of the same questions, though in his work of fiction, Dan Brown draws some very different conclusions. And, of course, in the time between and for various reasons, our attention has been refocused on the Middle East. Here Roberts gives us a first class ticket -- without all the hyperventilating that comes with CNN -- to a world most of us will actually never see with our own eyes.

Journey of the Magi satisfies on every level. Like Marco Polo, Roberts has a radiant mentality, though certainly not a mercantile one. He knows when to show and when to tell, when to dish up a good helping of history, or keep us on our toes with tasty bits of travelog.

And Roberts really has the trinity here: he writes beautifully, he knows how to tell and layer a story and he's chosen a topic of interest to many and gives it to us in a way that will surprise most. All of that would be enough, but there's more: Roberts' humor is unexpected, it resonates from some deep and lovely place. His use of language is beautiful: elastic, gymnastic, you get the feeling that this is a writer you could follow anywhere. And no matter what your views on the Middle East, it's quite possible that Roberts will, in some way, change your mind. | December 2005


Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine and the author of The Next Ex.