Christ, Constantine, and Constantinople

Picture by author

The central figure and religious leader of Christianity, Jesus Christ is one of the most prominent names in the whole of human history. He is not only revered as God by millions of followers of Christianity, the most followed calendar on earth is also created with reference to his birth – before Christ (BC) and Anno Domini (AD), which in Latin means “in the year of the lord”. That alone signifies how influential Jesus is, not only among his followers but among the entirety of human history.

Jesus was born in a Jew family in the Judea province in 04 BC. Although born in Bethlehem, it is believed that Joseph, the patriarch of Jesus, took his family and fled to a place called Nazareth (reason he is also often referred to as Jesus of Nazareth) to protect Jesus from Herod, the Roman emperor at the time. Palestine at that time was a part of the Roman Empire. The Roman Empire followed polytheism, with many Roman gods and goddesses. In addition, the Roman emperors also enjoyed the cult status, meaning some of the emperors were also revered as divine. Therefore, the Jews were already facing persecution in their own land because of their monotheistic belief in only one God. 

Jesus began his religious journey in his 30s after being baptized by John the Baptist, who upon seeing Jesus is believed to have pronounced him as the son of God. Jesus then went on to meditate and later travelled different villages, spreading his beliefs and earning a number of disciples. It is believed that he travelled around, helping people, healing the sick and elderly, and if we are to purely believe in the legend, also performed tasks that were otherwise impossible for normal humans to accomplish, turning water into wine being one of the famous instances. This led his followers to believe he was no less than a God. However, as Jesus grew in prominence as an influencer leader and a preacher, the emergence of another influential Jewish prophet infuriated and frightened the Romans, more so because Jesus was often called “the king of the Jews” by his disciples. 

During his visit to Jerusalem, Jesus told his disciples how the coming week would be harder for them, and foretold how one of his own disciples would deceive him. This event is famous as The Last Supper. Later, as foretold by him, one of his followers, Judas, helped the Roman soldiers to capture Jesus. Jesus was taken to the high court, where he was mocked, berated and condemned for his claims. He was later crucified and buried in a tomb, presumably alive.

After the death of Jesus, his disciples created a new religion based on the life and teachings of Jesus. What had started from a small number of Jewish followers in Judea would eventually become the most followed religion on earth. And ironically, it would be the same Romans that had persecuted Jesus who would make him the most revered god on earth, the detail of which we will go through below.

Despite continuous persecution by the Roman Emperors for their belief in Christ, Christianity was slowly growing in the Roman Empire, and around 300 years after the death of Jesus, Christianity had found somewhat of a conspicuous presence in the Empire. As the influence of Christianity was gradually growing, the strength of the Roman Empire was gradually waning. The Empire had weakened and had constricted into 4 states (known as the tetrads), which were constantly marred by constant battles and instability. Amidst that chaos and instability would emerge a figure that would not only shape the fate of the Roman Empire, but also the fate of Christianity. 

In 312 AD, an emperor known as Constantine, one of the emperors of the tetrahedra, defeated his rivals and started a new unified Roman Empire under his belt. According to the legend, it was a vision that inspired Constantine to win the battle. As the legend goes, just before the battle, Constantine looked up to the sun and saw the cross of light above it. Cross was a well-known symbol of Christianity in the empire. Ascribing it as some form of divine inspiration, Constantine led his troops with the symbol of the Cross. Buoyed by the victory, Constantine not only himself converted to Christianity but also legalized Christianity in the Roman Empire, where it eventually became the principal religion. 

It would not be the only instance of kings and warriors seeking inspiration from a divine figure, or using religion as a prominent factor in pursuit of their conquests. The theme of divine inspiration or divine intervention or ‘doing it in the name of God’ would be played on and on, repeatedly, in several conquests to follow. History would be heavily shaped by such pursuits driven in the name of religion. 

Constantine would also be known for another act of his that would not only immortalize his name forever, but also lead to the creation of an Empire that would last even more than the original Roman Empire. As Constantine was able to unify both the Eastern and Western parts of the massive Roman Empire, Constantine felt the need to create a new capital in the East. East was far more developed than West at the time, and it was the East where all the riches lied. It was also East wherein lied the religious center of Christianity – the city of Jerusalem. So, Constantine created a new capital of the Roman Empire in the East known as Constantinople. 

Constantinople would go on to become one of the most important cities on earth for years to come. The Greek-speaking part of the empire (at the time, known as East Rome) would even outlast the Latin-speaking West Rome or Roman Empire, as the Eastern Roman Empire flourished even after the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476 AD. The empire, eventually known as the Byzantine empire, would last for almost 1000 more years, only to fall in 1453 in its defeat against the Ottomans. Constantinople, a capital that was created by an emperor inspired by Christianity, would eventually become the capital of an empire inspired by Islam. Constantinople, the magical city where ‘the East Meets the West’, a fabled city that lies in two continents, would be renamed as Istanbul under the Ottoman Empire, the same name by which it is known even today.  

Istanbul, as it is known today, is just one example of countless accounts of religion and empires shaping not only the name but the existing culture and even structures of the place. While there have been numerous instances of a new dominant religion or culture almost completely obliterating the previous culture of a place, it is usually the amalgamation of different cultures that ensues, with certain influence or exertion by the new dominating religion (or culture), and Istanbul is a living proof of that. With its Roman and Byzantine era structures still intact along with the Ottoman era mosques and structures, Istanbul is a reminder of its fascinating past as the center of historical empires like Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman. 

And while it might seem like the influence of religion is waning in shaping the existing culture and structures, that is not the case at all. And there is no example that epitomizes that more than the breathtaking Hagia Sophia, one of the most iconic monuments on earth. 

Created as a church in 537 AD, Hagia Sophia remained the symbol of Eastern Christianity for almost a thousand years. The fall of the Christian Constantinople meant the fall of Hagia Sophia – the Church and the birth of Islamic Istanbul meant the birth of Hagia Sophia – the Mosque. It eventually became a Museum in 1934, before again becoming a Mosque just recently, in June 2020 – a reminder that religion is still able to exert its influence in history even today, and a reminder that history is changing even today, one day at a time, like it always does. 

As we have talked about Hagia Sophia – the Church and Hagia Sophia – the Mosque, and also Christianity and Islam, it is a perfect time to take a detour to the Arabian Peninsula, and continue from our story of Abraham and his two sons, to trace the origin of Islam and the Islamic empire, which we will be doing in the upcoming article.

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