The gates opened at 9 am. I bought my ticket and made my way along with many others. I was about to enter one of the most notable icons of the world. As I took the first steps from the ticket counter to the doors, I was immediately transformed to another place.
Imagine if this was a thousand years back. You are walking to a special place. You are overwhelmed by the sights and possibly the sounds of this place. You are probably in tears because this place is extremely significant. It was considered a holy place. I am not religious (I bounce between atheist and agnostic). But I too had a ‘wow’ moment when I glanced across the heavy doors into the light shining across the vast space at Hagia Sofia, Istanbul. Also known today as Aya Sofia, the church (and then a mosque and now a museum) was an important sight for the Byzantine empire.
Istanbul is one of the most beautiful cities in the world. It is where, in my view, Western/Middle Eastern civilizations played out for centuries – more than any other place except possibly Jerusalem. It was conquered, lost and gained. It was built and torn down. It was influenced by numerous dynasties. As a result, Istanbul showcases the riches of history from Byzantines to the Romans to the Ottomans. Iconic architectural gems such as the Hagia Sofia, the Blue Mosque, the Cistern, the Rumeli fort and many others are testament to the deep history.
The BBC documentary, Ancient Invisible cities, does immense justice to Istanbul and also to two other cities: Athens and Cairo.
Inspired by this documentary, I spent some time exploring the sights of these three cities. There is so much depth in each of these cities. The overwhelm felt at Hagia Sofia was vastly trumped by the awe when I first saw the Sphinx and the Great Pyramid at Giza – How is this even possible? How did humans, 5000 years back, accomplish this wonder of the Ancient World? It is a testament of human spirit and ingenuity. Cairo, too just like Istanbul, has been influenced by numerous dynasties: From the Pharaohs to the Romans to Islamic dynasties to the French and then the English. Here too, we have iconic gems such as the pyramids, the Coptic Cairo structures, the Saladin Citadel and the mosques in Islamic Cairo.
Athens, too has had influences from multiple dynasties but, in my view, is most influenced by classical Greece. The most important icon: The Parthenon, is stunningly beautiful even though it is more in a “ruin” state than some of the icons in Istanbul and in Cairo. On the hill of Acropolis, where the seeds of democratic thought were laid, one can gaze into the distance as far as the eye can see and be taken back to centuries back where, in my view, important debates and discussions took place. Nothing stands out more in Athens than the Acropolis but there are other gems such as the Roman Agora which hints at another part of Greek history.
In all three cities, there are icons built by multiple dynasties – some dedicated to the Gods and some dedicated to themselves and their legacies, all built by man. It got me thinking: Why do we build these structures? Why do we create these gems?
In these three cities, there are beautiful pieces of art and sculptures, seen in the many museums (Don’t miss the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, The National History Museum in Athens) – Why do we create Art? The BBC documentary, Civilisations, takes you through the history of Art and tries to address these questions.
I believe, we all have a deep desire to be remembered. We don’t want to be forgotten but we all know death is inevitable.
So in the spirit of immortality, these structures will let us live on. Is this why, we have foundations based on our names? Endowment Funds? Business Schools? Maybe we want to be loved and respected and this is one way of hoping to achieve this deep desire. Maybe we are terrified and consumed by fear so we build structures to house God and please the Gods. I don’t know what is correct but I do know that we humans have always build structures, given our names to dynasties and kingdoms and we will always do so.
If you think of the deep history of these places, you have to ask the question: What does it mean to be Turkish or Egyptian or Greek? The answer today might be quite different to some hundred years back.
The sense of identity would have changed and there would have been intense anxiety in trying to answer these questions: Who am I? What is my identity? How do I keep my identity? I can only imagine these questions were being asked by the people in Egypt, in Turkey and in Greece over the centuries as numerous religions, kingdoms, dynasties took hold.
It is the same dynamic being played out today, whether it is in the US or in Europe or in an unheard village in Africa.
In some way, the inter-connectedness of humanity, played out for thousands of years, will always influence the present and the future. The dynamic of change cannot be stopped, unless of course you can be like Japan for a couple of centuries – in today’s modern world, I cannot see how a nation can do this anymore. And the impact of today’s dynamic will be seen in maybe two or three hundred years and discussed by the students of tomorrow in the lectures/classes of <Your name> University.