by Bob Johnston
Vladimir handed over his diplomatic token and walked past the guard. The interior of Hagia Sophia was cool after the searing sunlight, but light filled the magnificent space and he felt the familiar warmth in his belly. It was not his first time in Constantinople but he had only ever walked around the cathedral before. It was the model for every church in the lands of the Rus and the Romans, but everywhere else they were pale imitations of this glory.
The service would be packed, but mostly with invited dignitaries from around the two allied empires. He presented himself to an usher and was politely taken to his seat. He smiled as he sat, three quarters of the way back from the high altar and discretely out of the way. Protocol had placed him precisely where he belonged, a Rus brother but neither a Roman nor someone of especially high rank. He relaxed. He was here for the annual commemoration and having no official functions suited him just nicely.
A Kievan magistrate was seated beside him, his chains of office glittering in the light pouring down from the dome and in through the many windows. Vladimir greeted him in formal Rus manner, which the man replied to, but then made it clear that he too was here for the event and not for chatting. Both men went back to studying this masterpiece of architecture while the seats around them slowly filled up.
The Romans began arriving as fashionably close to the beginning of things as their status allowed. Their various robes were ostentatiously grander than those of the Rus guests but Vladimir was aware of inverted snobbery among his people. Their garments were of the finest manufacture, but deliberately given a peasant cum soldier look.
A dignified silence fell as officials began gathering on the wide marble chancel. And everyone stood as the Roman emperor entered. He was preceded by three assistants dressed in magnificent robes which would have graced Justinian’s court fifteen hundred years earlier. Each was carrying a book which they placed side by side on the wide oak lectern. The emperor then motioned the assembly to sit.
Vladimir studied the robed soldier on the chancel. Theophilus the 9th. A soldier born of soldiers and yet a great administrator, a friend of the people, a diplomat. Vladimir approved. Rome had suffered too many times under corrupt and weak leaders. One could only hope that Theophilus might ignore the biological urge to pass the crown onto his son. The Rus had long since used adoption to ensure good succession. Ironically they had taken the idea from the Romans.
“My fellow Romans, my Rus kindred, my Frankish and British guests. Welcome. Today is the 29th of May, in the 7530th Year After Creation. Or for my friends from the north-west 2022 Anno Domini.” A polite chuckle rolled round the vast space. The emperor raised one of the books, a battered object in a tattered light brown dust cover. “Gibbon’s ‘The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire’.” He shook his head and gently replaced the book. The second book was tidier. “The Quran.” He put this down with a little more reverence and lifted the final book. “The Christian Bible, containing the scriptures of our Jewish friends.” He set it down.
“Around our empire, and that of the Rus, today we remember the events of the 20th of May 6961.” Again he smiled in the direction of the Franks and Britons who politely smiled back. “The 29th of May 1453. The day the Roman Empire came to an end…” He paused and lifted up Gibbon’s book “…according to this document. And the end of the Roman Empire was brought about by the followers of the faith described in the Quran.” He put down Gibbon’s book and briefly lifted the Quran. He then walked round the lectern and stood in front of the gathering.
“Gibbon’s book describes, in a language that does not exist, the destruction of our empire over half a millennium ago, and the western territories a thousand years before that. We all know how the book arrived, dropped by a disembodied hand into the middle of an ecumenical council in this very city a century ago. Likewise the Quran, easier to understand because it is written in the language of our Arab allies to the south, dropped by a disembodied hand reaching out from a hole in reality.
“It took years to decipher Gibbon’s book, its language having to be built from dialects of German injected with elements of our beloved Latin and Greek, as well as contributions from the language of our Frankish friends. But difficulties aside the message was clear. The church was a huge factor in the destruction of this empire, presumably in some other world, and someone there was trying to warn us. And another faith dealt the final blow.”
He went back round the lectern and lifted the Bible.
“This was once a center of our communal life, but no more.” He replaced it, again carefully.
“I Theophilus, Emperor of the Roman people, Consul of the Roman Senate, Caesar Augustus, preach a sermon of personal tolerance. Believe what you will, but do it in the privacy of your hearts. We have seen the destruction of our world in some other version of reality and we will not see our beloved Rome similarly destroyed. You will stand.”
The assembly got to its feet.
“Repeat after me, there is no God.”
The crowd repeated the phrase.
“There is no son of God.”
“There is no spirit of God at work within us.”
“There are no prophets of God, and never have been, sharing the words and commands of God.”
“If there is an afterlife it is no part of God’s creation.”
“The universe is us, our families, our nation, and our emperor.”
Vladimir looked across at the Catholic Franks and Britons and saw their discomfort as this inversion of a Christian service played out. He turned his attention back to the emperor, betting to himself that all the old disputes between the eastern and western church must seem like wasted time and paper now. He dutifully repeated the denial of faith, loudly and clearly in his best Greek.
“Rome is eternal. Rome has no need of gods.”
Theophilus instructed the assembly to sit.
“Rome is 2775 years old. Its center moved to this great city fifteen hundred years ago, and our Rus friends like to think of their beloved Kiev as a third Rome. It is an idea I encourage. Many cities of Rome, but only one Rome, strong, steady and eternal.”
Vladimir made his way to his accommodation, his head still spinning from the beauty of Hagia Sophia and the sheer audacity of this annual anti-religious gathering. The cult of no-God had grabbed the empire in a matter of decades, but then again Rome had always been prone to latch onto religious fads. He wondered if this strangely religious atheism would survive Theophilus, but then noticed a flyer pasted to a wall. A race was starting shortly at the Hippodrome.
It was the 29th of May 7530 and his employer, a well-connected supplier of rock oil to both the Romans and the Rus, was not expecting him back for days. He might as well enjoy his time in the great City for once. As he turned in the direction of the Hippodrome a flight of aircraft roared overhead, followed quickly by another, all six heading south. Another man watched them disappear over the Bosphorus and then turned to Vladimir.
“I wonder what those Persians are up to now?”
Vladimir nodded, reached into his cloak pocket and quietly squeezed the small Rus Bible he always carried with him.
Persians to the east, always testing Rome’s resolve. For a moment his thoughts turned to that Quran, handled so respectfully by the emperor, and those thoughts rolled above and across Persia’s westernmost reaches to the little known or understood lands of the Arabs. “Rome is eternal,” he whispered to himself. Clearly not in the world that had given them those two books that had turned this world upside down. He looked back at Hagia Sophia, drank in its beauty, and then went to bet on a few horse races.
Bob Johnston lives in Scotland where he scribbles, reads theology, and marvels at the country’s beauty when it isn’t raining, which isn’t often. He likes a good story; ancient, old, or brand new and tries to create good stories of his own. A sample can be found on his website bobjohnstonfiction.com.
As a Christian clergyman who is often baffled by what people believe, when compared with what passes for orthodox belief, I have wondered in this story if non-belief can be religiously embraced. The story also takes the fall of Constantinople on 29th May 1453 seriously because I don’t think the ramifications of that day have been fully played out yet.