The Third Rome

On the other side of the grimy windows, the darkness was punctuated by occasional flashes of villages passing in a glow of orange lamplight. James and Nick had occupied the back seat, falling asleep under a woollen blanket they had bought at a market back in Ankara. James, the lighter sleeper, jerked awake at intervals, and reassured himself of his surroundings before succumbing again to exhaustion: still the darkness outside, still the bored-looking girl sitting opposite, with the hijab surrounding a striking face, still their cash and – more importantly – the notebooks safe in the rucksack they cradled.

He had no idea how much time had elapsed since the bus had departed: two hours? Ten? The disorientations of drowsiness, of the dark, of a plunge into the geographical and cultural unknown, combined to make him feel as if they had left the borders of the known world behind: they were carving a path through some obscure limbo, outside the confines of space and time.

But no: on the seventh or eighth time his eyes cracked open, a faint grey light had begun to define the world outside, and he could just make out forested peaks, looming darker against the darkness. Then sleep, again, and he was back in Professor Jacob’s study, a continent away:

The Byzantine Empire never truly ended. The treasure of Constantinople – the knowledge of the classical world – was never truly lost, not entirely. An ember survived, in the mountains on the shore of the Black Sea.

That was the introduction to the story that had, finally, led him here. Emperor David of Trebizond, last Byzantine king to stand against the Ottomans. Scholars and noblemen fleeing the burning ruins of Constantinople, bearing the wealth of the city. An escape, an ambitious plan: the construction of a city-state, a new Constantinople, a third Rome to preserve the fire.

Professor Jacob continued. What’s the first thing you would do, if you wanted to build a refuge that would last forever?

He had answered himself, without leaving space for a response. You cannot defend your country against the world, so you would ensure you never have to. You would hide your country. It’s easier than it sounds – keep it off the maps, and it doesn’t exist. Who bothers to look in the barren spaces?

This time, he was awake for good. He looked again, absent-mindedly, at the girl in opposite seat, and only then realized, with a shock, what he had been looking at all the way from Cappadocia. A cross – a Christian cross, that looked like beaten gold – glinted from beneath the folds of her scarf, and the book she held in her hands – a little, leather-bound volume marked in what he could swear was Latin – bore on its cover the intricate designs of an icon from another time.