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  • Writer's pictureAlexandra Alissandratou

scribblings from THE Empire: Preface

Updated: Oct 15, 2019

The Fall of Constantinople, artist Theophilos Hatzimihail, born Lesvos, 1870

The barbarians are at the gate.

But who are the barbarians? Anyone who is not like us? Anyone who thinks differently from us? Anyone who looks different? Anyone who praises another god other than ours? Man fights wars, glorifies victories, celebrates fallen heroes, and tramples upon foes. Nothing has changed. Who are the barbarians?

As I sit here in contemplation, it is night and I cannot sleep. An hour ago the stars were shining through the tall fir trees and twinkling over the lake. Looking from my window, though, they were more than stars. They were priceless diamonds suspended through the branches, diamonds that spoke to me through the light years that separated us, diamonds that I could never touch, but which imposed their beauty on my soul. And as the dawn breaks over the yet snowy peaks, the dawn that carries the stars forth to another day, they travel from the world which I live and love; they travel to the world which was a part of my being and is now entombed in my soul. And as I enter the twilight years of my life, the world of my girlhood becomes more of a reality than the present, as do the thoughts, the dreams of what might have been.

No, dear reader, there are no regrets. My life has been a good one and my blessings many. That is not to say, though, that in one’s mind’s eye one cannot create another reality, vaguely attached to the past with the awakenings of other possibilities, of fantasies that guide one to another life, the realm of the imagination.

What I am about to recount is of a life I may have lived, a journey into a historical past, personages created in my imagination. Constantinople, capital of the Byzantine Empire, did exist, it did fall to its long-present enemy the Ottoman Turk. And it is just that phrase “long-present enemy” that brings me back to the opening lines of this chapter and from which I wandered, a habit of mine, and one which I have in common with some of the personages of this story you are, I hope, about to read.

What I am about to write is a romance, a combination of my dream of a utopia, of lives wasted by war, of love that can survive in spite of tragedies, and love among enemies who see one another as human beings sharing the same planet, the same space, and who defy the norms of their times. Who, then, is the enemy? Who, then, is the barbarian? Who, then, are we?

My story begins in Istanbul, eis stin poli, to the City, as the Greeks said when traveling there, which became modern-day Istanbul, no longer a political capital. But no need. Leave Ankara to the bureaucrats. My Istanbul, Constantinople, Byzantium remains the jewel on the Bosphorus, its maidenhead pierced by the Straits of the Dardanelles, its life blood flowing into the Sea of Marmara and north on to the Bosphorus and ultimately to the Black Sea.

Many years ago, a young man took me across to the Asian shores of the City, to the top of a beautiful hill from where we could see the magnificence of Constantine’s capital. “When an emperor married,” he said, “he brought his empress to this hill to lay his city at her feet. And so I to you.” Was this the fantasy of a young man in love? Most probably; one that I have cherished, especially as he is no more. At that moment in time, he relived a magnificent past and perpetuated a dream, one that lives in the hearts of any individual who knows this pearl, this Constantinople, this Istanbul. And while animosities continue, suspicions brought forward from deep history, there are those of us able to overlook and see one another with different eyes.

Who, indeed, is the barbarian?

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