The 3rd Puzzle: Where are the plague pits that mark the beginning of our world?
In the sixth century the word’s smallest organism, Yersina Pestis, the bubonic plague bacterium, achieved its greatest growth spike. During the reign of Justinian (Emperor 527 to 565CE) the plague hit Constantinople, the capital of the Roman Empire. Almost every city of the Empire was devastated in an apocalyptic manner.
Gibbon (The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire) describes the effect of the epidemic as follows: Justinian’s reign is disgraced by the visible decrease of the human species, which has never been repaired in some of the fairest countries of the globe.
Cyril Mango, Professor of Byzantine Literature at Oxford University describes the apocalyptic effects in his book Byzantium, The Empire of the New Rome, in this way: it is possible that one third to one half of the population of Constantinople died in 542.
John Julius Norwich had this to say (Byzantium, The Early Centuries) about the plague: Beginning in Egypt it quickly spread across all the lands of the Eastern Mediterranean to Constantinople where it raged for four months, the toll rising to 10,000 a day and on one day 16,000, as many as the entire army in Italy…..Plague was succeeded by famine and the number of its victims was estimated at 300,000, two out of five of the population of the city.
Gibbon describes where the dead were taken as follows (Ch XLIII, The Decline and Fall): A magistrate was authorized to collect the promiscuous heaps of dead bodies, to transport them by land or water, and to inter them in deep pits beyond the precincts of the city.
Initially, burials would have taken place according to the normal Orthodox practices, anointing the body with oil, singing laments and burial in a grave. Burials of prominent individuals or clerics would have taken place in crypts or in consecrated land near great churches.
The Islamic successes of the seventh century, they quickly captured Egypt, Jerusalem and North Africa, were made possible, to a significant degree, by the devastation of constantly returning plagues at that time. The plague had returned to Constantinople, the capital of the Roman Empire, in 555, 558, 561, 573, 574, 591, 599 and again in the early seventh century. Waves of unrest followed across the Empire. Evidence for the collapse of cities is available. The psychological effect must have been appalling. In Constantinople, during some outbreaks, John of Ephesus wrote, “no one goes out without a tag with their name on it.”
It should also be noted that the Arabian desert was typically plague free during these years. If ever an Empire was set up for defeat it was the Byzantine Empire in that period. It could be said that most of our current conflicts are a result of the impact of disease at that time and the subsequent ascent of a new religion.
In Constantinople plague pits are likely to have been dug outside the great Theodosian walls, where parkland exists today separating the old city from its new suburbs. Many bodies were also reported to have been dumped into the sea. It is likely too that bodies were buried, at least in the initial phase of the outbreaks, in the complex of Hagia Sophia.
The Hagia Sophia complex we see today, completed in 537 just before the first of these major outbreaks, included the Samson Hospice and Hagia Eirene, all in the same enclosure and governed by the same clergy. The Samson Hospice was likely to have been overrun quickly during any outbreak, but some burials nearby were very likely to have taken place.
One of the reasons Mehmed the Conqueror may have left the ground generally undisturbed under Hagia Sophia was the fact that it contained plague pits. The Black Death visited Constantinople eleven times between 1348, when the epidemic surged again in the Mediterranean world, and 1453 when he took the city for Islam.
To this day excavations under Hagia Sophia are discouraged and no proper, wide ranging, modern archeological survey has ever been conducted of the underground areas directly beneath Hagia Sophia or Hagia Eirene. But why?
And where are the plague pits that mark the beginning of our world?