[This piece has been inspired by the film Agora]
“You don’t question what you believe. I must.”
In Alexandria, at the turn of the fourth century, there lived a woman named Hypatia. She was a great scientist and philosopher whose principal aim was the pursuit of knowledge.
Hypatia never married and was master of her domain. She was a non-practicing Greek pagan, unaffiliated with the Olympian gods, or any gods and religion, despite the prevalence of the Egyptian, Roman, Jewish and Christian faiths. Her Greek pagan identity was simply a cultural identification, and her detachment from religious doctrine and its denominations was instrumental to her profession. It gave her a healthy and rational perspective on life, from which she could investigate the world without prejudice or bias.
But times were harsh and unaccommodating. Religion was ubiquitous, in fact mandatory. Alexandria, a city of politics and machinations, had no room for unaffiliated, atheist philosophers.
It did not end well.
Let us see what happened.
History In The Unmaking
Alexandria, 391 AD. The emperor of Rome, Theodosius I, is a Christian. Christianity has recently been made legal and grows bolder by the day. Now a political force majeure with considerable span and influence, its supporters want to redeem themselves from centuries of Roman and pagan oppression. Their aim is to spread their faith to all unbelievers, bestowing the word of their God and His humble son, Jesus Christ, to all men, women and children, by all means necessary.
The Christians get organized, advocating their beliefs with zeal. Their movement is strong, making headway. Alexandria is a multicultural society where points of view are freely expressed, so their presence is duly felt. Their confidence grows. They confront others with aggression, mock the local gods and cast aspersions on rival faiths, branding them false, idolatrous and evil.
The pagans take offence at the rising Christian hubris. Tired of being taunted and ridiculed, they respond with a pogrom. Christian blood is shed on the streets of Alexandria.
The violence backfires. Rather than retreat, the Christians mobilize themselves and retaliate with violence of their own. The pagans flee before a raging mob, barricading themselves inside the Alexandria library where Hypatia lives. They hold out there for days, waiting for tempers to calm down, or for the authorities to disperse the Christians and guarantee everyone’s safety.
But they’re grimly disappointed. Instead of warding off the enraged Christians, the authorities support them. The emperor himself issues a decree ordering the pagans to evacuate the library immediately because it is to be handed over to Christian authority.
The pagans abandon the library, and so does Hypatia and the scientists and scholars. The mob storms the building and destroys all transcripts and discourses, satisfying their rage and sending a clear message to other faiths. Whoever challenges Christianity will be destroyed.
Years pass. The library of Alexandria is now a horse stable, its former patrons either chased out of the city or forced to convert to Christianity.
Hypatia is getting on with her life and research. She hasn’t converted, despite the pressure, choosing to remain faithful to her scientific beliefs. The Christians are not powerful enough to go after her directly. She is allowed to teach, conduct research, and pursue her interests.
Armed with a few transcripts she managed to salvage from the library, Hypatia presses on. Her obsession is the heavens. She’s investigating the sky, trying to figure out the question that has long plagued her: why are the planets behaving so strangely? Why do they show anomalies in their orbit?
An ancient theory can perhaps shed light. Six centuries ago, Aristarchus of Samos, a Greek astronomer, had proposed that the strange movement of the planets could be explained in terms of celestial bodies revolving not around the earth but around the sun. This revolutionary way of viewing the universe became known as the Heliocentric Model.
Impressive as it was, the notion never caught on. The heliocentric model couldn’t be corroborated, so it was rejected by most scientists and researchers as well as religious authorities. The theory fell into disrepute, even ridicule, and was forgotten by everyone, save a few foolish dreamers. In addition, all of Aristarchus’s transcripts and data had been lost either in Julius Caesar’s fire or during the attack of Aurelian, both of which destroyed parts of the library of Alexandria and its precious transcripts before the third and final demolition of the library by the Christian mob.
But the controversial and unsubstantiated theory survived. It was passed down from dreamer to dreamer and skeptic to skeptic by word of mouth, enduring the tests of time and tickling the minds of visionaries like Hypatia.
So Hypatia presses on with her research, eager to understand why the planets move in mysterious ways.
Meanwhile, on the other side of town, Cyril, Patriarch of Alexandria, is busy working on the masses. With the pagans all but eradicated – or converted to Christianity – he turns his attention to the Jews. Pressure is mounting from all sides to exile them from Alexandria, and he’s happy to oblige.
The assault begins. The first to be targeted are Jewish festivals, which agitators plunder and ridicule, paving the way for a coming purge. In addition, the Jews are attacked on the Sabbath, finding themselves unable to fight back.
The cunning agitators are monks called the Parabalani. These monks are a radical Christian brotherhood whose aim is to uphold the word of God by force. Few dare oppose or antagonize them. They are Cyril’s crack forces, unofficial enforcers of divine authority.
But the Jews fight back. They retaliate with equally deadly force, ambushing and stoning to death a number of Parabalani monks.
As a result, all hell breaks loose – a city-wide riot, during which the Jews are massacred. Those who survive are expelled from the city.
Cyril’s authority is almost complete. All that stands in his way is Orestes, Prefect of Rome.
Orestes is a Greek – and former pagan – who has recently converted to Christianity. He’s not a true believer in the eyes of Cyril, doesn’t follow God’s word blindly – on the contrary, Orestes holds on to opinions that profess to his “untamed” soul. Hardly surprising, as he’s an old disciple of Hypatia; a critical, scientific and curious mind who casts doubt on the workings of the world, undermining God’s divine plan. He represents disbelief in the absolute truth and has to be removed so that a true Christian may take his place.
The way to depose him is simple and cunning. All Cyril has to do is expose Orestes’s connection to Hypatia and the duplicitous Prefect will fall like a rotting wall.
Cyril summons a meeting at the temple, where he reads out a passage from the scriptures. The passage decrees that God did “not permit a woman to teach or have authority over a man.” This is the word of God, Cyril emphasizes. He asks everyone to kneel and abide by it, showing their allegiance to Him.
Orestes flinches. Realizing he has been ambushed, he makes a swift choice: he refuses to kneel on grounds of reason and logic.
Cyril counterattacks. He singles out Orestes as a heretic, a false Christian, and strikes him out of office.
And Jesus, their Lord, anguished by how easily His teachings had been misconstrued in order to serve humanity’s inhuman needs, wept in silence. And so does every god in whose name crimes are committed.
Hypatia is next. The Parabalani go after her, accusing her of witchcraft, of possessing a man’s mind, of having no faith in the divine. They drag her through the streets of Alexandria to the temple where they strip her naked, force her to kneel before the cross and stone her to death.
Thus ends the life of a revolutionary scientist, a brilliant mind who had begun to grasp how the universe operated. Fanaticism and blind faith prevailed over her. Reason was punished, knowledge was suppressed and science was subsequently eradicated from the region. Alexandria fell under the control of Cyril and the Christians became what they had been opposing all along: ruthless tyrants and oppressors. And Jesus, their Lord, anguished by how easily His teachings had been misconstrued in order to serve humanity’s inhuman needs, wept in silence.
And so does every god in whose name crimes are committed.