Standing next to an ancient city wall in "Muslim" Istanbul, Turkey, on the Asian side, just a 10-minute boat ride across the Bosphorus Strait from "Christian" Europe, I began to ponder the global historical importance of these walls. What would have happened if these walls had not held...if, for example, Christians had succeeded in dominating the Middle East and North Africa until the present day, or conversely, if Islam succeeded in dominating Europe until the present day?
We in the West think of choosing religions almost completely as a personal choice -- a decision one makes to believe or disbelieve. And yet, history and culture play an enormous, unseen role in individual choices. One's religion is often determined by accident of birth. If you're born in Turkey or most of the Middle East, odds are you're going to be a Muslim, culturally if not devoutly. If you're born in Italy, odds are you're going to be a Catholic, culturally if not devoutly. If you're born in America, odds are you're going to be a Christian, culturally if not devoutly, and specifically a Protestant, as 50 percent of Americans identify as Protestant. although America is increasingly a land of religious (and irreligious) diversity.
The more I traveled -- to Vietnam, Cambodia, Israel, Jordan, Palestine, Spain, Italy, Greece, Turkey, Austria, the Gulf States, Egypt, Ireland, Scotland, England -- and the more I studied, the more I realized we humans are creatures of history and culture. I could think of multiple "what if's" for each country -- critical moments or turning points that led to terrible, bloody tragedies or almost miraculous transformations.
What if the walls of Constantinople hadn't held repeatedly through Byzantine history? Beginning with the attacks of Attila the Hun in 447, Western Europeans (and consequently, America) might be Muslim today.
"It's worth pondering on the significance of the effectiveness of the Lands Walls of Constantinople," wrote Terry Richardson in Today's Zaman in 2010.
"If Attila had breached them in 447, would the city have survived as a Christian entity or would the eastern half of the Roman Empire (later known as Byzantium) have collapsed? The Byzantine Empire is seen by most scholars as an effective barrier between the Islamic world to the east and Christian Europe to the west. But had Constantinople, capital and lynch-pin of this great empire, fallen to the besieging Arabs in 717-718, would the tide of Islam indeed have flooded its way across to the Atlantic and left Europe a largely Muslim continent? This is pure speculation of course, but there is no doubt that this incredible defense system played its part in determining the course of world history."
In my mind I began to ponder alternative histories for the whole world.