Last week, on 5 August, the Prime Minister of India laid a foundation stone and helped bury a distinctive period in global history. Narendra Modi had travelled to Ayodhya, a city long identified by Hindus with one of their most beloved gods. Lord Rama — avatar of Vishnu and hero of the Sanskrit epic, the Ramayana — was said to have ruled within its walls as the very model of those who uphold truth and justice. Like Camelot, the court of Rama glimmers tantalisingly in the imaginings of those who fall beneath its spell: the reminder of a vanished golden age, the hope that it might come again.
In recent decades, the mingled regret and yearning that the memory of Rama’s capital can inspire among Hindus had come to be focused on one particular location in the modern city of Ayodhya: the Ram Janmabhoomi, the ‘birthplace of Rama’. At the moment, nothing serves to mark the sacred spot. But soon enough that will change. A great complex of buildings will rise. As Modi, officially declaring the process of construction begun, put it: “A great temple will now be built for our Lord Rama.”
A fortnight earlier, the President of Turkey had celebrated a similar reconsecration. In 1453, when the Christian capital of Constantinople fell to the Ottomans, its most stupefying building, the great cathedral of Hagia Sophia, had been converted into a mosque, and duly served for almost half a millennium as a monument to the triumph of Islam over a defeated and superceded order. Then, in 1935, a decade and more after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and its replacement within its heartlands by a Turkish republic, the mosque of Ayasofya was turned into a museum. So, for decades, it remained. Then, this summer, the museum once again became a mosque. On 24 July, Hagia Sophia opened for Friday prayers. “It is breaking away from its chains of captivity,” President Erdogan declared rhapsodically. “It was the greatest dream of our youth. It was the yearning of our people and it has been accomplished.”