The smell of the sea … the cries of seagulls … a huge building with familiar domes – this must be Istanbul! But no simit shops, no trams, no Ottoman architecture – no, this is an Istanbul of many centuries past. People are wearing tunics, togas, long bright gowns. Young men are carrying high-status persons in litters across the broadly paved streets. This is Constantinople in the sixth century that I find myself in. I have woken up just opposite the famous Hagia Sophia, and there is someone preaching, imploring, crying. A woman, elderly, poor, perhaps homeless, perhaps uneducated, but powerfully eloquent.

“Repent your sins! The end of the world is near! In three days’ time, the sea will rise and it will swallow everything – all of us, our possessions, our houses, churches, and palaces. Repent before it is too late,” Zoë cries, her frail body trembling with exhaustion, her voice hoarse from shouting. A fortnight ago, nightmares of a world falling apart had started haunting her, depriving her of sleep, putting her into a state of agitation and eventually of trance. She had to leave her makeshift hut close to the Bosphorus, had to warn people of their impending fate. So each morning she went out into the square in front of the Hagia Sophia, the magnificent new cathedral Emperor Justinian had built a few years ago, to preach repentance. The crowd gathering around her was growing bigger each day. People had started being gripped by fear.

Elsewhere, too, there were portents of something terrible to happen. Thousands of miles to the west, in Gaul, a star, called a comet by the educated, had made the sky burn at night for almost a year. A few years earlier, the sun had been veiled by dust for a considerable time. As a consequence, harvests had failed, causing large parts of the rural population to move elsewhere in search of food. In Rome, the Tiber had risen over the walls of the city. Through the bed of the river, a large number of serpents had come up.

Even worse, a huge dragon had been sighted in the Tiber. On the Eastern coast of the Mediterranean, fishermen saw brightly shining shapes of bronze boats with figures sitting in them, whose heads seemed to have been severed. It was a frightening sight, especially at night. “Like bronze and like fire, men without heads sitting in a glistening boat, travelling on the sea at great pace” – or so John of Ephesus, a contemporary historian and churchman, tells us.

Scholars steeped in the scriptures had even greater reason for concern. Consistent with what were assumed to be the three prevailing world eras, the completion of the year 6000 from the creation of the world fell between 492 and 508 CE. The year 6000 was believed to be the year when Judgement Day would come. According to the brief account of the Apocalypse in the gospels of the New Testament, the coming of Jesus would be preceded by wars, earthquakes, famines – and pestilence. Indeed, pestilence was about to arrive.

An illustration from the book by Sarnath Banerjee.

In the summer of 541 CE, a ship anchoring in Pelusium, a port town in Lower Egypt, carried a grim freight: dead sailors, their stinking bodies covered with open sores on their groins and armpits. They had died shortly after contracting fever. The disease and its symptoms were new. Neither the medical literature of the time nor the popular healers could deal with it. Not aware of the risk of contagion, workers at the port had emptied the ships of the bodies (and a conspicuous number of dead rats), depositing the human remains on the beach. A few days later, the plague conquered Pelusium. It quickly travelled on to Egypt and the North African coast on the one hand, and to Palestine on the other. Soon it would be in Asia Minor – indeed, in the very centre of power: Constantinople, the splendid capital of the East Roman Empire.

An illustration from the book by Sarnath Banerjee.

As far as can be told from the available written testimonies of the time, Constantinople was one of the places hit hardest by the scourge of the plague. When the pandemic arrived, the city had just recovered from a rebellion against the current Emperor. Conceiving of himself as a divinely ordained ruler, Justinian had commenced his reign with a moral purge. Not only had he closed non-Christian schools that taught philosophy, including the famous School of Athens, but in a civil code named after him, which would be valid for centuries, he had introduced the death penalty for rape, adultery and homosexuality, while nearly prohibiting divorce.

Justinian’s moral crusade becomes somewhat more interesting in the light of his own marriage (or mésalliance, as some say) to Theodora, a former circus actress and daughter of a bearkeeper for the Party of the Greens at the local hippodrome, who participated actively in the moral politics of the empire. Circus actresses were held in bad repute by respectable citizens. As the Greek historian Procopius, who himself was neither an exponent of scholarly distance nor an advocate of gender equality, would have it in his Secret History, Theodora (whom he called the “most depraved of all courtesans”) used to perform almost nude in the circus. As an empress, therefore, Theodora might have been forced to demonstrate her moral rectitude. But she might also have had an idea of the hardships a life on the margins of society entailed. Among other things, she founded the Metanoia (Repentance), a closed institution for former female sex workers.

Excerpted with permission from The Moral Contagion, Julia Hauser, illustrated by Sarnath Banerjee, HarperCollins India.