The dome of the Hagia Sophia has stood over the residents of Istanbul for over a millennium and a half. It has graffiti that is three times older than the United States of America. Not only does this massive structure predate the city’s name change from Constantinople to Istanbul, it was constructed before Islam was even a religion.
And yet not only does this massive dome still stand: It is still in use as a museum, enjoying over 3.47 million visitors in 2015.
Travel blogger Stephanie Craig sums up the surreal experience of seeing such an ancient structure in the modern day: “It looks old. It looks not of this world.”
All around the globe, there are similar structures that have not only survived the punishing passage of time, but continue to exist and thrive in our modern world.
Different than the scattered ruins that are admired as relics of a bygone age, these buildings stand as living time capsules that 21st century denizens can enter and experience firsthand—perhaps even finding a larger truth about themselves in the process. Exploring these inhabited vessels of history and understanding why they are still standing reveals a great deal about who we are as people of Earth.
It may come as no surprise that many of the world’s oldest in-use structures are churches or temples. Consecrated ground often seems to be in a better position to stand the test of time.
“Religious structures lasted,” says Craig, “Even when a new religion takes over, they keep the building because they know something holy was there.” In fact, the stories of many of these mighty structures are steeped in the rise and fall of different religions and, correspondingly, the political power tied up in those religions.
Indeed, even the mighty Hagia Sophia has an older and larger forebear in Western antiquity. While the dome of the Hagia Sophia stands 180 feet above the building’s mosaic floor and has a diameter of 102 feet, it sits in the metaphorical shadow of the Pantheon in Rome, which was built four centuries earlier and has a dome diameter of 142 feet.
One of the Last Great Structures of Rome
The Pantheon was constructed a little over a century after Jesus of Nazareth walked the earth—126 A.D. It was built by the Emperor Hadrian after an original Pantheon built in 27 B.C. was destroyed. While its name means “all gods,” it may not have stood as a solely religious structure, according to USC architecture professor James Steele, PhD.
“The Pantheon means ‘all gods,’ but the one main god was the Roman Emperor who built it,” explains Steele, “It was meant to be all about Roman power.” Steele says that the hole at the top of the dome, while symbolizing a window to the heavens, also exists as a reminder to all who gaze through it that Rome sits at the center of the world.
As the Roman Empire drifted into decline, the prominence of Pantheon would also sink into historical obscurity.
“In 475 A.D., when Rome fell … [the city] fell into a dark age and was depopulated for 500 years,” remarks Steele, “It became a malarial swamp … an almost uninhabitable place to live.”
When Rome entered its dark period, the Pantheon existed only as long as it was deemed useful by whatever residents dared to still settle in the forgotten city. Brandy Stark, PhD, a professor of humanities and religious studies at St. Petersburg College, reveals that the Pantheon would live many lives in this tumultuous period.
“It was raided for its metal, transformed from arena to barn to fortress, took hits with earthquakes.” The Pantheon was spared from its degradation and misuse when it was converted into a Catholic Church in 609 A.D.
Under the protection of the Catholic Church, the Pantheon has been able to survive to this day, to the delight of tourists and locals alike. Nestled in the heart of the bustling Italian capital city, it has a way of revealing itself to onlookers who snake through crooked streets who may or may not be searching for the largest dome of the ancient world.
The shared experience of taking in this massive temple is something that spans across generations: “At the Pantheon, you are surrounded by people, but when you look up at that oculus, you can feel still alone,” says travel blogger Craig. “You can feel like you’re in the past and the present.”
A Centuries-Old Symbol of Power
When Rome fell, a new world order arose in the West, and a new symbol of that power rose with it. This is the origin of the Hagia Sophia.
Constantine I, upon defeating his rivals for control of the Empire, decided to christen the city of Byzantium in the Byzantine Empire as a “New Rome” named Constantinople, after himself, in 324 A.D. “Constantine was a bit of a unique fellow who had Christian sympathies but also a strong lust for power,” explains Steele. The Hagia Sofia, he says, “was a mark of his [Constantine’s] reign. It was a mark of Constantinople. It was a tribute to the Christians.”
As a religious building and as a demonstration of power, the Hagia Sophia remained for centuries and, most importantly, survived when the Turks conquered Constantinople in 1453 A.D. The mighty dome was then converted from a Christian church into an Islamic mosque.
With the new purpose, the look of the building changed as well. “The Hagia Sofia used to be an orthodox church,” Craig says. “They added the minarets we see today when the church was turned into a mosque.”
The centuries-old history of the building as a center of Islamic power can be felt even to this day, so says Craig: “When you walk through Istanbul, you see the marketplace that supported the mosque. It’s a really magical feeling.”
While these temples escaped destruction by their adaptivity, other extraordinarily old buildings have managed to survive by all but vanishing from the earth.
A Mysterious Temple Hidden in the Jungle
The seats of power of many ancient empires more often than not get swept away by time and new populations. Take for example, the North American metropolis of Cahokia which, at its height around 700 A.D., was the most populous city north of the Rio Grande. The once-teeming Native American urban center now has only a few archaeological mounds that mark its existence.
By contrast, Angkor, the seat of power of the Khmer Empire in Southeast Asia, was protected after its fall by a dense tropical jungle. Like other religious structures, Angkor Wat was a temple that would serve different deities in its time.
“Angkor Wat was originally a Hindu shrine” explains Stark, “When a new political group came in, it was converted to a Buddhist shrine in the 12th century.”
Covering some 400 square kilometers, the Angkor complex of temples and buildings is a significant cultural monument for the region. It was a location that Steele says “disappeared into the forest.” It wasn’t until the adventurous exploits of French naturalist Henri Mouhot and other explorers that the totality of Angkor was rediscovered in the late 19th century.
In addition to the protection of the jungle, Angkor has been able to stand to this day thanks to its durable construction. Stark expounds on the resilience of the Angkor Wat temple: “Remember that it is built in a mountain-temple style with tall pillars of heavy materials. It was designed to mimic the mountains in form and in lifespan.”
Angkor remains an awe-inspiring sight to those who are able to make the trek into Cambodia to find it. Intricate carvings and sophisticated architecture emerge from the untamed forest like something out of a dream. The breadth of the space is also something to behold.
“The sheer size of Angkor Wat is significant,” remarks Stark. “Even now, the location is one of the largest religious shrines in the world.”
In addition to the immense religious structures that have fought back against the ravages of time, there are also a number of humble communities that have managed to stay inhabited for centuries. Rather than changing hands between warring power centers, these modest dwellings are often in remote corners of the world that have separated the homes (and their inhabitants) from the destructive maw of history.
Hanging precariously between Iceland and Norway in the icy waters of the North Atlantic is a small island nation that is truly in a league, and a time, all its own. The Faroe Islands are a remote self-governing collection of islands under the rule of the Kingdom of Denmark. Kirkjubøargarður, or King’s Farm, on the Faroe Islands is one of the oldest-known inhabited wooden structures in the world.
Megan Starr, a travel blogger who specializes in Nordic and post-Soviet countries, has walked through the age-old community and has unique insight into what makes it so special.
“The Faroe Islands feel like stepping back in time to the days of the Vikings. I have been all over Scandinavia and the Nordics,” she says, “and there hasn’t been a destination that I’ve connected with from a historical perspective until I got to the Faroes.”
What may be most remarkable is that not only have the buildings been there for hundreds of years; the Faroe culture has not seen the kind of conquest or turnover as the temples of Angkor or the Hagia Sofia.
Because of their remote location, today, the Faroes provide unique insight into a people (and a place) that have not changed much for almost a millennium. Starr shares that, “Because the Faroes isn’t a destination brimming with tourists, you really get to feel the energy of the land and people in a way that can’t be felt in other destinations.”
Another community that has remained inhabited for more or less thousands of years are those of the Taos Pueblo in New Mexico. Subtly dotting the desert landscape of the American west centuries before Columbus first spotted what would become “The New World,” these homes built from earth, water, and straw have continuously housed natives for nearly one thousand years.
Steele recalls the ancient ancestors of the current Taos Pueblo residents, the Anasazi, who had originally lived underground: “Over a period of 500 to 600 years they evolved from literally living underground, and as they got more powerful and more comfortable and more prosperous, they started farming … they started building up and higher and higher.”
For a young country like the United States, the continued residency of Taos Pueblos stands as a powerful conduit into the pre-colonial history of the New World. Stark calls the buildings “fascinating” because of their “age and continued use in America.”
Unlike the temples which remained as symbols of power over the centuries, thus giving an incentive for them to avoid demolition, these ancient communities are still with us thanks to the determination of their native populations.
“The people of the Faroe Islands are nothing short of resilient,” says Starr. “A storm destroys a building? They build it back up. A fire ravages a church? They build it back up. They took pride in everything they built, and everything was purpose-built, leaving the locals connected to every single structure in town.”
“They came from us.”
Inhabited places that are still with us after centuries like the wooden structures of the Faroes Islands aren’t just rare—they are practically extinct. A recent architecture conservation colloquium put the average lifespan of a building at 120 years for stone and wood structures and just 60 years for more modern buildings.
That means the built environments we know so well today may be completely gone in just a generation or two. Our ephemeral surroundings help to underscore why these functioning relics are so important.
“They tell us who we were,” argues Steele, “What we valued and how we showed that veneration. It gives us an insight into human ingenuity—these structures were built without the internet or computers. They came from us.”
As artificial intelligence continues to shape our world, these buildings stand as monuments to a time before nearly all human knowledge could fit into the palm of your hand.
That human connection is exactly why it remains critical that these sites continue to exist. Starr shares that, “Preserving these buildings is imperative for communities to honor their ancestors as well as serve as a reminder to new generations that their freedoms and life were fought for … In the Faroes particularly, life was challenging and something no one took for granted.”
The omnipotent aura of these places draws in people as curious tourists but can fill them with a sense of wonder or even bouts of existential thought. Steele shares his own personal experiences visiting the Pantheon: “It’s like you see ghosts, for me, when you walk in there. It’s just an enormous sense of awe that this thing is still standing.”
It’s not hard to comprehend the supernatural quality of walking through columns or a door frame that others have walked through spanning back centuries past the internet, the Industrial Revolution, and the Renaissance. While all the individuals and daily diversions of those eras are long gone, these buildings are still here, and they are thriving.
It is a mental exercise to even try to understand the lives of these buildings. The salty sea air still sprays the wooden walls of the Faroe Islands’ homes today, just as it did when pilgrims first sought freedom in the New World. The sun still rises over the Hagia Sophia today as it did when the plague decimated the cities of Europe. The rain still falls through the oculus of the Pantheon as it did when Roman soldiers could be seen from the White Cliffs of Dover to the banks of the Nile. Visiting these places is more than touring some destination—to be in their presence is to travel through time itself.