Magic carpet

This summer took Mary and me on a magic carpet ride to Istanbul for a few
days. Yes, we did buy a carpet while we were there, despite our resolution
beforehand that one thing we definitely would not do was buy a carpet. Well,
we did. But we got a lot more from this trip: a sense of the complex
interweaving of the forces of history that makes everything look just a
little bit different.

In the changing names of the city--from Byzantium to Constantinople to
Istanbul (and several more in between)--you can trace 3,000 years of Greek,
Roman, Christian, Islamic, and secular history. And you can see it no more
eloquently expressed than in the magnificent cathedral called Hagia Sophia
("holy wisdom") in the very center of the old part of "The City." From its
dedication in 360 A.D., and for more than 1,000 years, the central dome of
this spectacular paradigm of Byzantine architecture was the largest in the
world, making this cathedral of the Latin empire a wonder of the world. The
current building, rebuilt between 532 and 537 by the Emperor Justinian after
riots destroyed the original, was constructed from monumental pieces of
pagan temples plucked from sites around the Roman Empire to demonstrate
Christianity's overcoming of the pagan world. It is a brilliantly successful
pastiche and an architectural marvel.

One more critical layer was added to the history of Hagia Sophia with the
conquest of the city by the Ottomans in 1453, when Sultan Mehmed II demanded
the cathedral be transformed into an Islamic mosque. Its glittering mosaics
were plastered over, the icons and altar removed and destroyed, the faces of
the seraphim were obscured, and four towering minarets were added around the
outside of the dome. Hagia Sophia became the model for all the great Ottoman
mosques for 500 years until, in 1935, the newly formed secular Republic of
Turkey declared the site a museum. Today you can see spaces throughout the
building where the plaster has been peeled away to show fragments of the
stunningly beautiful mosaics that once illuminated the entire interior.
Gazing up at this heavenly dome in the center of a city that for centuries
has functioned as a strategic link between the Black Sea, the Sea of
Marmara, and the Aegean, forming the "Golden Horn" that bridges Europe and
Asia, you can't help but feel history all around you. Enveloped in it, on a
magic carpet ride.

The trip made the events of this spring back on campus seem somehow
different to me. Just before Commencement we broke ground for our newest
addition to campus--the remarkable Center for Health Sciences. The moment of
turning the earth seemed important to me at the time. But now--without any
mosaics or frescoes, no minarets or domes in the plans--it all seemed
downright historical. We were making way for a great new academic facility
designed to echo the historic Tudor Gothic style of our campus, an
architecturally significant building designed by one of America's most
celebrated architects, a place where research and teaching about the mind
and body will take place, where human behavior and human health will be
explored and understood, and where functioning clinics will provide care and
healing to patients as well as offer training for future practitioners.

But that's not all. We will now also finally remove the U.S. Army Quonset
huts we acquired in 1948 and added to the south end of campus as a five-year
temporary fix to accommodate the rapid growth of the college following World
War II, when so many veterans returned ready to take advantage of the GI
Bill. In place of those buildings we will construct an impressive new
pathway--Commencement Walk--winding its way from Collins Library to Memorial
Fieldhouse, unifying the campus north to south in a way it has never been.

When I returned to campus and saw the new building taking shape, I began to
see those temporary buildings, inadequate to their purpose and an eyesore
after standing in place more than 60 years beyond their time, as something
much more. They were an affirmative gesture of faith in the history of this
college, a looking forward to that eventual day of groundbreaking--a day
longer in coming than anticipated back in 1948, but one envisioned even then
and finally made good upon, now a part of that same history. They were built
to disappear.

I was reminded of all this by our first-ever summer reunion that took place
on campus in June, when we brought together the classes ending in zero and
five to take charge of the entire campus again and remember their student
days as they celebrated what came next. This year's "Golden Logger" class,
the Class of 1960, was the first to enter the College of Puget Sound but to
graduate from the University of Puget Sound. Talk about historical. Stories
from those returning former students--who have become attorneys, physicians,
museum directors, developers, teachers, activists, and
businesspeople--recounted the profound influence of professors on the course
of their lives, lifelong friendships forged here, voyages of self-discovery
embarked upon, partnerships developed, romances kindled, talents awakened,
careers secured.

Those stories and the people who tell them are the warp and weft of the
history of this college, the invisible architecture of its master plan, the
shining mosaics beneath its plaster. Weaving together the personal histories
of individual lives into the long historical development of the university,
they are expressions of faith in the future of this college that will make
the magic carpet ride of our history continue for generations to come.
By the way, we got an amazing deal on that Turkish carpet.