Monday, August 17, 2009

Among the Ruins

I spent the past two weeks traveling in Greece with my family, and all in all the vacation was lovely. But the ruins of ancient Greece that we visited captured my thoughts and imagination in a way that made it difficult to look away.

Walls, foundations of houses, and lone columns that once supported enormous temples and palaces adorned the landscape like they had grown there with the rest of nature. After all, they had stood for much longer than the olive trees among them. And each site told a story.

I grew to enjoy finding a place to stand among the ancient stones, often somewhere that may have been a road, or a room, and imagine what someone may have seen here thousands of years ago. Someone who called this place home. I imagined, based on what I've learned before, a very different world: sights, customs, and smells that we just don't experience today. And yet, a human experience that in essence is very much the same.

I had somewhat anticipated that the ruins would be like this: a captivating, somewhat fun portal to the past. But something key, and very obvious had never crossed my mind before the trip: the ruins became ruins when they were destroyed, by one means or another.

Sure, some of the buildings were worn down by wind and rain over the years. And some had collapsed during earth quakes. But for the most part, conflicts between people brought down these walls.

Mycenae, a hilltop fort with breathtaking views in all directions, was likely destroyed by invaders, thousands of years ago. Aside from what was buried in tombs, the foundations of houses make up most of what still stands. But then, what end can be expected for the place where Agamemnon returned as a war hero, only to be murdered upon arrival? The history of this region, like any, is filled with years and years of bloodshed and war.

Olympia, where a sacred truce was called every four years so that the city states would stop fighting and their athletes could compete against one another was ransacked when the Roman Empire embraced Christianity. When we visit today, we cannot see some of the most beautiful statues and architecture, because they were burned, as symbols of paganism. Never mind the many hundreds of years over which all that made up Olympia was built, and the peace and respect for one another as fellow humans that it represented.

I prefer to envision these ancient wars and conflicts through the destruction of art. Because to picture them through the destruction of human life that they must have encompassed would be too ugly to fathom.

It's said that in many ways, ancient Greece is a foundation of our society today. And despite obvious differences, we, like the ancient Greeks, produce art and culture that is incredibly beautiful. And from time to time, we tend to destroy the beauty that we create and are.

As I turned to leave the ruins at Mycenae, the image in my mind of walking these streets while the houses on both sides still stood, became filled with invaders marching up the mountain, terracotta walls in flame. And I knew that somewhere, in the present, that kind of fear was someone's reality.

And then, with a reminder of why we should always strive for peace still fresh in my mind, I pulled my camera out of my bag and took a few more pictures. Because plenty of beauty still remains.

1 comment:

  1. Great post. Very interesting. :)

    The first thing that occurred to me when reading this is your sentence about how all the city-states signed a peace treaty before the Olympics. Wouldn't it be great if we could do that now? Every two years (before both the Winter and Summer Games) all the countries of the world engaged in wars just stop everything to compete against each other in more peaceful endeavors. Sounds like a great idea to me!