Palmyra. Image by Flickr user reibai.
“You can wipe out an entire generation, you can burn their homes to the ground and somehow they’ll still find their way back. But if you destroy their history, you destroy their achievements and it’s as if they never existed.” — The Monuments Men
As you read this, the dust will have long settled on the fallen tombs of Palmyra. In the past two months, the Temple of Baal Shamin and the Temple of Bel, some of the most notable religious structures from the ancient world, have been obliterated.
Even as I write this, I have a deep churning in the pit of my stomach, an uneasiness that cannot be solved by food, pills, or sleep.
It’s the kind of pain that lingers when you lose a grand old love to reasons beyond your control. Neither of you want to leave. Both of you are powerless to stay.
To see these grand creatures of stone and sand laid bare, stripped to their foundations — it feels like losing the last heir of a wise and venerated family; a legacy that perishes in the arms of its final custodian.
The loss of monuments is much more than stone and cement. It’s loss of our history. Big or small, they are purveyors of human ambition: They are compounds of our fears, follies, and victories. They are lessons in love and war. They are lessons in history, physics, astrology, politics, arts, and life itself.
They are time travellers without having travelled at all. Their whole is a sum of parts from around the world, their souls stitched together by gems from the far East and workmanship from the West, erected by the great egos of kings, queens, and storied civilisations.
They are constants in a sea of changing scenery. The durbars were kingdoms where laws were made now welcome toddlers in strollers and Instagramming tourists. Where wars were once waged, souvenirs are now sold. Where love once flourished, bullets are now cast. A reminder that we are nothing but a world cast in irony.
If you’ve ever walked the hallways of a grand palace or caught the breeze in an ancient courtyard, you must be fully aware of a great structure’s ability to inspire and dissuade, all at once.
How grand we were to have built cities that employed science beyond its time. Towns with near perfect plumbing without the aid of codes or machines. Cities built with pure human imagination and dexterity. Yet, here we are, thousand of years later, with sewers that stink and pipes that spill and politics embroiled in anarchy. We are reminded how little we are and how little we have changed. We are reminded that if we care to listen, we stand a chance at redemption from a future that is its past.
What would we be without our monuments?
What would we be if not for our collective wealth of memory? What would we be if our only wealth lay in objects made in our present time? What if our awe could only come from a slimmer phone or a larger screen or a thong-clad derriere in a music video?
We need our monuments as we need our stories. And there is a no greater story than one that narrates itself.
To all those fallen giants, goodbye. Even in your death you remind of the things we shouldn’t be.
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