‘...if you look at it, you see a dot. That's here. That's home. That's us.’
- Carl Sagan, Cosmos
Photo by chuttersnap on Unsplash
In 1959, the government of Egypt announced the Aswan High Dam construction project, an ambitious plan pivotal to the industrialization of the country. The dam would control the annual flooding of the river Nile, store water for irrigation, generate hydroelectricity… and destroy one of the greatest cultural sites of ancient Egyptian civilization.
The Nubian temples of Abu Simbel and Philae, built under Pharaoh Ramses II, over three thousand years ago in the Aswan valley, would be flooded by this project. The world was outraged, but Egypt was adamant: the dam had to be built, in the name of the nation’s progress and economy. Culture would not feed its millions.
Interestingly, the word culture derives from the Latin cultura, which the ancient Romans used to mean ‘agriculture,’ ‘care,’ and ‘honour.’ An apt definition; the first civilization was formed by cereal farmers.
The Mesopotamians were the first community of humans to settle, not to have to hunt or gather exclusively. The first to have time to think. To develop skills, acquire knowledge, communicate, build, create,
spark all the art, architecture, language, music, dance, customs, ideas that have followed since:
‘The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every 'superstar,' every 'supreme leader,' every saint and sinner in the history of our species… on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.’
Culture does not convey truth, but meaning. Not history; a version of it. Not inheritance, but heritage. A way to be remembered. We existed. We were here. It mattered.
In 140 B.C., Antipater of Sidon wrote about the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World:
‘I have gazed on the walls of impregnable Babylon along which chariots may race, and on the Zeus by the banks of the Alpheus, I have seen the hanging gardens, and the Colossus of the Helios, the great man-made mountains of the lofty pyramids, and the gigantic tomb of Mausolus;’
But rocks and paint, and even we, especially we, decay; of writer and wonders, less than three thousand years later, only the pyramids remain.
Time and the elements are not the only culprits; man destroys his own heritage too. The Greeks demolished all the monuments they built after the ‘Golden Age’ of the Acropolis. The Soviets left only two churches in Moscow of the original 1,600. The Taliban destroyed the Bamiyan Buddhas. ISIS razed Palmyra to the ground. Choltitz may not have not bombed Paris but Berlin, London, Vienna were destroyed. The Saudis cleared Ottoman porticos and 8th century marble columns to build a Bigger, Grander Mosque in the city of Mecca.
‘To statesmen, ruins predict the fall of Empires. To philosophers, the futility of mortal man’s aspirations. To a poet, the decay of a monument represents his dissolution in the flow of Time. To a painter or architect, the fragments call into question the purpose of his art,’
- Christopher Woodward, In Ruins: A Journey Through History, Art, and Literature
still, we create, share, preserve, and fight for culture, because what we choose to value defines us.
Egypt’s Nubian temples were dismantled into twenty-ton blocks, moved up the hill, and reassembled piece by piece by the international community. Two decades earlier, Neville Chamberlain had said that culture elevates humankind from the level of animals to that of angels,
or at least, to higher ground.
‘Care’ and ‘honour.’ The 18th of April is World Heritage Day. More specifically: The International Day for Monuments and Sites. Not a day to commemorate rocks and paint, but what gives our existence meaning; what we value, preserve, and cherish,
‘that pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known.’
- Carl Sagan, Cosmos
This post would not have come to life without the brilliant work of a good friend: Daria Smirnova, whose research on the geopolitics of cultural heritage changed the way I see the world.
I draw heavily on Daria’s dissertation, which reads like a novel and is one of the best world histories I have come across. Thank you, Daria, and congratulations on a well-deserved doctorate.