Thursday, October 21, 2010

Road trip!

fearsclave picked up a mild case of the memes this morning, and it turns out to be a strain I'm particularly vulnerable to:

Which five events in history would you choose to experience in person, and why?

Events? I dunno. But there are definitely some times and places in history I'd give a lot to see. This is off the top of my head, so no promises of historical accuracy.

- Alexandria. Freakin' Alexandria. The most cosmopolitan--and second largest--city in the Roman world, designed on an elegant plan reportedly by Alexander himself, filled to bursting with art and architecture looted from all over Egypt, the center of trade between the Roman and eastern worlds, and home to what must have been a riotous mix of cultures, with temples to every god imaginable and even one of the world's largest Jewish populations, after the destruction of Jerusalem. She was legendary even in her own time, and today there's nothing left above ground except but a single late Imperial pillar. I _ache_ to see the Mediterranean and Mareotic harbors with their unthinkably prosperous emporia, the Paneion on its man-made hill, the tomb of Alexander (the trip might need to be timed to before Augustus knocked his nose off), the palaces of the Ptolemies, the luxury island Marc Antony moped away his last days on... And I understand they had a nifty lighthouse and library, too.

- Tenochtitlan. The capital of the Aztec empire, built in the middle of a lake and reached by boat or by one of a few stone causeways. The Spanish conquistadors called it the City of Dreams, carefully build on a civilized grid, paved with polished flagstones, studded by enormous pyramid temples and peppered with markets selling goods from all over Mesoamerica. Though it's easy to think of the metalless Aztecs as primitive, they carefully administered their civilization and city, to the point of dividing the lake into fresh and saltwater sections. There was peerless and alien art and architecture shoulder to shoulder with viciously brutal subjugation of other cultures and human sacrifice. I can't begin to wrap my mind around how alien that place must have been to a European mind--a metropolitan center to a whole region-spanning civilization with no common roots for thousands of years back. After taking the city by force, Cortes had the entire island leveled. There is, for all practical purposes, nothing left. This is the second place I'd point my time machine.

- The Colosseum. But not, actually, during the Roman games. I want to visit the Flavian Amphitheater in the middle ages or Renaissance, when it was a neglected ruin on the outskirts of a much smaller Rome. In those days it was overgrown with plants; according to some, it included exotic foreign plants brought in on the animals killed in the games. Wandering alone through a place so quiet and thoroughly abandoned, but with such a visceral and inescapable connection with massive shouting crowds of people and a staggeringly complex civilization so long gone-- There's no way I'd pass it up.

- Rome in the first century. In part, this is just because it's an important time and place that's worth seeing. But I'm going to cheat a little and arrange to bring along a crew of historians to document the period. We're blessed to know as much as we do about Rome, but the long time and monastic filter have badly damaged our understanding of the time and people. We'd make a point of sticking our noses into the Mithraic mysteries. It was a foreign cult whose development and growth in popularity closely paralleled Christianity's, but which wasn't monotheistic. By some estimates, Christianity took the decisive lead practically by the flip of a coin. Had that race gone the other way, the ascendant Mithraists almost certainly wouldn't have rooted out and obliterated Rome's pagan tradition as the Christians did, and the world would be an unrecognizably different place. And for all that, we know very little about Mithraism. I'd love to change that.

- Along the same lines, a multi-year trip to Judea in the 20s and 30s, again with a documentary crew. Our understanding of who Jesus was and what he said and did is based, the best we can tell, on only two non-eyewitness sources (Mark and the Q source), plus what Luke was able to pick up through association with the apostles long after the fact. And from a skeptic's point of view, those sources are clearly contaminated with quite a bit of popular folklore and Greek and Levantine mythology. For one of the most influential human beings who's ever lived, that's a maddeningly sparse record. I would absolutely spend two decades in the backwaters of Galilee if it meant expanding the record.


  1. Great list.

    I'd throw in the U.S. Constitutional'd be amazing to see who argued for what and how. Just to be in the presence of such minds. Wow.

  2. It's painful to narrow down a list like this, innit?