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We build and destroy, but some things last nonetheless

Frederick Niedner

Frederick Niedner

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Updated: July 16, 2013 6:07AM



Strolling ancient streets amid the ruins of Corinth and Athens, or standing in the remains of Ephesus’ grand theater, leaves one contemplating the fact that Plato, Aristotle and biblical figures like Paul once passed this way and looked on the same hills in the distance or even the very stones of nearby buildings.

While visiting those places and savoring such thoughts last week, I also recalled an old Peanuts cartoon strip in which Lucy and Linus have built a sand castle on the beach and Lucy muses, “A thousand years from now people will look at what we have built here today, and be totally amazed.” Even as she speaks, rain drops have begun to fall.

Despite the rains, earthquakes, volcanoes and human plunderers of two millennia and more, enough yet remains of the ancients’ handiwork and engineering prowess to provoke genuine amazement. Still, one can’t help reflecting on the things that time and the elements have washed away, most notably of course, the teeming life that once thrived in the homes, shops, restaurants, temples and brothels (or lupanaria, “she-wolves’ dens,” as the Romans called them) where camera-clicking tourists now wander.

Mothers gave birth here. Children played. Young people fell in love. Myriad private and public dramas played out. And then they didn’t, because nature struck down these cities, or marauding strangers arrived and destroyed them, just because they could.

As for touching the stones where famous poets once stood, that proves an illusion in many cases. To see the originals, one must visit the British Museum in London or the Louvre in Paris, which means that plundering hasn’t ceased in modern times. We two-legged critters have most always practiced artistry and deconstruction in approximately equal measures.

In countless ways, the old and new reside together in cities like Athens and Istanbul. In case we hadn’t duly noted that, the universe arranged for my wife’s cell phone to signal an incoming text message as we stood under the 1,500-year-old dome of Istanbul’s magnificent Hagia Sophia. “Are you OK?” our daughter asked from half a world away. Only then did we learn that in a nearby district, Turkish police clashed with demonstrators in a manner that evoked headlines back in the United States.

Our guide in Istanbul delighted in teaching us history, including how for centuries, as today, Jews, Christians and Muslims have lived together peaceably in his city. So far as I could tell, he had his story straight.

He lost me, however, when he described construction techniques that ancient workers employed when building the massive Hagia Sophia church soon after the Roman emperor Constantine declared Christianity legal. Since wood, metal, and even mortar last a mere century or two, our guide explained, builders used only stones, which they sealed together with pigeon spit.

This last detail staggered my imagination. Calculating the host of slaves and oxen required to hoist all those stones was hard enough, but cunningly seducing or forcibly choking millions of pigeons to steal their saliva? The very thought seemed monstrous.

Eventually the guide’s joke dawned on me. Birds don’t salivate. Even as ancient rabbis taught that the saltiness of salt can only be removed by mixing it with the afterbirth of a mule — a hybrid creature unable to procreate — our guide meant to tell us that whatever substance has held the Hagia Sophia together despite countless earthquakes doesn’t really exist. Some other power, not of creaturely devising, has kept that sacred place intact.

The same could be said, no doubt, for everything else the sun cannot wither, earthquakes crumble, or floods wash away.



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