One of the stronger, and odder, interests of mine as a lifelong student of history has been my love of the melancholy beauty of ruins. Though ruins are all over the world, no one deliberately goes out to build ruins. No one says, I am going to waste millions of man-hours of labor and who knows how many tons of natural resources to build some abandoned place that hundreds of years ago no one will inhabit or remember. Rather, people build cities and civilizations in the hope and expectation that they will long endure.
And yet whenever I visit ruins I am inclined to imagine what life was like when those ruins were actual thriving cities. What was their water sources, where were their crops grown, along what trade routes did this city lie, which empire or state ruled over it? How did the city shift with changes in fads, cultures, religions, languages, and so on. Was this ruin once a military outpost, a trading colony, a cult center, or a capital city? Was it always some little forgotten village, full of provincial life but never anything more, or did it once have colossal ambitions and great self-regard, only to be abandoned after a bloody siege or an outbreak of disease or the ravages of an earthquake?
There is a melancholy beauty about most ruins. The city of Colosse, or what is left of it, is currently an unexcavated field in Turkey, where an ox-driven plow pulls up bits of clay tile. That the city of Onesimus, one of my favorite biblical characters, should have been consigned to oblivion is a tragic fate. Many other cities are far more fortunate. Unless a ruin is particularly well visited (Petra and Ephesus spring to mind here), it is usually quiet, except for a couple of buses full of tourists and maybe a few (the fewer, the better) locals trying to fleece the tourists out of their money for postcards and other items. When aggressive sellers of postcards and lamb kebobs profane sites like the Jerusalem Temple Mount or the grounds of the Blue Mosque during Ramadan, I tend to be greatly bothered. I like to enjoy ruins and historical sites with only the sound of historical commentary, not the sounds of salesmen hawking their wares.
It is particularly poignant to me when ruins are not only a place for tourists but a place where people live and work. I once visited some Roman-era ruins in the city of Akhisar (in Turkey), where my friend Irem was born, and the people of that town were so unused to seeing tourists that teenagers surrounded our three buses and the small ruins where we were seeing and took pictures of us, having little idea why a group of Westerners would descend upon their humble town, little knowing that we were there because it was the biblical city of Thyatira, famous for its believer Lydia and for being the recipient of a letter from the Apostle John. How to explain that in Turkish is beyond my modest capacities of language. When we had visited Aleshahir (the biblical city of Philadelphia) earlier, there was a small but very pleasant provincial town there with statues of Kemel Ataturk, who had defeated the Greeks decisively at that point in the Greco-Turkish War after World War I, and the smell of licorice was in the air while we were surrounded by modest block apartments. It was a town I would have liked to have lived in, even now.
Besides the fact that I am a particularly melancholy person by nature, why do ruins appeal to me and move me so deeply? Perhaps it is because even though I am a person who was raised far from places that have any great interest in preserving the vestiges of past cities and fortresses (Florida is a place where many towns carry the names of the forts that were once there but foolishly did not think it worthwhile to preserve the forts themselves.), I have lived among my share of metaphorical ruins, and I know what a strange pull the past has on the lives of those who are consigned to live among the ruins.
After all, I feel as if it has been my malign fate to witness the decline and fall of the identities I was born into. I have turned the ruins of a beautiful college campus where students once thought themselves to be in the center of God’s work into a place where silly boyfriends and girlfriends re-enacted Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet balcony scene, or held birthday parties before security guards chased us out. I have seen family members hold on to identities that had long lost any value simply because they knew no other way of defining themselves, and thought sadly about such things. I have seen countries ruin themselves with foreign wars and domestic debts, and wondered why I could be no wiser myself even though I know better. If those who know the lessons of the past cannot avoid repeating the mistakes of the past, what hope do those people who know or care little about history have?
For often I cannot help the gloomy feeling that centuries from now there may be footsteps of people over the cities and towns where I once called home, with wide-eyed and curious young students of history asking their parents or guides what kind of people lived in the ruins where they now visit, and why they fell. What will those guides and teachers tell of us? Will they say that our rivers silted up and changed their course, leaving our cities abandoned to oblivion, or that we cannibalized our infrastructure and were unprepared when the earthquakes or blizzards or civil wars came? For let us not think that what we build will be any more eternal than the ruins that we visit around us. The people who lived among the ruins before they were ruins were not all that different from us—they had their hopes and dreams, their plans and schemes, and their cities crumbled away into rubble, their names and deeds forgotten. I often wonder if such a fate awaits us all, for it is not something we can do anything about.