One of my favorite things to do when traveling to areas is to see their ruins. It is a poignant and melancholy thing to be in a place that was once a thriving city, filled with people not particularly unlike myself, who had their own hopes and lives and their own expectations that things would go on as they had, only to find that their homes fell into oblivion and abandonment. I live my life with the melancholy thought that the cities I have known so well and spent such time in are themselves well along the path of becoming lonely ruins like those I have seen in diverse places around the world, from the jungles of Central America and the Yucatan peninsula to the mounds of the Midwest to the deserts of the Middle East.
To travel to ruins is to see the mockery that time makes of our expectations. When I visited the ruins of Colosse, for example, this town that received two books of the Bible written to it was nearly impossible to distinguish apart from the tell-tale rows of seating dug into its hillside near the meandering river where the city’s ruins now sit as farmland. No doubt many thousands of cities around the world are similarly obscure, with perhaps some sort of telltale mark such as a tell that many people would not be knowledgeable enough to tell, with no effort having been made to restore the ruins to what they were when they were lived in by ancient and forgotten people.
We may tend to think of cities as natural, but there is little that is less natural than the way that people live together in such places. For cities to survive there needs to be trade routes bringing in food and other luxury goods from far away places, since people do not like to live in simplicity in such places and cannot grow enough of their own food. Likewise, there needs to be effort spent in getting rid of waste and bringing in much fresh water for thirsty people to drink. And there needs to be a lot of effort spent at security, since people are emboldened by anonymity to behave in very wicked ways that would not be done under greater surveillance in smaller communities. And when trade networks and the will of people to be restrained by law and the ability of authorities to draw upon food and water fail, so too will cities fail inevitably in time.
What is most striking, perhaps, about times like these is the melancholy realization that we are living in times where trade networks are failing because of the incompetence of our rulers, where plague threatens, where water and food are becoming more scarce and dear, and where the will of our people chafes under self-restraint, and positively rebels against other types of restraint. How long will it be until our own cities await intrepid explorers to wonder how we lived and why our cities became desolate ruins? How long will it be until we write lamentations over the destructions of our own beloved urban culture?