I have been to a dead city. I am not referring to a town that inspires the sentiment of “Marietta’s Lied” from Korngold’s “Die Töte Stadt”; rather, I speak of the Roman city of Perge. It once thrived but now only is home to stray dogs, of which there are many to be seen sleeping amongst the ruins, and tiny black tadpoles in stagnant pools. These residents cannot appreciate the cracked marble which once adorned magnificent facades, the deep cold pool of a Roman bath which once was filled with water and now contains only brown and green moss growing on its floor. They don’t know that it was a place of learning: the famous Greek mathematician Apollonius of Perga once resided there. They have no means to discern that it had significance in the life of St. Paul and his companion St. Barnabas, who preached there twice.
Perge was once one of the wealthiest and most splendid cities in the ancient world. Now the grand avenue now runs towards a bleak horizon, and smashed columns and blocks of stone litter its sides. Only the occasional plinth inscribed with Greek or Latin words or a column with a figure carved into its top provide a discrete clue as to its former residents.
Where are they? Fled, felled by disease, murdered, bred out, died. Gone, long gone. The electricity pylons on the surrounding hills were built by a people who speak a different language and inhabit a land that has vastly changed due to the work of their hands. Their cities are alive; the red flag with white crescent and star flutters over a vibrant nation. The dead city is kept as a monument to their vanished predecessors.
As I walked over broken stones, I wondered how such things happen. After all, the people who lived in the dead city once had everything: food was plentiful, indeed, a wild grape vine was to still be seen. The baths, the focus of Roman life, were large and splendid. Scratch beneath the dirt and magnificent marble tiles where its patrons once walked are to be found. No doubt, the city was once filled with the scents of bread baking, odours of animals and the omnipresent aroma of olive oil. Its streets echoed with voices speaking a variety of tongues: arguing, talking, selling. Eventually, Roman proprietorship shifted to the Byzantine, and afterwards the city lasted well over a millenium. Why did it then die?
The historical record suggests that Perge declined due to Arab raids, and then was gradually abandoned during the Seljuk period. But is there more to it than that? I cannot help but think of the old dictum: hubris turns to nemesis. The moment of victory is the time when the seeds of eventual defeat are sown. The inhabitants of Perge worked to build a magnificent city, which stood as a tribute to effort and invention. But having arrived at that destination, they could not sustain their place at the pinnacle of success. Hubris turned to nemesis: complacency perhaps set in, mismanagement and corruption may have followed thereafter, the quality of leadership probably declined. The Arabs, inspired by the fervour of new-found religious faith might have seen decadence as weakness and brought Perge down. Now all that reigns there is the quiet, apart from the chatter of tourists and their guides, the soft ripples on the water from the tadpoles, the gentle patter of the stray dogs feet.
The desperate sadness I felt at seeing Perge made me glad to leave. It was tremendous comfort to climb into a modern, air conditioned bus and drive away from the site. A lunch by a nearby river, a cold beer, a moment to bask in the sunshine awaited. But I couldn’t escape the thought that what happened to Perge could just as easily be our fate. Antalya bustles with life and construction: I wonder if it is on its way to becoming the Turkish equivalent of Miami. Men sit outside in shirtsleeves under the shade of orange trees and drink thick Turkish coffee while chatting happily to friends. This, end? How could the wide paved roads of Antalya or of London or New York turn into the broken avenues of Perge? How could the shattered skyline of the dead city be transposed onto our modern metropoli?
I cannot know the precise means, but history does have an inescapable logic at work: that which rises, must fall. We may collapse due to a change in the world order, perhaps one as profound as the rise of Islam. The present ascent of China suggests a possibility: maybe the cities we know won’t die in that instance, but change beyond all recognition.
An environmental catastrophe is another potential fate: I recall the pictures which beamed into my television set after the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami in 2011. A picture of a harbor is burned into my mind: a tide of black water rose and swept all before it, overturning large boats and collapsing river defences. This was a strong reminder that nature has the power to frighten and scatter: while this is not what happened to the dead city, Perge does resemble the remains after a natural catastrophe.
We could simply destroy ourselves. Our technology may run far ahead of our wisdom, and in the process, we could cause a catastrophe which causes life as we know it to stop. Our efforts to manipulate genes could go wrong. Our use of nuclear energy could go haywire. Our desire to embed computers in every nook and cranny of existence could be a recipe for disaster.
However, we just don’t know, and so we cannot prepare. We have only graves and poetry to remind us of our impermanence. Shelley’s immortal words came to me as I looked upon Perge’s shattered agora and overgrown aqueduct: “look upon my works, ye mighty and despair”; they echoed in my mind as the bus climbed a hill and the golden sunlight of a beautiful April afternoon penetrated the dusty windows.
If we accept that our time of glory as a civilisation is as fleeting as life itself, then perhaps we can stop being obsessed by it. I notice that the Americans are still locked into the idea of being “number one” in the world; they believe that their selection of a President this November will somehow make a difference. It may or it may not, but the idea that America can dominate the world in the same manner as it once did is madness: as other nations rose, America’s stature was always going to suffer a relative decline. It’s what you do with your legacy that matters: the Romans left us a legacy of law, literature and culture which remains with us today. Were I to examine every piece I’d ever written, no doubt Roman and Greek DNA would be found in the vocabulary and grammar. The very framework by which I view the world is influenced by the Graeco-Roman tradition that lingers in Western education. Perge is dead, but the legacy of its inhabitants is very much alive. Perhaps rather than worry about how we will remain on top or at least in contention, we should focus on what kind of legacy we leave, how our voices will carry down through the generations. How do we become people whose skylines may one day be shattered and visited only by passing tourists, yet still remembered?