The world through different eyes

I have been thinking about world views quite a bit over the last two weeks. Being confronted with Europe’s richness of visible and tangible history, and having time to absorb it, seems to amplify and clarify thoughts that had been swirling around in my head for a while now.

(The luxury of time to do more than skim the surface of a city or an area is something I’m acutely aware of. Instead of having to rush through a street or a church or a ruin because you have to catch a bus or a flight on the same day, we get to spend hours just being there. The experience has to be a fundamentally different one.)

Back to world views.

While gaping at the walls, vaults, roads and other infrastructure the Romans built in Tarragona more than two thousand years ago, I thought about how they thought about themselves. They did not build with the idea of breaking it all down again in a few years’ time. These structures, which in many instances were a blatant show of force, were meant to last. As, I presume, the Romans thought their empire would.

Contrast that to the Nasrid palaces in the Alhambra in Granada. An article I read commented on how remarkable it was that the sultans’ homes were still standing. Those delicate columns with their almost fragile decorations were never meant to last hundreds of years. According to the author, the sultans’ world view was that nothing was permanent, not even the ruling dynasty and certainly not its palaces. While the Alhambra’s walls were meant to protect the fortress against whatever the ancient world could throw at it, the sultans were apparently really comfortable with the idea that they wouldn’t be there forever, hence the ethereal architectural approach.

In that same complex, the heavy hand Carlos (Charles) V applied to his palace, is testimony to the Western European approach that had permanence as its goal. Thanks to this, I am spending a lot of my time staring in wonder at magnificent buildings that have been around for centuries.

We don’t have history on an impressive scale where I come from. It’s taken me a long time to understand this doesn’t mean South Africa doesn’t have history; it only means that it is history at which you can seldom point a camera.

Before the Europeans arrived in 1652, the Khoisan tribes on the southern tip of Africa lived without leaving much of a trace on the face of the earth. These were people who knew how to survive in harmony with Nature’s cycles, and embraced it. For example, instead of building reservoirs and aqueducts to bring water to them, they went to where the water was and practiced the art and science of extracting moisture from the driest deserts without altering the landscape. At most they left drawings on cave walls – as far a cry as possible from a stone-built amphitheatre that could seat 25 000 people and employed a system of platforms, pulleys and counterweights to deliver gladiators from subterranean passages directly into the arena.

What caused the Romans to react differently to the world they found themselves in? Why, instead of living with Nature, did they set about with such determination and ingenuity to bend it to their will?

I’m not an anthropologist, so I don’t know. What I do know is that their accomplishments leave me in awe. I also know that I feel sad that there are no similar monuments to the way in which other peoples interacted with their environments. Because they left no trace we have no way of quantifying their contribution to the world we live in today. As a result we wrongfully assume that they had lived without culture, structure and consequence. But that is not true; they simply lived according to a different world view.

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