Thursday, April 21, 2011
R is for Ruins
Once I was walking in the Black Mountains of Wales and rounded a conical hill to come upon a lush green valley. There nestled in the hills were the ruins of an old medieval priory, seemingly forgotten by time and wrapped up in the greeness and the morning mist and the verdant silence of the hills.
I have always been fascinated by ruins. For me a ruined castle is far more romantic than an inhabited and well maintained palace like Windsor Castle because it seems to be a metaphor for the struggle we will always lose against nature.
That ruined monastery was Llanthony Priory and it remains one of my favorite spots.
But if ruins chart the time of man on the earth a Medieval priory only scratches the surface. A number of places vie for being the oldest ruins on earth but some of those are found in Mesopatamia, now an arid and war torn land that is modern Iraq.
The land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers is known as the "cradle of civilization" because cities appeared here as long ago as 5300 years before Christ. The Sumerian civilization not only built stone cities but was one of the first to produce writing and to condify laws.
The Great Zigurat of Ur was built in the 21st Century BC and has survived fairly intact, not least being near the site of a battle in 2003 when American troops invaded Iraq.
Like so many other ancient civilizations the glories of Sumer and later Babylon and Assyria were in contrast to the modern day nations of the Middle East, plagued in recent years by poverty, hopelessness and tyrants like Saddam and Gaddafi.
Of all the ancient civilizations Greece is one of the most interesting, not least because it invented modern day concepts of democracy and philosophy.
The ruins of Delphi high in the moutains are among the most evocative. Here at a temple the spirit of Apollo was asked for advice through the Pythia, a priestess.
The Roman civilization has left numerous ruins. Those at Pompeii are among the most fascinating because of the tragedy that hit the city in 79 AD when it was destroyed by lava and ash from the volcano Vesuvius.
The ruins in Tulum, Mexico are much more recent, dating from AD 564 but their breathtaking position abovea white beach on the coast put them on my must visit list.
So too are the massive ruins of Angkor Wat in Cambodia, a massive Khmer temple built in the early 12th century and now partly reclaimed by a jungle of creepers and vines.
Unfortunately these ruins are firmly on the wish list. My reality has been dark and brooding castles and abbeys on the moors.
Carreg Cennen Castle in Wales is one of my favorite ruins, given its spectacular position on a high hill overlooking the sweeping Welsh countryside. The castle has a history of intrigue and "Merlin's Cave" underneath the castle can still be explored.
Tintern Abbey on the English border close to Wales is one of the country's most famous ruins. It was painted by Turner and inspired the poet William Wordworth imore than 200 years ago in an era when ruins came to be romanticised to the point that landowners built false ruins known as "follies" in their grounds.
In Lines Written A Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey, Wordsworth wrote.
Five years have past; five summers, with the length
Of five long winters! and again I hear
These waters, rolling from their mountain-springs
With a sweet inland murmur.—Once again
Do I behold these steep and lofty cliffs,
Which on a wild secluded scene impress
Thoughts of more deep seclusion; and connect
The landscape with the quiet of the sky.