Christine Strelan - Between the Covers

Vanished Civilisations

ed. Alison Bavington

Readers Digest 2002

How can something as large and substantial as a civilisation vanish? Its not the sort of thing you could lose and then find a month later, hidden at the back of the fridge, or under the bed with that lost weekend.

Reading Vanished Civilisations, I concluded that most of them were destroyed by warlike neighbours. Some, like Pompeii and Knossos, were wiped out by natural disasters, others by fluctuating trade routes and some, like Rome, by their own greed and corruption.

All of them left ruins and remnants of their existence. This book is full of pictures of crumbling stone walls, pottery shards and mysterious fragments of art. Thanks to all the tireless archaeologists out there, such scraps give us a clear picture of how vanished civilisations functioned.

One thing they all had in common was a high degree of public spirituality. Their most impressive structures were usually temples and religious statues. The remains of the ziggurat at Babylon suggest an awesome edifice, built to glorify the gods above them. The other common thread was the institution of slavery. Its easy to admire the sophisticated plumbing, beautiful buildings and cultural achievements of such cities, but their whole existence was founded on humanitys most brutal social invention.

On the positive side, most of these early cities had excellent relationships with their natural environments. They used local building materials and worked with landscapes and rivers, rather than against them. The deserted settlement at Petra in Jordan is the best example; its temples and palaces were carved directly into the sandstone cliffs of its desert location.

Reading Vanished Civilisations also provokes questions. Will our cities vanish one day? What will future archaeologists conclude from our remains? Will they be baffled by a culture where all the most elaborate buildings are corporate towers or shopping malls? Will they write us off as crass barbarians who left nothing of grace or substance? Theres a lesson for us in the fall of Rome. As Santayana said, those who do not learn from the past are condemned to repeat it. World leaders should all read this book.

Books reviewed are available at the Book Warehouse in Keen Street, Lismore, and at Lismore Shopping Square.

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