“Does history repeat itself, the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce? No, that’s too grand, too considered a process. History just burps, and we taste again that raw-onion sandwich it swallowed centuries ago.”
Julian Barnes, A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters.
One of the main reasons that people often use to justify the study of history is that by studying one’s past, one is able to better understand how and why things went wrong and that this knowledge would help in avoiding similar mistakes in the future. The inherent assumption in this logic is that history (or at least the history of humanity) is repetitive. Is it something about human nature that preordains that we will craft our life stories with eerie similarity despite changing circumstances? Or is it something beyond humanity, something in the way that nature interacts with us and the way we interact with it that results in this illusory feeling of cyclicity? In other words are we just hamsters stuck spinning wheels in our little cages?
These heavy thoughts hit me like me a brick thrown at me by an adversary when I was enjoying myself on one of my recent travel adventures. I had been cycling with 4 others through the historic town of Ayutthaya , about 80 kms away from Bangkok. This ancient town was once the second capital of the Kingdom of Siam and was known by a grand name of Phra Nakhon Si Ayutthaya (a lovely mouthful!). And yet today it is but a shadow of its former self. The grand structures that include numerous magnificent Stupas and Chedis still tower over a large part of the town but they are crumbling. And as if to add insult to injury, as if the death of a town once with a population of nearly one million in the 16th century through war wasn’t enough, the floods that devastated Thailand in 2011 left their ruinous mark on Ayutthaya as well. With many archaeological structures having been submerged deep in water for extended periods of time, the town seems to be dying a second death.
It is not that the tourists are not visiting the town. Tourists are everywhere even when there is just a sliver of attraction- historical or otherwise- to be seen. My presence in Ayutthaya itself is proof of this fact. It’s just that witnessing this cycle of life and death of a grand city reminded me of another town I had visited earlier in the year that had inspired similar feelings in me.
Make no mistakes though, this other attraction had once been just a small provincial town. Hardly a comparison to an important city in a grand kingdom that sent embassies to overseas nations in Europe and Asia. And yet though small in life, this little town had grown grand in its death- a death that inspired countless legends and tales and a revival that even today inspires visitors from every part of the world to pay homage to it. I was thinking about Pompeii. A town that was buried by the ashes from an angry volcano in 79AD. For centuries the town lay undisturbed until rediscovery in the 18th century. Just as one city lay dying, the other was being revived from its death- a phoenix rising from the ashes.
The number of visitors to Pompeii easily outnumber the number of visitors to Ayutthaya. One city grew larger in its death whilst the other city had shrunk in its demise. And yet Pompeii is not completely free from the shadow of extinction. Although basking in its resurrected glory, the ancient city is also crumbling. Murals and paintings that held on for centuries under the earth, disappear slowly- now being exposed to the elements. Houses and walls that were bombed during the second world war and rebuilt are also collapsing. It is a constant battle for survival.
So what is it about history that creates these cycles of life and death? Cities, Empires and Civilisations start off from scratch, grow, prosper, conquer, fight, diminish and die. Some are reborn only to die again- others die once and remain deep inside the bosom of the planet, only remembered in legends and in the hearts of those that lie buried close to them.
We are here today in our grand buildings and skyscrapers, basking in our ephemeral immortality and yet tomorrow we may only be a broken wall sticking out of the ground at an odd angle- a curious thing for a passing tourist to use to compose an award-winning photograph.