Just a few days ago I found myself walking through the canyon that leads to the ancient city of Petra. It is truly an awe-inspiring experience. Soaking in the rays of light that trickle through the walls of stone snaking and curving their way along the cavern while creating shapes and shadows is enough to open my mind to the wonder of the planet we live in. Even knowing that at the end of the walk the canyon will open up and reveal a building carved out of the rock didn’t diminish the awe I felt when on that last turn I saw this wonder of the world reveal itself before my eyes.
Over the next few hours, I was a kid again exploring the ruins of the ancient city of Petra. My mind was reverberating with the theme to Indian Jones as I climbed through new wonders of the ruins that revealed themselves with each new turn. What was it like when this city was alive and a functioning society? What motivated them to carve these buildings into the side of the mountain? How did they even do it when they didn’t have the benefit of computer aided design and jackhammers? Then why after spending generations building this place did it end up being abandoned to only be rediscovered hundreds of years later?
This isn’t the only place like this in the world. I have been privileged to visit the Pyramids of Giza, The Great Wall of China, Ancient Rome, Anchor Wat and the Parthenon in my lifetime. All ruins of monuments to great achievements of societies that once achieved sophistication and development that even in our current civilization we find miraculous.
Today we pride ourselves in being the most advanced civilization in the history of the world and it’s true – the advancements that humanity has achieved in our time is staggering. Our ability to build, create, discover and connect is unrivaled by any of these ancient civilizations. I also think that we don’t give them enough credit for what they achieved in the context of their time. Petra was carved out rock without the aid of hydraulics, electricity or diesel engines. It was a major global destination without airplanes, cars or GPS. I can’t help but wonder if we would be much more than farmers if we didn’t have the benefit of the technology we take for granted that has been developed passed down and built upon over the generations.
As the afternoon shadows became longer I started to work my way back through the trails and paths that had been my playground for the day and my thoughts moved deeper and darker. I wondered what it was really at the core of what caused this civilization to disappear. I am sure that at their peak their people were just like us. Proud of the achievements that had made. Secure in their ability to face and concur and problems that they might face as a society. Confident in the fact that their children would achieve even greater things. But history has shown society after society reaching this zenith and falling off slowly or dramatically dying as their greatness faded into the past and they faced a new future they weren’t equipped to deal with.
Whatever the specifics of the fall of empires throughout history we know that most faced internal struggles that weakened the human/cultural foundations that brought them to greatness. Internal political struggles, exploitation of peoples, class distinctions, pride and human distractions eroded their unity and left them vulnerable. It was most often at this point that faced with invading armies, natural disasters or fading will power many great societies fell and disappeared, lost to history to become a chapter in our history books or maybe evolved into an empire that again lived out the same cycle.
As the sun faded and I began my ride back to the airport, I pulled out my phone to post some pictures of my adventure. I started to look forward to getting home on the other side of the globe and enjoy a hot shower and good night sleep in my own bed. I wondered what place this advanced society I am a privileged member of would have in the history books a thousand years from now. We have achieved so much that we believe we can pass it on and build on it indefinitely into the future. Our best minds say the technology we enjoy today will be as useless to our children as a stone ax would be to me. We have at our fingertips the technology to visit Mars and beyond, but as our knowledge grows and our pride increases I see another trend waiting in the wings. The same seeds of internal destruction of our care and love for each other that is slowing breaking apart our society in the same way we know it did to Roman Empire is leaving us vulnerable or too weak to face the challenges time will bring our way.
Now, this has gotten very dark. Not the kind of tone I like to live my life by, but that was my experience. That’s where my thoughts took me on that day last week traveling back from my latest excursions in the Middle East. I can’t shake the lesson I learned walking through Petra. I am excited and privileged to alive at this time in history. I am in awe of what we have achieved in this season of history. Things that no society before us could have dreamed of. We have developed the ability to communicate not just from the top down but laterally across continents and cultures. We have the ability to create relationships and community across geographical, racial, religious, cultural and class divides that has never been able to happen at this scale before. It’s a blessing and a curse, It holds the seeds of our own destruction but it also holds the key to our survival. But only if we don’t hold on to it with selfish pride but use it to connect, understand and build community. I want to strive to be someone that cherishes the advantages we have today, but not to use them to hide behind a wall of security, but instead to use it to build bridges and share the common stories the bring us together.
Author and photo credit: Andy Yardy