Symbols of Civilization
24 February 2010
At present I am listening to Taj Mahal: Passion and Genius at the Heart of the Moghul Empire by Diana and Michael Preston. The centers around the Taj Mahal, but the narrative takes in the history that led to and surrounded its construction. A structure as large and as important the Taj Mahal has a large story behind it, as it should.
As my initial efforts at self-education comprised the tradition of Western civilization, including Western history, I don’t have a good background in non-western civilization. Thus this book hits me with a lot of unfamiliar history that I am not prepared to take in. I would have to know rather more about the history of the Indian subcontinent and its neighboring regions in order to do justice to the book. But, interesting, some of the reading and listening that I’ve done recently in Islamic history helped (for example, Tamim Ansary’s Destiny Disrupted), as I was able to place some of the events described in the larger context of Islamic civilization. Also, the authors make an effort to tie the events in the book to events in Western history, and this gave me another point of reference.
An entire civilization could rise and fall and leave but one artifact of the stature of the Taj Mahal, and this alone would be justification enough of the existence of the civilization of which the artifact represents a high point in its development.
A great building like the Taj Mahal (or, for example, Hagia Sophia or the Alhambra or the Parthenon) is more than a building. It is the summation of the traditions, the history, the philosophy, and the aesthetics of a people. Not all peoples memorialize themselves with such magnificent constructions, and not all constructions that aspire to this synthetic role are successful or are preserved for later history.
It could be argued that the Colossus of Rhodes of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon were symbolic of the civilizations that created them, and they were sufficiently famous to be preserved in literature and legend, but we no longer possess them. Because we no longer possess them, we cannot enter into them in the literal way in which we can enter into Hagia Sophia and experience, after a fashion, Byzantine civilization through one of its greatest accomplishments.
One of the remarkable things about many of these great symbols of civilization is that they are not representative of a single civilization. The Taj Mahal is a synthesis of Islamic and Hindu influences. The Alhambra and the Great Mosque at Cordoba are expressions of the complex civilization of the Iberian peninsula, which brought together traditions of all three of the Abrahamic religions, Judism, Christianity, and Islam. The Palatine Chapel of Roger II in Palermo, and the nearby Cathedral at Monreale, are also syntheses of Christian and Islamic civilizations. In Sicily, the Christian Emperor Roger II employed Muslim craftsmen to build his personal chapel. After the reconquest of the Iberian peninsula, Pedro the Cruel other Spanish monarchs similarly employed Muslim craftsmen to produce elaborate churches and palaces. St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice is a synthesis of Western Christian and Byzantine traditions, which emerged naturally out of the continuing ties Venice maintained with Byzantium, even after the Great Schism.
Not all great monuments to a civilization are syntheses of multiple civilizations, though some of the most striking examples are such, like the instances mentioned above. However, the familiar symbols of civilization like the Parthenon and Chartes cathedral, and perhaps even the Pantheon in Rome (a democratic tribute to all the gods, as well as a testament to Roman engineering) do represent a synthesis, though a synthesis of a single civilization. Whatever their origins and whatever their provenance, no one can withhold their admiration from these works of man.
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