Cycling to the Sahara: Cemetaries of Civilisation

A grave is sacrosanct. A graveyard, hundreds of individual lives marked by their death, even more so. But most sacred of all are the ruins of an ancient city. These ruins are also a graveyard, not of individual lives, but of an entire civilisation.

The cemetary of a civilisation. Sbeitla, Tunisia.

Graves and graveyards are for remembering. They’re not just convenient places to put dead bodies, away from the living. A gravestone remembers a life after the body is decayed. For the survivors, it is a reminder of the person who lived.

But after a couple of generations that gravestone no longer reminds anyone of the person who lived, but instead inspires an awe of brevity, how important each moment is and how irrelevant. It teaches us that there is something beyond ourselves, a future in which we are long forgotten. That is the power of just one gravestone.

An entire ruined city leaves behind a cemetary of civilisation. It reminds us that, not only will our individual lives decay and be forgotten, but our entire way of living will also decay and be forgotten.

In hundreds or thousands of years archaeologists and historians will pick over the bones and stones of our ruins. And it will take hours of scholarly argument for these archaeologists and historians to decide something so simple to us as how the twenty-first century toilet evacuated its waste. To us, it’s almost natural to press down on a lever after we’ve taken a shit. But imagine the future philologist’s delight when he discovers that the contemporary technical word was “flush“.

So imagine the civilisation that’s vanished here. Look at these Roman baths, look at the plumbing under the floor. Can you imagine how it worked?

Roman baths, showing the underfloor heating. Or so we’re told.

Or can you recreate this Roman olive press? Would you even know it was a olive press if I hadn’t told you (and if I hadn’t been told)?

A what? Looks like a bird bath to me.

Can you imagine what the forum was like? Not that it was a market place, where people traded goods, but how people behaved here. What did Romans talk about? The three temples that stand at the head – what went on there? Were people allowed to sit on the steps to watch the hubbub below? Did children play hide and seek among the columns? Or was Roman discipline so tight that they wouldn’t dare?

The Forum. Home to a market and a civilisation.

Once you start interrogating the stones like this, it’s endless. Were the roads smooth, or unevenly paved like today? Did they have problems with litter? Did the citizens greet each other in the street, like in modern Tunisia, or walk on by, heads held down like in London? Who was the best tailor in the city? The best butcher, baker, candlestickmaker?

Where were the rough ends of town, where the footpads and cutpurses roamed? Did old men sit outside their doors and fall asleep in the sun? Were there rats? Or, intriguingly: did they build a museum to an even older civilisation?

These things would have been known and understood from birth by everyone who lived in this city. But we have no idea, no clue whatsoever, we can only guess. Not only their houses and baths are destroyed, but their customs, their habits, their fashions are also gone, completely eviscerated, just as ours will be soon.

And this is why we keep ruins in their cemetaries, why we tend the stones and the paths, why we walk slow, to contemplate our long past and brief future.

Three arches we look through. Past, present and future.

What do you think?