What Are Ruins?

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shatter’d visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamp’d on these lifeless things,
The hand that mock’d them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains: round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Amid the ruins of civilization, we can find great beauty, tragedy, and sometimes, valuable lessons, for us as individuals and as societies. What I mean when I say that I explore ruins is that I go somewhere I haven’t been before, somewhere made by men, filled with the remnants of buildings, vehicles, or other habitations which have since been abandoned. These can be ancient, like the pyramids at Giza, or the magnificent temple of Angkor Wat (which literally translates as “ancient temple”), or the ancient ruins I most want to go that I haven’t yet, Macchu Picchu. Or they can be modern: an abandoned greenhouse, overgrown, its former subjects now its rulers; a mall, empty storefronts gaping at a lack of customers like a reversed Dawn of the Dead; or the sunken (deliberately or otherwise) remains of a boat or an airplane, windows broken in and flooded, home to thousands of fish, the coral claiming it as their own.

I see great beauty in all of these things. Many times the ancient ruins are the only remains of once great civilizations, which made art that can easily rival any we have today. Even if it’s not a decorated temple or imperial burial place, there is beauty simply in seeing the way that people lived in the past: the things they made, where they found themselves, and what they did there. In modern ruins, these things are closer to us now, temporally, though sometimes just as alien. Sometimes they hit home, in ways that we maybe don’t expect, and sometimes they are clearly foreign and different from us, but this is unique to each individual: what is familiar to me might be foreign to you, and vice versa.

We can learn from the ruins. We can never know exactly what happened anywhere, not with perfect confidence, but by going there, by seeing what remains, we can hope to learn from it. The wondrous field of archaeology can reveal many things, from the sources of wealth of ancient civilizations, to what caused their downfall, to how they brewed their beer. In modern ruins, we can see what worked, what failed, what people left behind, what people wrote there, and what people took with them. Sometimes these messages are explicit, sometimes not. In all cases, there’s something to learn.

And sometimes, of course, there’s treasure.

What is Sankara?

Fortune and glory, kid. Fortune and glory.