Cities upon sand
On this trip, we were going to visit the ruins of Persepolis, the ancient capital of an antique land. Little remains of this once-mighty empire but a few columns and stone carvings.
Coming into Dubai, I was struck by the similarity. From the empty desert, houses are built upon the sand; in the distance, an unbelievable metropolis arises; at the airport a mighty fleet of mighty airliners clusters around three huge terminal buildings. Very little of this was present twenty years ago.
Think about it. If the Shah had been a more benevolent ruler and the Iranian Revolution had not occurred, turning Iran into a theocracy cut off from the Western world, all this might have been built in Tehran.
The ancient crossroads of the Silk and Spice Roads might have become a modern megapolis.
Not that Tehran, with sixteen million residents, is a small city. Just not a fabulously wealthy or modern one like Dubai.
The four glories
Humanity has four crowning achievements:
The city. The city defines civilisation. When humanity became farmers, we ceased roaming and built permanent settlements. Villages became towns and cities. Widespread agriculture could support populations who were not directly involved in food production: scholars, artists, warriors, administrators and rulers. The city made our progress possible.
The cathedral. As technology, architecture, philosophy, and social cohesion progressed, we built places to address the big questions of life. Temples, cathedrals, mosques. Places to lift the spirit and assure us that we were not alone in the world. There was something greater than one. There had to be.
The university. Religion is unconfirmed thinking. Science settles the facts. The seasons, the stars, the big things and the little. Medicine has helped humanity prosper. Geology helps unearth riches. Physics lets us control the world. Places of learning encourage progress, allowing knowledge to build on knowledge and spread so that it might never be lost.
The airport. Don’t scoff. A modern airport – such as Dubai – is the pinnacle of progress. Enormously complex, it allows the ordinary person to roam the planet. Millions do. And those who stay at home might meet travellers. There’s more to humanity than our little bit.
Together, these four creations give an individual an amazing reach of knowledge, of wisdom, of experience through time and space. Those who want to transcend the limits that have bound humanity for tens of thousands of years can do so, building on the lives and teachings of those who advanced our common wealth.
Most human beings live their lives giving little thought to anything beyond the reach of their eyes and the grasp of their hands. They can learn a trade, raise a family, grow to a ripe old age in comfort without too much thought or effort.
But some stand in the places that lift their spirit, they open their eyes, they see what might be.
Those who wondered what lay on the other side of the hill. what made the stars work, what caused some crops to prosper, what was the proper way to live a life, they led us upward.
Dubai and its airport may seem like a glorified shopping mall, but for me, it was my gateway to understanding. Over the next two weeks, I would visit the hearts of ancient empires, mosques of sublime beauty, the places where those of learning and culture thrived, and the everyday world of people whose lives were so different to my own.
And so similar.