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The Irresistible Decay of Ancient Ruins

"Will anybody compare the Pyramids, or those useless though renowned works of the Greeks, with these aqueducts?" wrote Frontinus, a Roman water commissioner in the first century AD. He had cause to be proud: the Roman aqueducts, which were engineered to drop in height by only a few feet per mile, brought hundreds of millions of gallons of water into the city of Rome every day—as much water per person as many modern cities can provide.

Ancient Ruins

Nature reclaiming ruins

Today the elegant arched bridges of the aqueducts have fallen into ruin, yet their power to impress us has only increased with age. Like the Great Sphinx, a monument so old that Egyptian pharaohs themselves worshipped it as a god, the ruined aqueducts hint at tales of splendor and of calamity, of distant ages whose memories are only vaguely preserved in the scant material remains that have survived intact into modern times.

The Undiscovered Country

Over the centuries a sense of mystery has slowly gathered around such ruins, a sense that perhaps somewhere in their past, as in Shelly's Ozymandias, there lies an undiscovered and as yet unimaginable tale. Shakespeare wrote of the "undiscover'd country from whose bourn no traveler returns." His words might well be applied to the distant past; we can try to picture it in our mind's eye, but in truth it is utterly beyond our direct comprehension, hidden beyond a horizon no explorer can ever cross. All we can do is collect the few clues we find scattered about—a few stones here, a few written words there—put them together, and marvel at the stories they reveal.

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I love above all the sight of vegetation resting upon old ruins; this embrace of nature, coming swiftly to bury the work of man the moment his hand is no longer there to defend it, fills me with deep and ample joy."

— Gustave Flaubert, French novelist, 19th century

Most ancient monuments have suffered similar fates over time: they have been toppled by earthquakes, quarried for stone, and despoiled by human hands. Some have been reclaimed by the grasping fingers of the jungle, buried beneath the silt and mud of wandering rivers, or engulfed by desert sands. Yet many of them still endure, visible symbols of man's greatest successes against the inexorable, corroding powers of time and nature.

Order and Disorder, Artistry and Chaos

To the ancients, civilization primarily represented the imposition of order on the chaotic forces of the natural world, a constant striving to maintain the complex interconnections upon which culture, daily comforts, and sometimes even survival depended. Monumental ruins speak to both aspects of this perpetual struggle. On the one hand they are pre-eminent symbols of human achievement, masterpieces of technological skill and the control of vast manpower and resources. Yet they are also vivid reminders of the inevitable triumph of time over the works of man, of the irresistible decay that gnaws away at all great things.

This perennial tension that ruins embody, between transience and persistence, order and disorder, has long captivated us. Up through the early middle ages, the fallen wreckage of the Colossus of Rhodes, an enormous bronze statue from the 3rd century BC that was comparable in size of the Statue of Liberty, was a major attraction for tourists, who marveled at the great cavities that gaped in its broken limbs...

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Text taken from Amazeing Art: Wonders of the Ancient World — HarperCollins Publishers — Serialized in Games magazine — Recommended by the Archaeological Institute of America — A BookSense "What's in Store" Main Selection —  Maze puzzle art reproduced by the British Museum

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He who entered the Labyrinth could not find his way out; for many a winding turn shut off the secret outward way."

—Apollodorus, Greek scholar, 2nd century BC

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