It would be the adventurous driver indeed who made an attempt to navigate this old Roman road up Xemxija hill in Malta. Judging by the dearth of visitors on a fine, sunny Sunday, this heritage site is either not well publicised in the tourist guides or is of little interest to the masses. For me, it was fascinating. To walk along a road on which Roman centurions had walked more than a thousand years ago was quite the experience. I felt something similar (but a lot more gut-wrenching) when I walked down to the gas chambers from the main gates of Birkenau concentration camp in Poland. That sense of trodding in the footsteps of history and wondering what my life would have been like had I been born into that era.
I don’t know why I expect older civilisations to be primitive. Perhaps because I’ve been brought up on the back of progress, constantly treading the wheel of continuous improvement. Anything older than now can’t possibly be better if everything we invent is an improvement on what has gone before. And yet at almost every turn in the trail, I saw evidence that has stood the test of time. There was something a little surreal standing in front of an ancient Roman burial cave while looking across the water at modern high-rise developments.
And when those buildings border on ugly, it’s pretty difficult to appreciate the esthetics of progress. I know things can’t stay the same – that we have to move forward. But part of me wonders how much we have destroyed along the way – what is the true price of progress?
Looking down into the burial cave, I can imagine the body being entombed and the stone being rolled in front of the opening to seal it inside. I wonder when the break came – when these underground tombs were replaced by headstones marking the passage of lives and the passage of time. That, in its day, would have been seen as progress.
I remember walking through a flea market with my mother in Dublin many years ago. She was horrified to see the prices being asked for stuff she and her sisters had thrown out when her mother moved from the family home to the gatehouse. What she had thought of as trash was now being touted as part of history and attracting a price commensurate with this responsibility. I look around today at my ‘stuff’ and for the life of me, I can’t imagine anyone seeing any value in any of it in 100 years time – except for the stuff that I have which is already 100 years old.