Bodrum used to be a big deal. Back around two thousand years ago, Bodrum was known as Halicarnassus, part of the First Persian Empire and home to one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus.
Back in the day, the day being around 350 BC, the mausoleum was truly a wonder (as you’d expect, given that only seven structures were given that title out of all the amazing things in the ancient world). Now, it is in ruins, and Bodrum is no longer a notable place on the map, much like Bruges in Europe. Clearly, it has been a few weeks of fallen empires.
The mausoleum at Halicarnassus was built after the death of Mausolas, a satrap (the governor of a province) in the Persion Empire. It was commissioned by his wife, Artemisia, who was also his sister. There are some things better left in the past and sister wives are one of them, but she did love him enough to build him one of the most epic tombs of all time that inspired ‘mausoleum’ to become a recognised type of building, so it can’t have been all weird.
It was once one of the most impressive buildings in the world. Now, there are a few fragments left around the site, the hollows of some foundations and little stream full of tadpoles. That’s what is left of this incredible structure (well, apart from the other pieces that have been taken to the British Museum, which might be good given the better preservation, or bad given the clear motifs of imperialism, as this was never a British monument). It was badly damaged by earthquakes in the 13th century and finally destroyed by crusaders in the early 1500s. After this, parts of it were repurposed to build Bodrum’s castle.
Make no mistake, the wonder is gone. All that’s left is a small courtyard with broken turnstiles full of jagged white bollards. There’s a small room with some information and a few benches, if you want to picnic on a famous ancient site. It doesn’t seem sad, exactly, that this wonder no longer stands. It’s hard to imagine its grandeur from the fragments and it seems so much rooted in the past, along with the Persian Empire and most of the features of the culture that surrounded it. Things decay, empires fall, beautiful buildings become ruins and picnic locations – it’s the circle of… life? Of creation and destruction?
It’s easy to keep things in the past when the fragility of the present doesn’t feel so immediate. The mausoleum of Halicarnassus being damaged by earthquakes is barely worth feeling anything about now, but when you think about Notre Dame burning down last week in a freak fire and everyone’s reactions, the pain it must have caused to see such a landmark deeply injured feels a lot more present.
It’s easy to imagine that humans from millennia ago were significantly more primitive than us, but when you see the things they managed to build despite having far less technology, it becomes even easier to understand that prior generations of people were probably far more similar to us than they were different. Two thousand years is not a long time in evolutionary terms. And if we admit that the humans of Halicarnassus were just like us, then the atrocities of the past feel somehow a lot more devastating.
Honestly, the more you dig into history, the clearer it becomes just how fragile everything is. Everywhere that we now think of as powerful and influential is perhaps only a single century away from total collapse. Things can change fast. As we are embroiled in uncertainty over the future of our planet – environmentally, politically, socially, technologically – the transience of stability feels ever more obvious.
This experience was not as introspective as I’m making it sound. In fact, seeing how peaceful it all was around the ruins was calming. Yes, change on a global level is scary. Inevitably when regimes shift, people get hurt. Bad things do happen and that is legitimately anxiety inducing. But it does go on, even if you don’t. It doesn’t make instability more relaxing personally, but somehow, it does make it better existentially. You see tangible evidence that no matter what, things will continue, and little pieces of history will be left behind. If we’re lucky, they’ll be in a little green plot, with nice benches for people to sit at while they contemplate what came before.