It leaves you a little breathless when you lean over the edge of the cenote sagrado at Chichen Itza and consider how many human bones are collected beneath the water. There’s a large slab of rock where people, sometimes children, would be slaughtered and tossed into the dark waters of the sinkhole in order to please Chaac, the Mayan god of rain. I’ve been there twice and both times, I found I’d forgotten to breathe.
The pyramids at Chichen Itza and the Great Ball Court where Mayans once played Pitz and participated in other spectator sports are awe-inspiring, to say the least. It’s really easy to walk around the entire ancient grounds and feel like this was a happy, bustling centre at one point a long, long time ago. Chichen Itza was, however, home to much brutality in the name of the gods. Slaves were traded. Families were destroyed. Innocents were murdered.
Despite the horror that went on there, and in ancient Mayan culture in general, you’re going to be hard-pressed to find a human being who is upset the pyramids still stand. You won’t have the easiest time finding someone who wished we took a wrecking ball to the Great Ball Court because such strife was rampant inside these city walls. Sure, some people don’t have feelings towards it either way because it doesn’t flash or beep or have buttons, or maybe they feel (erroneously) that it is irrelevant to their lives, but I don’t think there are many people out there who wish it would be destroyed or who would enjoy seeing it in ruin.
There are so many places like this across our world, from the Pyramids in Egypt built for the Pharaohs who sacrificed their slaves so they could serve them in the afterlife to the Colosseum in Rome where slaves battled to the death for the entertainment of onlookers. Even in more contemporary times, we have gone out of our way to preserve the sites of the many horrors that took place during the second world war.
There’s a reason for this. There’s a reason we still see value in preserving a place in which such horror took place. There’s a reason we’ve never razed it in anger. It’s because the place itself is not the horror. It’s because the buildings are not just a reminder of dark moments in history, they are also monuments to incredible human achievement. They are markers on our timeline that remind us of where we came from and light the way to where we’re going.
Another such marker is the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris. If you’ve been a reader here long or followed along on my podcast, you’d know I have a deep, unchanging distaste for the Catholic church. You’d know I think anyone who calls themselves a Catholic and donates to that organization is complicit in the strategic protection of child abusers. You’d know that I am not afraid to talk about how much I loathe every cog in that entire organization from top to bottom.
As atheists, though, we all know that the structure and the art and historical significance it contains has little to do with the belief. We will eagerly argue with religious apologists who suggest that more art and architecture has been created in the name of religion than anything else. Our argument is often that the art is commissioned by the church and that had a natural museum or a university commissioned the work, the art would have been just as beautiful. We know how to separate the belief from the work in order to be able to appreciate its fruits. We can find the beauty in frescoes and murals and paintings that depict Christ and Mary and any other biblical character.
Notre Dame is precisely the same thing. It may have been built for god, but it was built, mind-blowingly, by human hands in a way in which we will never see anything built again. It took 200 years to complete. Two. Hundred. Years.
The building meant something profound to the men who began construction on it, knowing they would never see it to completion. The building meant something to the people who designed it, funded it and passed the project on to successors after they died. The building meant something to each human being who crossed its threshold and admired the artistry and the achievement it is a monument to. This building means something to Catholics and protestants and Baptists. I saw a tweet yesterday from a Muslim girl who lights a candle there every year for her father because she met him there once before he died. This building means something to the French people and it means something to archaeologists and historians and anthropologists. It means something to artists who have been inspired by its tremendous beauty every single day for the last 900 years. There are people who have yet to be born to whom this structure will mean so much.
Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris means something to me, too. An atheist who has never and will never believe in a god for a day in my life.
A monument this precious transcends denominations. A work this profound reaches far beyond faith. It is collectively ours. It is just as much yours as it is a Catholic’s.
To look on as this beacon of history and art and architecture and human achievement burns, knowing how much it means to so many people; to witness that and then suggest it’s a good thing, is simply petty. I don’t like what goes on in the Catholic church either, but to openly enjoy the pain and sadness of others is not the answer.
Chichen Itza still stands, deep in the humid jungle of Mexico. The human sacrifice in the name of Chaac has long since ceased.
The pyramids at Gaza still stand. Retainer sacrifice has been gone for a long time.
Concentration camps in Germany and Poland and Latvia and Austria still stand. Hitler’s final solution, however, ended with the war.
These are evidence of the fact that whether the structure stands or not, we can end the horrible practices that go on inside.
We could have, quite easily, decided to destroy these sites of anguish and that might have briefly quenched an angry thirst for vengeance, karma and just desserts, but even if we had, the pain would still have happened. Removing the structure doesn’t erase the suffering. Destroying the art doesn’t cancel out the harm done.
My father used to tell me all the time, “you must learn from history in order not to repeat it”. Along with, “question everything” and “honesty is the best policy” this was probably the lesson I heard the most.
We have lost so much of our history already. Both world wars destroyed a great deal across Europe, the wars in Iraq threaten our knowledge of the very cradle of civilization, Mesopotamia. Natural Disasters, time and erosion are working hard to help destroy what our wars haven’t. We must hang on to what we’ve got left. Our understanding of each other and of ourselves depends on it.
There is a reason we go to great lengths to unearth antiquities without destroying them. There is a reason we try to preserve these sites. Because we are bound to repeat history if we don’t learn from it. Because that’s how we know where we came from and that’s how we know where to go.
Image: Creative Commons/Pixabay