TDI’s textual archaeologists have been digging, and they have unearthed a rare find: an epistle by the writer Mary Lee Settle on the lure of ancient cities. We think it captures the essence of where we travel, why we travel, and how we travel, and it bears quoting in full. She writes:
How many miles to Babylon
Three score and ten
Can I get there by candlelight?
Aye, and back again.
FROM THE NURSERY RHYMES THROUGH the fairy tales and into the yearning to travel that comes after – the city is there, the one that has caught the rhythms of dreams and silence. I can go. I can find it – Baghdad, Ecbatana, the Cities of the Plain, Troy and Carthage and Trebizond and Petra and Lhasa -whatever legendary city has been in my mind and sometimes in my dreams since childhood. I must unearth it, or crawl through labyrinths, or dive, or go by donkey, or simply sit and dream.
A legend is a story that no one can take away from you. It is secret. It must be as far away in place as Shangri-La, as deep in time past as the dreams of Miniver Cheevy and in time future as adolescent hopes – neither mundane here nor mundane now. It is a place to be discovered on one’s own, whether in reality, as Heinrich Schliemann did when he followed his own dream to the Troad, or in poetry.
We hope for the rose-red city half as old as time, the kingdom by the sea, Xanadu or Innisfree – and all the cities of the Bible that we know are there somewhere under the sand, whether they have been found yet or not, as Babylon was sought and found, Babylon that had fallen, that great city. Some day, some time, we promise ourselves in the evening or in winter or in times of yearning for something beyond what we see out of our own windows, we will go to those places. And when we get there, we may find the Ecbatana that no one says exists. We will stand on the hill at Hisarlik where Schliemann found nine layers of his Troy; we will sit in the sun on a stone that once was Carthage, or follow Sir Leonard Woolley to the Minoan cities of Crete.
What matter if when we stand in the ruined holy place that once was the Artemision at Ephesus – where St. Paul preached against the Diana of the Ephesians, the most powerful goddess in all Asia – there is only a drained swamp with a single column where once was a great temple? What matter if little is left because what was not destroyed by earthquake, the Empress Theodosia took to Constantinople to grace the Santa Sophia, and that we were brought there in an old Chevrolet or a jeep from World War II, what matter any of that, if we can conjure up the dreams that brought us there?
The past requires a way of seeing, not an object, as one might see still that youth and beauty haunt an old woman’s face, or glimpse the young soldier when an old man stands to attention at the sound of a national anthem, or sense even in a tourist-ridden place that if we go slowly enough, listen closely enough, we could catch a shadow or hear a sigh.
In the corridor above the chapel at Hampton Court, haunted by Jane Seymour, in the Tower of London in the legendary city that is layered under the presence of modern London, in the Place de la Bastille, in the Colosseum, in the Domus Aurea of Nero, at the ruins of Jericho, in Topkapi watching over the Bosporus, beyond the traffic of Athens to the silence in winter of the Acropolis, in the Winter Palace or at Versailles, or at the base of those worn stairs at Canterbury, what has passed in those places becomes timeless.
The facts we have learned desert us. Only the legend is left, the residue of all the years of garnered power or prayer or murder. Even the curiosity we came with deserts us and we let ourselves dream and listen.
It is an archeology of vision, the completion of a column that lies on the ground or has become a doorsill, the edge of a house that long ago was incorporated into another and another so that there is a calendar of uses over the centuries, the mental building of a great wall from a heap of stones, the coloring of a statue from a fragment of paint that is left. We all care for ruins and for hints because they are incomplete and because we are called upon to raise them into wholeness from the shards of their survival.
We, too, can sit among the ruins and think of the deaths of kings. The wind that blew on the face of the sibyl blows across our faces at Delphi, the meltemi that rises in the afternoon in the Aegean caught the prow of Odysseus’ ship, and the call of the night birds is like the Sirens’. What if in Jerusalem the Via Dolorosa is filled with peddlers of holy trinkets? The stones are sacred, and there is a way to see it still, to be there in the legendary city, and leave behind the noise around you.
Those moments when the legend and the reality meet must always be surprises. They cannot be willed; there is no trying. There is only waiting and patience and being there. I lived once in the town of Bodrum, on the Aegean coast of Turkey. I wandered in its castle, built by the Knights of Rhodes, picked flowers when the anemones and the wild tulips covered the hillsides. I knew that it had once been the city of Halicarnassus, and that one of the Seven Wonders of the World had been built to look over its harbor. I had even seen what there was of the Mausoleum in the British Museum. But it was not until I walked one day around the outer walls, nearly seven miles long, that ringed the ancient city, and stood at the western gate, little more than a pile of rocks in a field now, that I looked down on the city that Alexander had laid seige to. I could see the places of its temples and its stoa. It was as if a plan lay there in the distance under the modern town.
I lived for six weeks in the city of Perugia and I thought I knew every turn, every bit of history, the medieval gates, ruined arches, fountains, fragments of old palaces. I knew with my head all that had happened there, the blood feuds, the battles, the prisoners, the sanctuaries, year on year piled on that hill overlooking the fought-over valley between Perugia and Assisi. I found a Roman temple turned into a Christian church, and I studied the harsh paintings of the Umbrian saints, the color of earth.
Then, one day when I did not expect it, or watch or look or try to conjure it, I realized, passing through a great thick gate, that I was walking into an Etruscan citadel. Something of the strength of that almost unknown culture brushed past my eyes.
These are the glimpses and the surprises that come from the past. But what about the legends of cities of the future, the cities of hope? No matter how travel-stained the dream might be, New York is that, the newest frontier, the place for the young and the courageous and the fugitive that the Old West once was. And what about Hong Kong Central, with its future rising in glittering high-tech towers that catch the glinting of the South China Sea, while the street-corner altars still scent the air with joss; or San Francisco, the newest of all, perched on the western edge of the continent, the most Eastern of the Pacific cities that reflect the vision of Asia?
And there is the greatest legend of all, the city you have not seen. I have never been to Venice, and yet I seem to know every stone, the paving stone in front of San Marco where Proust stumbled, the street where Hugo von Hofmannsthal placed Andreas, the carnivals and the wide-angled facades of Guardi and of Canaletto. I have mourned with Thomas Mann, and I have been there with Isak Dinesen. So Venice, and Florence, and Prague, too, the cities I have not seen, are my legendary places, the places that I can foresee. But I know that when I go there, I must not seek out only what I already expect. I must wait and wander as I have done before, and let the legendary city come to me.