Fallen Glory by James Crawford
Like Rome, no buildings were ever built in a day; however, they can disappear in a day or through the slow accretion of time. In the thoughtful and provocative Fallen Glory, James Crawford explores “The Lives and Deaths of History’s Greatest Buildings.” In these stories of delight and obscene tragedy, Crawford explains how these buildings came to be and how they failed to exist, situating each structure into a historical and modern context.
Twenty-one buildings spanning more than 7,000 years are detailed here. The Palace of Knossos, the Roman Forum, the Berlin Wall, Kowloon Walled City, Vilcabama, and the Twin Towers are each featured. Each essay is brilliantly titled: the Knossos chapter is called “Modernism’s Labyrinth,” which is a telling play on the mythological Minotaur and the modern reconstruction of the palace. What one sees there today is not what once was. The poignant essay on the Twin Towers, titled “No Day Shall Erase You From the Memory of Time,” “is about two towers, and two architects.” A brief introduction notes there are as many stories “as there were floors in each building…people who worked there…tons of collapsed steel and concrete left behind….”
The first section speaks of “Gods, Heroes and Monsters” in five chapters; the first of which takes the reader back 7,000 years to the origins of the Tower of Babel which was more than a mythical Biblical story. There was a structure built by Nabopolassar, father of Nebuchadnezzar II in the Iraqi desert halfway between modern Baghdad and the Persian Gulf. According to the book of Genesis, the people found a plain and were determined to build a city and “a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.” A tower was built of sun-dried bricks, destroyed, and built again as the process was repeated. Throughout history, that area has changed hands numerous times, and so it continues today. The tower is a symbol of “man’s desire to build something new.” Such remains as exist today lie a “few hundred metres” from Tallil Air Base which was once held by U.S. forces. As we will also see in the final chapter, fundamentalist forces raided the surrounding area to destroy or loot relics to sell and support their activities.
Chapter 21, “Let the Past Meet the Future” details the growth and death of the ancient city of Palmyra, now called Tadmor, Syria. The modern scruffy city of Tadmor rose from the ruins of Palmyra, known to the Romans as the city of palms. After the collapse of Alexander’s empire, Palmyra became the center of trade between the four corners of the world and a growing rival to Rome. In more modern times, it was a dusty mining town until August 2015 when the fundamentalist Islamic State beheaded Kahled al-Assad, an 82-year old retired archaeologist, and hung his body from one of the columns of the ancient city, a place visited by more than 150,000 tourists each year. Between the end of May and July, the ancient city was essentially blown up and bulldozed into oblivion. “At the end of October, three captives were tied to three columns, and executed by high explosives, taking the columns with them…Palmyra was being wiped from the face of the earth.” Ironically, ISIS had also been trying to make deals to sell ancient artifacts to help fund their murderous purge of all they deemed heretical.
A penultimate section provides a valuable description of suitable “Further Reading.” While these books may well provide deeper detail and the possibility of alternate viewpoints, it is difficult to imagine that any of them has more succinctly presented such an eminently readable story as Fallen Glory. Dip into this book and be appreciative of the skill with which Crawford tells his stories and be appalled at some of the things humans have done, and continue to do, to their fellow man.