Table of Contents The Greek Ruins of Pergamum Table of Contents

In northeast Anatolia stands the once great capital of Pergamum. Founded more than two thousand years ago by the descendents of Alexander the Great, it later became the first Roman city in Anatolia and was a cultural and economic center for centuries. After the fall of Rome, its strategic and economic importance declined until it was eventually abandoned. Today, the Turkish town of Bergama sits at the foot of the ruins.

I had read much of Pergamum's history and was eager to visit. Our bus dropped us at the outskirts of town and we took a minibus to town center. After enjoying a bowl of tripe soup for breakfast, we walked the two to three miles up to the acropolis.

The weather was warm and dry, the view was glorious, and the experience perfect: the ruins were practically abandoned. From the hilltop we saw not only the ruins but the infrastructure that once allowed hundreds of thousands of citizens to fortify themselves at the Acropolis. Roads made the climb up the mountain easy. Walls kept the city safe. And an enormous aqueduct provided water for the city's sewers and baths. Today, the mere foundations of that aqueduct can be seen, and farmers live in its ruins.

Pergamum would be in much better condition were it not for the pillaging of the medieval age. As the Byzantine Empire collapsed, resources were scarce and the ruins were pillaged for bandits and peasants, desperate for materials.

The pristine white pillars were burned to produce lime for the fields; bricks were taken for constructing farm huts; and every trace of metal was torn from the buildings and melted down to forge tools and weapons.

The majestic ruins that stand today are the work of European, mainly German, restoration teams.

This is what the Dark Ages was all about. Resources were scarce and technology was lost. Medieval Europeans did not know how to make bricks, and pillaged the Roman acqueducts and tore down buildings for materials. As the mines dried up and raw materials became scare, it seemed only natural to destroy ancient buildings and melt down the iron hinges to make tools and weapons. Today, we see this as a cultural tragedy. Back then, it was simply doing what was necessary to survive given the circumstances.

I mention this because it made me think about our place in history. Geologists say were there to be a nuclear holocaust or a major catastrophe, humans would be unable to start over. The easily mined metals and materials have been exhausted, and today's iron, copper, and oil come from deep within the earth's crust. Only high-tech technology makes for the exploitation of resources that makes our current lifestyle possible. Another industrial revolution would be impossible. We have climbed so far with today's technology, and were it all to collapse, we would never recover.

Does Pergamum represent New York's future? Who is to say that future generations won't tear down the Empire State building and the Lincoln Memorial for resources? Will they have to pillage the glorious cities of the 21st and 20th century to meet their basic needs?

It's hard enough to accurately predict the future ten years in advance, so forget about predicting the future centuries from now. But what will happen when resources dry up, or if atomic weapons are used, or if society collapses through internal or external forces. We live in a golden age where our wealth will only be recognized in retrospect from a future age that may oneday be far darker. Americans like to think our nation is invincible and eternal; Robert D. Kaplan once noted that the United States "has existed less than a third as long as the Moorish occupation of Spain." Sobering thoughts to those who cry that history is over.

The comforts that we enjoy today could one day be lost. Greater darkness may await us.