28 January 2019

Saturday Ride: Empires And Connecticut

It's one thing to be reminded of Paris when you're in New York--especially, say, if you're walking down the Grand Concourse in the Bronx and looking at the Art Deco buildings--or pedaling along Ocean or Eastern Parkways in Brooklyn.  As I have mentioned in other posts, these places were inspired by the Grand Boulevards of Paris as well as the wide residential boulevards of London and other large European cities.

Also, I was in Paris a week and a half ago, so I have an excuse for thinking about it.

Now, it would be fair to ask what would cause me to think about Cambodia during a bike ride to and from Connecticut.  After all, there isn't much physical resemblance between the two places.  You might think that because I was riding on a cold day--the temperature didn't reach the freezing mark the other day, when I pedaled to the Nutmeg State--I was taking a trip, in my mind, to the warm weather I experienced in Southeast Asia.

Actually, I wasn't thinking about that.  Something I saw in the Greenwich Common reminded me, in an odd way, of something I saw in the land of the ancient Khmer kingdom.

Bare branches furled themselves around a monument to young men who marched, perhaps bravely, perhaps blindly, into their own slaughters.  In another year they are mourned, their young bones turned into mud:  They remain only as names on these stones after dying to capture hills and other terrestrial features that are recorded only as coordinates on a map or, perhaps, dates and times.  

All right.  I'll get off my soapbox.  When I see a war "memorial", I can't help but to think of what a colossal waste of lives--especially those of the young--result from the rise and fall of nations, of empires--whether said entities consist of real estate or simply numbers traded and sold from one electronic screen to another.

At least all those Greenwich residents who died too soon have names, at least for as long as those stones stand.  What, though, if the trees--not unlike the ones on the Connecticut state coin--were to wind themselves around those monuments?  What if they continued to grow, as they would if no one touched them, while the stones bearing the names of the lost were to crumble?

Somehow I don't think similar questions ever darkened the mind of Henri Mouhot.   He is often said--mistakenly--to have "discovered" Angkor Wat.  Of course, he no more "discovered" it than Columbus "discovered" America:  There were thousands of people already living in its vicinity, and they all descended from people who'd lived in the area.  Moreover, other French explorers and missionaries had seen and documented the temples decades before Mouhot.  He did, however, popularize Angkor Wat in Western imagination, in part by comparing them to the pyramids.

I have to wonder, though, what went through his and his colleagues' minds when they first saw Ta Prohm.

We know the name of the King--Jayavarman--who commissioned it.  Those who cleared the jungle, cut the stones, carved the statues and made the meals for those who did all the other work are anonymous to us now.  So are those who fought to build and maintain the Khmer Empire (or almost every other empire).  What we have now are what Mouhot encountered 160 years ago:  Trees reclaiming their home from monuments humans built.

Now, of course, I am not complaining about having gone to see Ta Prohm, or the rest of the Angkor Wat complex.  It really has been one of the great privileges I've enjoyed:  The temple sites are awe-inspiring in all sorts of ways, and the people are inspirational.  It should be remembered, though, that its glories, much like those of the Vatican and the grand cathedrals of Europe, as well as the pyramids, were the result of now-nameless people whose lives began and ended as fodder for the empire.  

And, I must say, it is ironic to be reminded of an ancient marvel in a tropical climate on a cold day in a modern suburban downtown--while riding my bicycle.

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