Scattered across the Southwestern states of the United States are the remnants of an ancient civilization as mysterious in its own way as that of the Etruscans or the Minoans. Evidence of the rising culture of the people long known as the Anasazi appears over 2000 years ago and reaches its highest stages of development in the 1200s A.D.
They are the ancestors of today’s Pueblo-dwelling people, and visitors to the modern-day villages at Taos or Acoma in New Mexico will see the resemblance of the ruins of the ancient people’s cliff-dwellings and free-standing buildings to modern Pueblo dwellings. Developed archeological sites easily accessible to visitors include Mesa Verde and Chaco Canyon, but other known ancient sites number in the tens of thousands, and no one can be sure how many more have yet to be discovered.
The beauty and ingenuity of construction of the dwellings and religious structures of the Anasazi are legendary, existing as they do in some of the driest, hottest, least inhospitable parts of the country — places that frequently resemble the arid, rocky landscapes being explored by robots on Mars. Inevitably, questions arise about why these people chose such places to live and how they were able to find sufficient food and water to survive.
More frustrating is the fact that the Anasazi did not have a written language and the many petroglyphs (carvings on rock faces) they left behind are both beautiful and tantalizingly abstract. They seem to depict a culture in which a spirit world and the material world existed side by side and frequently interacted. Perhaps none of the mysteries the ruins evoke is as profound as what appears to have been the sudden and possibly violent end to the Anasazi culture.
The first archaeologists to explore at Anasazi sites such as Mesa Verde found dwellings from which the inhabitants appeared literally to have grabbed what they could carry and fled — often leaving behind clothing, beautifully-crafted pottery, and partially-eaten meals on tables. If these discoveries seem comparable to similar findings at Pompeii, the cases are not in any other way parallel.
In the Southwest, there is no evidence of a sudden natural disaster such as a series of volcanic eruptions. Although an extended drought occurred in the 1200s, such events had occurred before and the ancient people had managed ingenious methods to survive them. In addition, objects too heavy to carry — such as stones for grinding corn — were often smashed to prevent anyone else from using them, strong indications that the sites were abandoned suddenly and under duress.
Located a few dozen miles northwest of Santa Fe, New Mexico, Bandelier National Monument is one of the archeological wonders of the American Southwest. The site was first explored (and subsequently named for) Adolph Bandelier, an anthropologist of Swiss-American extraction.
It is situated where a clear stream known as Frijoles Creek that flows year around — a rarity in this arid region of New Mexico — has cut deeply through the surrounding plateau forming a craggy hidden valley. From time to time, the stream overflows its banks and, when it returns to its bed, it leaves behind — like the Nile River — a layer of rich soil.
Both on the creek’s floodplain and in the cliffs that tower above it are some amazing remnants of dwelling places of the ancient people. The floor of the valley is green and fertile and the remains of free-standing pueblos and walled gardens can be seen there today. But it is in the vertiginous cliffs that the handiwork of the ancients is most spectacular.
Here are artificial caves carved into the bedrock accessed by ladders or precipitous stairways that meander through crevices eroded into the bedrock forming natural windows and grottos. There are also homes and storage places built ingeniously into the bedrock, sometimes in harrowingly precipitous locations.
It is of course tempting to see these structures as having been built in such spots for protection — but it is also possible they were situated there for the same reason that modern people buy condos in high rises: The views are great!
The bedrock at Bandelier, hundreds of feet thick, is an igneous rock called “tuff” — not to be confused (as even some geologists have been known to do) with “tufa,” which is a chemical sedimentary rock often found at springs and seeps in areas of limestone bedrock. Composed of very light-colored dust and sand-sized particles and tiny sparkling quartz crystals as well as larger, angular pebble or cobble-sized rock fragments, the Bandelier tuff formed from the compaction of materials blown out of a gigantic volcanic eruption that occurred near Jemez Springs, New Mexico, over a million years ago leaving the giant collapse feature known as the Valles Caldera.
Though the caldera is quiet today, hot springs around its perimeter and occasional earthquakes indicate that — just as at Yellowstone National Park — a great pool of magma lies beneath the surface and could erupt again.
The great advantage of the tuff into which Frijoles Creek has carved its deep canyon is that the stone is relatively soft, and with the primitive tools available to the Anasazi people it was possible both to hollow out the shallow caves that were carved into the canyon walls and to shape blocks from which the free-standing buildings in the valley were constructed.
The blocks were also used to build walls and terraces surrounding gardens on the green, well-watered valley floor in which the ancients grew their staple crops of corn, beans, and squash. The plateaus above the valley were rich in game — there were herds of elk providing meat and hides, flocks of turkeys, rabbits, and other wildlife that could be used for food or clothing.
An ideal place to live
In sum, Bandelier was an ideal place to live, especially when compared to many of the other ancient settlements such as Mesa Verde, Chaco Canyon, and hundreds of other sites that show the ingenuity of the ancient people in adapting to appalling geographic and climate conditions but were hardly ideal places to live.
In addition to having a moderate climate, Bandelier was largely hidden from the view of passers-by, it was sheltered from storms, it could be easily defended if necessary, and it had a well-watered, fertile space for growing crops. So the question naturally arises: What made the ancient people abandon such an ideal location, supposedly to vanish into history?
Well, to start with: The romantic notion that the Anasazi simply vanished, like Attila the Hun and his hordes after Attila’s legendary meeting with Pope Leo I, is simply incorrect. The Pueblo people today whose villages are scattered widely across the Southwest are the direct descendants of the Anasazi, and their oral traditions frequently pinpoint specific locations even down to individual ancient pueblo sites as their places of origin.
The appearance of a dwelling in a modern-day village such as the Santa Clara Pueblo near Santa Fe, New Mexico shows the direct influence of the heritage of the ancient Anasazi: their astoundingly beautiful pottery; the multi-levelled dwellings with upper homes accessed by ladders; the starkly beautiful simplicity of design; and the ubiquitous “horno” — outdoor oven — around which meals are prepared and family and friends will gather.
But the fact remains that something of staggering impact occurred during the mid- to late-1200s A.D. causing the ancient people to evacuate their dwellings on exceedingly short notice and to take whatever they could carry, destroy much of what they could not, and flee to the south, resettling in the areas in which their descendants live today.
Once the lack of persuasive evidence that the migration was caused by drought or other natural disasters is taken into account, other sometimes disturbing factors must be considered. Recent archaeological digs in sites such as Chaco Canyon have found strong evidence of ritual cannibalism and violent warfare, adding an unsettling note to the romanticized depiction of the ancients living in blissful harmony with other tribes and their natural surroundings.
Moreover, even the term “Anasazi” has come to be considered politically charged in many quarters. Derived from a Navajo word, “Anasazi” may be translated as the benign expression “ancient ancestors” — but it may also be read as “ancient enemy.” This ambiguity has come to be regarded as explosive and in scholarly literature today is frequently replaced by the neutral expression “ancestral pueblo people.”
However — it has been duly noted by serious historians that the people of ancient cultures did not live their lives for the approval of those of us living in the 21st Century and we cannot impose our values in interpreting ancient clues, even if those clues lead us to unpalatable conclusions.
Whatever our admiration for the accomplishments of the Anasazi, whatever our trepidation over evidence of violent behavior that may emerge, one simple fact remains: These people did not write history books or carve inscriptions on their monumental works.
The reasons that they fled from such ideal sites as Bandelier and sometimes left behind evidence hinting at dire events will likely never be known, and explanations in oral traditions are ambiguous and sometimes contradictory.
But in thousands of sites such as Bandelier, Mesa Verde, and Chaco Canyon we may see their artful, ingeniously constructed stone works, their exquisitely painted pottery, and their haunting petroglyphs, all of them evoking a world about which we know far little than we would like but within which we can see both glimmers of the creativity of the human spirit and shadows of the dark events of our own sometimes violent past.
The classic view of the central temple of Angkor Wat is from the bank of the surrounding moat. When a gentle breeze stirs the water into tiny wavelets, the reflection of the temple’s five towers against scattered clouds in the mild Cambodian sky looks like a pointillist painting, with splashes of white and blue and gray and brown producing an image that might have come from the palette of Georges Seurat; when the surface of the water is mirror-smooth, usually at dawn or dusk, low sunlight softly illuminates the looming lotus-shaped towers or silhouettes them against the multi-colored western sky, creating a scene out of an ancient Khmer epic and its perfect inverted image.
But Angkor Wat is only one of hundreds of beautiful structures built by the kings of the ancient Khmer Empire. With the nightmare of the rule of the murdering Khmer Rouge over, archeologists and artisans are today back at work, restoring many of the structures and retrieving dozens more from the choking jungles — which, ironically, have in many cases saved the temples from collapse.
Unlike the great buildings of many other ancient civilizations — the granite and quartzite monuments of ancient Egypt; the marble beauties of the Parthenon and other structures on the Acropolis in Athens; the astounding achievements in concrete and brick of the ancient Romans — Angkor Wat and the many other temples and royal pavilions were constructed from one of the humblest of sedimentary rocks: sandstone.
The term “sandstone” is generic because technically any type of rock can be reduced to sand-grain-sized particles and then cemented together to form rock. But the term usually refers to rock composed of silica sand — the sand found on many of the beaches and in many of the dunes of the Earth. In some places, the silica is mixed with shell fragments of many sizes, producing “calcareous sandstone,” which weathers in natural acids just as limestone, marble, and gypsum will.
But the sandstone of Cambodia’s Kulen Mountains from which the Angor temples are constructed is essentially pure silica, which does not easily weather chemically, and, given the often extremely humid climate conditions of Cambodia, is undoubtedly the reason that the Angkor temples have survived relatively intact for so many centuries. Had they been built from limestone or marble, the natural acids of the environment and the entangling vines would almost certainly have erased the many delicate architectural and sculptural features of the temples, leaving behind only sad, stubby remnants protruding from the lush jungle floor.
The earliest of the temples were constructed in the 10th Century by the first kings of what would eventually emerge as the ancient Hindu Khmer Empire, men with melodious names such as Jayavarman, Harshavarman, and Suryavarman. Unlike the great temples of many Western civilizations, these Hindu religious structures were not intended as gathering places for worship by the faithful but as residences for the gods of the Hindu pantheon.
In this function, they exhibit some similarities to many ancient Egyptian temples. Only the attending priests entered a temple’s inner sanctum and worshippers would gather outside the building’s walls for prayers and rituals. Thus, the temples’ architects did not have to solve the challenges of constructing and covering immense gathering spaces such as are found in Christian basilicas, Islamic mosques, and Jewish synagogues.
As a result, the temples’ interiors are dimly-lighted and maze-like, with long corridors, steep ascending and descending staircases, and small, often diminutive chapels in which statues of Hindu gods and goddesses — and somewhat more recent depictions of the Buddha — reside in the incensed gloom. Both interior and exterior walls are covered with thousands of square feet of beautifully detailed carved figures from the Hindu pantheon and with the enchanting “apsaras,” the winsome dancing maidens with smiles as enigmatic as that of the Mona Lisa.
A few miles from the main temple at Angkor stands a small temple known as Banteay Srei, and though unlike Angkor Wat it does not seek to overwhelm the visitor with vastness and mass, it leaves its impression though the astounding delicacy and intricacy of its carvings. It is familiarly known as “the Citadel of Women” because of its numerous carvings of Hindu goddesses and the ubiquitous “apsaras.”
Perhaps because nowhere do its many chapels stand more than 30 feet in height and the fact that until fairly recently the temple was protected by the vines and tree trunks of the enfolding jungle, the intricate, filigree-like carvings that seem to cover every square foot of the exterior and interior of the structures are preserved in stunning detail. Here the hard Kulen Mountains sandstone has retained much of its original cinnamon-red color.
To wander through its open-air maze-like layout is to enter a fantastic world of goddesses and other figures out of the Hindu pantheon, alluring or sometimes frightening fantastical animal-headed humanoids, juxtaposed with delicately-depicted trees and flowers.
Closer to the central area of Angkor Wat is the great temple known as The Bayon, which the French archeologist and restorer Bernard Phillippe Groslier has called “the most amazing piece of architecture in existence.” It was constructed by King Jayavarman VII at the end of the 12th Century A.D. at which time the Khmer kings had briefly converted to Buddhism, and The Bayon shows the influence of both religions, though the Buddhist images dominate.
It is not as well preserved as some of the other Khmer temples; it seems to have been somewhat hastily constructed. Consequently it has not weathered the centuries so well. Nonetheless, even in its mildly dilapidated state, it captures the imagination as perhaps no other building on Earth.
The Bayon rises out of the jungle on a series of stone platforms in what a tourist guide describes as “a stone mountain of ascending peaks” capped by 37 towers, though archeologists speculate there may have once been as many as 20 more. The looming towers are built of layer upon layer of gigantic stone blocks, and each exposed side of the blocks features a carving of the face of the Buddha — or, perhaps, the face is that of Jayavarman VII himself, depicted with his eyes closed in meditation and with the Buddha’s mystical smile.
The visitor tries in vain to count the dozens — then, hundreds — of faces of various sizes and states of preservation, aimed at the four major points of the compass. The fact that some of the faces are only partially preserved — a disembodied smile here, an ear or eyes on an eroded face there — makes the scene all the more mysterious and alluring.
The temple has the same darkened interior maze of corridors, staircases, chapels, and dungeons of many of the other Angkor temples. But the mysteriously smiling faces never suggest danger, even when one is ascending or descending one of the dizzyingly steep flights of stairs or is momentarily disoriented in one of the decorated corridors.
Rather, the general impression is one of peace and connection with the infinite among the smiling visages on the towers reaching toward the sky. As in Angor Wat, everywhere is the odor of incense, and at any turn a visitor may come unexpectedly upon a statue of the Buddha draped in a saffron-colored robe, bedecked with brightly-colored flowers and fruits. From an unseen source may come the tinkle of copper bells or the chanting of monks: the effect is of a Buddhist mantra become tangible.
Besides Angkor Wat itself, the temple known as Ta Prohm is perhaps the most familiar to Western eyes as its setting irresistibly evokes the romantic spirit of the Indiana Jones epics. Situated a few miles from Angkor Wat, Ta Prohm retains — by deliberate design of the archeologists — much of the appearance of the entire vast temple complex when it first came to the attention of Western explorers in the late 1800s. Its extensive staircases, courtyards, chapels, and hallways have been left to a large extent wrapped in the huge above-ground roots of immense Silk Cotton trees and the smaller vines of the strangler fig. And therein lies a paradox.
While the process known as “root-wedging” is one of the most efficient methods of breaking down rock — many of us have seen our sidewalks and driveways damaged or even destroyed by the roots of trees that get under or between concrete surfaces — the giant roots of the engulfing tropical trees at Ta Prohm and scores of the other ancient Khmer temples have held its immense carved sandstone blocks in place.
As many of the other temples were restored, the huge encasing roots were removed and any stones that had been displaced were returned to their original positions and secured with mortar. But at Ta Prohm, the visitor gets a sense of what it was that the first explorers saw when they trudged through the steamy jungle and laid eyes on the spectacular remnants of the ancient Khmer kingdoms.
The serpentine appearance of the huge roots and vines adds immeasurably to the haunting lure of the mazes of the temple’s interior and, where they hang suspended or wrap around the statue of a Hindu deity or a frieze of dancing “apsaras,” they evoke awareness of the passage of eons and hint at the glories of lost civilizations.
One wall carving that is not obscured by the huge trees presents a mystery that has provoked controversy from the day of its discovery, but it is well known to the local guides — some of whom are children who have played hooky from school and scurry about the temple, hoping to pick up tips from tourists for showing them what the kids call the “dee-no-soo”: a stunningly accurate depiction of the dinosaur known as a Stegosaurus, triangular back-plates and all.
Given the fact that the critter has been extinct for at least 66 million years, is this carving simply an amazing coincidence — depicting some hitherto unknown figure out of Hindu mythology? Or is it conceivable that some ancient Khmer sculptor had seen an almost-intact fossil of the beast or heard accounts of it from someone who had?
Needless to say — the accuracy of the carving and its mystical location have produced all kinds of so-called “non-mainstream” theories about its origin of the kind presented all too frequently on cable TV. It represents one more of the conundrums that the Angkor temples present.
Reign of terror
Sadly, visitors to the temples also learn of history that is much more recent than the annals of the Khmer kingdoms. On the walls of many of the temples — and very obvious at Angkor Wat itself — are ugly, shallow holes: the scars of bullets that bespeak the reign of terror of the Khmer Rouge, the Marxist thugs who took control of Cambodia while the Vietnam War raged to the country’s east.
At first welcomed by the United States and its allies as a buffer against the Viet Cong, the Khmer Rouge regime under Pol Pot set up a dictatorship that even by the standards of 20th-Century atrocities is remarkable for its truly demonic savagery. Horrifying evidence of the brutality is provided by the many beggars who haunt the ruins, often missing limbs or eyes.
At first, the Khmer Rouge forced its utopian plans for a pure Marxist state in Cambodia on the country’s peasants and intellectuals and former rulers, but the revolution soon turned inward as so many revolutions do and began killing its own members whose dedication was not regarded as “pure” enough. Two million Cambodians died in the resulting slaughter, and though both the Khmer Rouge and the intruding Viet Cong called themselves Communist, their struggles for power were sometimes fought right within the Angor temples as control of the great buildings was held to be symbolic of political power.
Statues were beheaded and carvings were torn from walls and the beautiful artworks of the ancient Khmer were sold on the black market to raise money for Pol Pot’s draconian schemes. Miraculously, many have since been recovered and some have already been replaced — but the scars left upon the temples fade slowly as do the memories of the gentle people of Cambodia who lived through the Khmer Rouge nightmare.
The temples today rise like dreams from the misty jungle, their restored beauty and grace testament, perhaps, to the vitality and resilience of the human spirit. But the scars of conflict that pepper the delicate towers and the intricate carvings also offer validation to the fact that, throughout human history, attempts to use force to bring about a worldly paradise have usually resulted instead in the creation of hell on Earth.
Located in northwestern China, the great city of Xi’an — pronounced “she-ahn” — like hundreds of other cities in China, exhibits an exhilarating mixture of ancient and modern.
In former times, marking the eastern end of the Silk Road, the city boasts hundreds of super-modernistic office buildings and apartment towers, though many stand empty — the result of China’s desire to put to work as many people as possible, without considering the fact that many of its citizens either cannot afford these high-rise digs or simply have no desire to live 50 stories above the ground. From a distance, modern Xi’an may look like a backdrop for a scene from a Star Wars episode — especially at night, when great numbers of the buildings feature light shows that out-do Times Square at New Year’s Eve.
But surrounding the central part of the city is a great wall — not the Great Wall, but a massive fortification nonetheless — built during the Ming Dynasty in the 1400s, which is a powerful reminder of Xi’an’s history. Starting around 250 B.C., Xi’an became the capital of China under Qin, the country’s first Emperor. Qin had conquered the other kingdoms that lay within the landmass known today as China, though evidence suggests that there was continued and often violent resistance to Qin’s autocratic and self-indulgent rule.
Guarded by jutting towers and with a scattering of beautiful Buddhist shrines situated strategically on its extensive esplanade, the wall protects what was once the central part of the ancient capital. Hundreds of crimson lanterns — lighted at night — hang from golden posts along the wall and sway in the wind, seeming to celebrate the new (if still limited) freedom that has come to China.
Today Xi’an has expanded far beyond the area enclosed by the wall and out onto the vast Plain of Guanzhong that surrounds the city and is dotted with shrines and tombs of Qin and the other emperors who dwelt here during the early years of united China’s turbulent history.
The Plain of Ganzhong covers hundreds of square miles and is formed by the conjoined floodplains of the great Wei River and seven other rivers and streams. Floodplains by definition are subject to disastrous overflows and in modern times a system of dams and levees protects the city. But over millennia, repeated massive flooding of the rivers has left thick deposits of clay and silt covering Ganzhong, which has now been left high and dry as a result of a dropping water table.
Aware of his own mortality, Emperor Qin made a bold decision — one on a par with the great pharaohs of Egypt such as Djoser, Khufu, Seti I, Ramses II: He directed his subjects to build for him a massive tomb, surpassing in size and grandeur the tombs of all of the petty warlords whom he had defeated in his quest to unite China under a single power: himself.
Thus, some miles from the city of Xi’an there arose on the Plain of Ganzhong an enormous tomb whose location is precisely known: Looking like a low, gentle hill, it stands covered in soil and foliage, visible for miles. But legends of its contents have cautioned archaeologists to put off opening it, as the current state of archaeological science may not be up to meeting its challenges. And so there the great mound stood for years, while around it, farmers went about their business.
In that year, a farmer and some helpers were hand-digging a well, working their way down through the thick sand and clay sediments. They were down only a few yards when fragments of ancient bronze spears and pottery began to turn up; had they dug only a few feet in a different direction they would have missed them completely.
The diggers notified government archaeologists who continued excavating and soon made a stunning discovery: a life-sized terra-cotta head staring at them from out of the muck. Continued careful digging revealed that the entire body of the figure attired in minute detail as a warrior was there as well, albeit in fragments requiring reconstruction.
To call this discovery “the tip of an iceberg” would be a colossal understatement. For as excavations continued, more full-sized terra-cotta warriors began to turn up, first by tens, then by hundreds, and eventually by the thousands. Today they number over 7,000 and are displayed in a vast hangar the length of two football fields that covers the yawning pit in which they stand in 1000-foot-long phalanxes, appearing as though they are awaiting marching orders.
Each was attired differently from his companions and each was apparently an individual portrait of a foot-soldier. Most of the figures had been shattered in ancient times and required careful reconstruction, the result of the upheavals that followed the death of Emperor Qin in which rebellious subjects vented their anger against Qin’s extravagance.
In recent years, two additional pits have been opened, containing life-sized horses in battle gear and chariots along with soldiers of higher rank — lieutenants and generals — as well as archers and spearmen: the elite of the Terra-Cotta Army of Emperor Qin.
The term “terra-cotta” is Italian and means simply “baked earth.” It is an extraordinarily inexpensive and common material: those reddish brown flower pots on your porch and patio are terra-cotta, and it is commonly used for pipes, roofing tiles, and bricks as well. It is derived from common clay, a material found everywhere water has been ponded.
Extensive deposits occur on flood plains — upon which much of the city of Albany stands — and they underlie large stretches of the Schoharie Valley as well. A quick glance at the enormous number of structures in these areas built from brick confirms the presence of great quantities of clay.
Terra-cotta has been used for artistic and building purposes from ancient times, and terra-cotta statues, tiles, pipes, and sarcophagi from all over the Mediterranean world show the material’s easy availability and adaptability. Sometimes the baked clay is glazed or painted, but more commonly it is left with its natural fired-appearance: the quintessential “earth-tone,” derived from the presence of iron compounds in the clay which oxidize during firing.
But then of course the question arises: Why on Earth is the vast terra-cotta army there at all?
The answer lies in the concept the early Chinese — as well as other ancient cultures — had of an afterlife. If cultures conceived of personal survival beyond the grave, many of them considered it simply an idealized form of the best of life on Earth.
Wall paintings in the tombs of such people as the ancient Egyptians and the Etruscans depicted the deceased happily indulging in many of the same activities of the living, though with far greater levels of enjoyment and productivity.
But some peoples like the ancient Egyptians also believed that the deceased might be called upon by the gods to work in their fields and vinyards, and to save the dead the exertion bodies were buried with wooden or faience figures called “ubshabti” — often by the hundreds — that were expected to come to life in the next world and take the place of the deceased in whatever work the gods dictated. Qin could immerse himself in an indulgent life-style in his palace in Xi’an with full expectation that following his death, the feasting would go on forever.
Yet from all evidence the court of Emperor Qin was also a place of internal political struggles — tales of attempted murders, poisonings, and forced suicides have come down through the years, undoubtedly embroidered upon as the passage of time will do. There were also constant military threats from the recently conquered provinces whose subdued inhabitants were not enthused about being part of Qin’s recently patched-together empire.
And of course, there must have been many malcontents under his rule who were unhappy to see the empire’s wealth being squandered on Qin’s extravagant whims at a time when — like today — many citizens lived in squalor. Thus when he planned his magnificent tomb, Qin apparently made the decision to see that it was well guarded against marauders from both inside and out.
And so in the flat stretches of land surrounding the tomb he had his artisans create his terra-cotta army, ready to spring to life should the god-like emperor’s rest be in jeopardy from enemies either outside or inside his kingdom.
What else may hide beneath the soil near Qin’s tomb and the tombs of other emperors that lie nearby — some with brutal reputations and tastes as luxuriant as Qin’s — remains unknown. More recent excavations have found the graves of large numbers of men and women who were interred at the same time as Qin and the horrifying evidence is that they were buried alive.
Perhaps they were captured enemies doomed to serve as slaves to Qin in the next world; perhaps they were to serve as companions to the dead emperor in the afterlife; or perhaps they were killed because they knew too much about the secrets that lay within and around Qin’s unexcavated tomb rising a mile or so from the pits of the terra-cotta army. How ironic that so much stunning artistry was created under circumstances that speak of so much misery.
And yet — and yet — to look at the hauntingly beautiful individual figures with every item of clothing and footwear rendered in exquisite detail is to come face-to-face with men long dead whose demeanor projects a startling calm and dignity. It may be that the look was mandated by the emperor’s undoubtedly intimidating control.
But perhaps the soldiers really believed that in having their likenesses preserved in terra-cotta — a humble material given the touch of glory — they could share Qin’s luxuriant after-life.
The Forbidden City in Beijing was for centuries the home of China’s emperors — an incredibly vast, luxurious series of courts, plazas, and spectacular imperial buildings, including throne halls, offices, and residences for the emperors’ families and courtesans. It was strictly off-limits to the ordinary people of China. Begun as the imperial residence during the Ming Dynasty in the early 1400s, the complex grew to contain approximately 1,000 buildings.
The structures are marvels of traditional Chinese colossal architecture: upturned roofs adorned with figures from Buddhist history and Chinese mythology, elaborately carved wooden walls and pillars painted Imperial red. Constructed without a single nail, they stand on broad platforms elevated well above ground level surrounded by moats crossed by ornate bridges.
Visitors pass through magnificent gates into vast courts, each seemingly more impressive than its predecessor. Many are decorated with beautifully rendered Chinese lettering, transmitting whatever message a particular emperor wished to convey, but the essence is communicated without any translation: Power, power, POWER.
It is no wonder that, when the Communists took control of China, Chairman Mao Zadong saw to it that his immense portrait adorned the entrance to the Forbidden City — an ironic statement of the fact that the “classless society” now had a “People’s Emperor” in residence.
Yet, especially on a hot summer’s day, one fact becomes glaringly apparent: Nowhere among the bridges, esplanades, or terraces is there a spot of green. There are no sculptured trees or displays of potted plants anywhere.
The giant structures bake in the glaring Beijing sun and, from early morning to late evening, there is scarcely a hint of a shady refuge, save for the immense gated doorways in the walls that divide one huge open court from another. According to the Forbidden City’s official guides, the reason had to do with security for the emperors and their families and other government officials: A tree could provide cover for an assassin, as could an elaborate flower bed.
Better that the ruling classes and those guests invited into the confines of the Forbidden City should see its buildings in all their unobstructed grandeur than risk some arboreal or floral beauty spot which could give cover to an enemy with murderous intentions.
But Chinese scroll paintings and artwork on vases have often depicted idealized landscapes in which craggy mountains wreathed in clouds rise above forests and in which delicately-portrayed trees and flowers and waterfalls emerge from the mist, sometimes with a solitary figure or two or a pagoda dwarfed by the natural beauty. Traditional Chinese art and poetry have frequently centered on nature’s ability to diminish humans and their handiwork while at the same time celebrating the mystical beauties of the landscape.
Thus, it is less a surprise than a stunning revelation to pass through the penultimate gateway in the Forbidden City and enter the twisting pathways of the Imperial Garden.
All at once, the trappings of overwhelming imperial power are gone. Instead, visitors find themselves in landscape from a Chinese fairy tale, a world of ancient trees, fantastic rock outcrops, waterfalls, and flowers, and scattered and hidden among them elaborately decorated gazebos.
Above the garden is an occasional view of one of the large imperial residences, which in the lush setting seems to have lost its foreboding appearance and instead looks like a castle out of some ancient legend.
Unlike traditional European formal gardens, Chinese gardens must have the appearance of being natural, even when intricate design and planning have gone into their creation. Visitors to Beijing, Xi’an, Shanghai, and other great cities of China are often delighted to find gorgeous gardens and parks scattered everywhere — all of them the result of careful execution and giving the appearance of having been there for centuries, as though the vast boulevards and building complexes were built around them to insure that their naturally-formed designs remain unaltered.
In the gardens of the Forbidden City, the fantastic outcrops that form grottoes and border waterfalls and bubbling streams have been constructed mainly from limestone, and display features common in the vast karst areas of China. Huge boulders that have been weathered through or appear pock-marked are examples of what the Chinese call “Scholar’s rocks,” which have long been prized as décor in China.
They are found mainly on the shores of legendary Lake T’ai-hu, which lies in the Yangtze Delta near Shanghai. Heavily weathered into strange and often beautiful shapes by natural acids in the environment, they range in size from large cobbles to massive boulders, and in streams and waterfalls permit water to pass through and around them, often creating musical sounds and creating patterns in the flow.
Geologists call these features “honeycomb weathering,” but, where holes have been eaten right through the rock, they are commonly referred to as “tafoni,” apparently derived from a Sicilian word describing holes. Serving as reminders of the awesome power of nature and of Earth’s long history, they are ubiquitous as objects of contemplation in Chinese gardens.
But a careful observer in the Imperial Forbidden Garden will also notice some objects that have been brought from China’s vast caves, such as heavily weathered stalagmites situated among displays of Scholar’s Rocks. Stalactites, stalagmites, flowstone, and other structures deposited in caves by calcite-saturated dripping water have mystified and delighted civilizations the world over.
The ancient Greeks and Romans believed that they were actually slow-growing life forms, and the fantastical shapes they are capable of forming have given rise to many myths and legends. Like the Scholar’s Rocks, they clearly inspired awe for the power of the natural world in the builders of the Imperial Garden.
The “canon” for the features of a traditional Chinese garden involves four elements: greenery, flowing water, architecture, and rocks. Bordering the twisting paths of the Imperial Garden are beds of many kinds of flowers springing in lush, colorful displays and huge trees of many species, carefully color-coded to indicate their ages — some of which can be measured in centuries.
Cascades and meandering streams fed by hidden pipes seem to spring naturally from the caverns and pools formed by Scholar’s Rocks. The beautiful gazebos hidden among the foliage and rocky outcrops appear perfect settings for a poetry reading, a romantic dalliance, or philosophical contemplation, and somehow even on a summer’s day when the garden may be crowded with visitors, it manages to convey feelings of peace and harmony with nature.
Beijing and the Forbidden City have seen much turbulent history and even violence, most recently during the madness of the unleashing of Chairman Mao’s Red Guards. But how fortunate that, through centuries of upheaval and destruction, the Imperial Garden has survived to bring to the modern world such a ravishing display of man’s harmony with nature and awe in its mysteries.
For those of us “of a certain age,” our images of China probably derive from the late 1960s and early 1970s: scenes of grim-looking Beijing with thousands of stern-faced, androgynous-looking Red Guards marching, chanting, and waving Chairman Mao’s little Red Book, the images looking even grimmer for having been shot in black-and-white.
But the Chairman’s call for China to be in a state of “permanent revolution” has come full circle: Most modern Chinese find the whole Mao era to be at least an embarrassment if not a collection of horrible memories.
China has become a market economy and tourist guides talk openly of Mao’s atrocities; they tell of swirling rumors that his mummified body will be removed from exhibit in Tiananmen Square, and that his gigantic mausoleum that Ramses II might have envied will be torn down.
The Chinese people dress fashionably, markets in the big cities are overflowing with food and consumer goods, and private businesses are exploding. China still has many problems, among them serious air pollution and a government that permits a certain amount of economic freedom but far less political freedom.
But visitors to China cannot help but be aware that the winds of change are blowing as surely as those that sometimes carry thick clouds of dust from the Gobi desert over Beijing. And they become aware quickly of something else, too: China is an awesomely beautiful country.
I recently returned from a trip that took some friends and me to China, and our travels will be the subject of this and future “Back Roads Geology” columns. Our itinerary took us to Cambodia as well, and might easily be described in such clichéd terms as “eye opening” and “life-changing” — but in this case the clichés are true and they are not hyperbole.
The world seems a much bigger and more fascinating place to anyone who has seen China. It is a vast country, with landscapes as diverse and spectacular as any in the United States.
Its high mountains result from the ancient collision of the Indian subcontinent with Southeast Asia, and exposures of distorted bedrock and China’s sometimes catastrophic earthquakes indicate that the collision is ongoing. Elsewhere are more lofty mountains and wilderness, the lair of the giant panda, and to the west lie the Gobi Desert and occupied Tibet and the Himalayas.
And much of China is karst terrain: thick limestone bedrock in which the agents of weathering and erosion in the humid stretches of China have carved out craggy pinnacles, hollowed out caves, pockmarked the surface with giant sinkholes, and formed gushing springs.
The great Yangtze River flows down from the Himalayas through some of the most stunning scenery in China, in particular the legendary stretch known as the Three Gorges where millions of years of river erosion have carved out a spectacle to rival — and in stretches exceed — our own Grand Canyon.
Downstream is the eponymous Three Gorges Dam — a technological wonder of the world but also a source of great controversy. While it has allowed the production of enormous amounts of electrical energy, it has also raised the river’s water level over a hundred feet, displacing 1.3 million Chinese and in the process flooding towns and archeological sites and causing much ecological change.
One thinks of the similar effects of the Egyptian High Dam at Aswan, the building of dams by the TVA — and the loss of villages and farmland behind the dam at New York’s Great Sacandaga Lake. Nonetheless — the stretches of the river from Chongoing (familiarly known as “Chun-king”) down to the dam itself have become prime areas for the visitor to China — and a few hours on a cruise ship through the region demonstrate why.
Even before reaching the magnificent vistas of the Three Gorges themselves, the scenery is evocative — one might accurately describe it as mystical. Though the landscape exhibits enormous pinnacles and buttes, as in Arizona’s Grand Canyon, the climate here is very humid and the walls of the gorge are thick with vegetation.
The Yangtze is brown as the Mississippi, partly due to the heavy sediment load it bares from locations as far away as the high Himalayas, and partly due to effluent from riverside villages and sediment from mines drowned as the water rose behind the great dam. The river cuts steeply through verdant hills and mountains dotted with small villages — some reachable only by boat — and temples and pagodas from China’s past, often situated on slopes that are so steep as to appear inaccessible.
A land out of legend
The beautiful Shibaozhai Taoist pagoda rises surrounded by lush gardens near the peak of a precipitous limestone promontory reachable only by a hike up a steep incline and a harrowing traverse of a swaying suspended bridge. The wooden structure was built over 400 years ago, 12 levels tall and constructed without a single nail.
Inside it are narrow, twisting passages and shadowy alcoves, within which reside over-life-sized statues of Taoist deities and heroes. Their presence is disorienting, but in a pleasing way — telling visitors that they have entered a world parallel to their own but governed by unfamiliar figures.
That the pagoda and so many other relics of China’s past survived the barbarity of Mao’s Cultural Revolution is often a tribute to the wisdom of numerous local officials and citizens; alerted to the destructive intentions of the Red Guards, the locals papered the walls of many pagodas, temples, and other ancient relics with posters of Chairman Mao. This made the structures sacrosanct and untouchable by the mindless mobs.
This is a land out of legend. The channel of the river becomes narrow, and the buttes and pinnacles become higher and more precipitous. Waterfalls burst from hidden caves and gush down steep, narrow passes, not unlike those in the Hawai’ian islands, showing as many shades of green as it is said that a true Irishman can distinguish.
Soon our cruise ship docks and we disembark at a confluence where a narrow tributary called the Shennv Stream joins the river, and, like the Yangtze, the Shennv flows brown with suspended sediment from the high terrain above it.
Here we shuffle into small, elegant boats, painted in the traditional colors of red and gold. The boats are motorized but surprisingly quiet as they glide upstream — as are we, its passengers — for we glide into a stunning landscape of steep green slopes, reaching upward to sheer faces of limestone rock.
Springs burst from the dense forests and here and there an ancient rock staircase ascends from the river shore and vanishes mysteriously into the dense growth high above. A cloudburst a few hours before has fed a number of waterfalls that resolve into fine spray before they reach the river shore.
The high peaks of the Shennv valley are draped in low-lying clouds and before us is the inspiration for thousands of Chinese scroll paintings, depicting mystical landscapes in which human constructions disappear into the drifting fog.
The evocation of the hidden valley of Shangri-la in James Hilton’s romance “Lost Horizon” is inevitable. Here in the valley of the Shennv is a world green beyond belief, appearing untouched by any human presence, far removed from the noise, the pollution, and the human turmoil of the world outside
Through centuries of Chinese history in which ruthless dictators and benevolent despots built their fortresses and walls and fomented revolutions and waged wars, the Shennv has flowed beneath towers of ancient rocks and dense forests of trees that seem never to have known an ax.
But soon it is time for our quietly moving tour boat to return us to our cruise ship on the Yangtze, time to return to a world of schedules and obligations and technology. And, in the days and weeks that follow, we are left to ponder: Did we, or anyone, really enter — if ever so briefly — that hidden, primeval valley?
And yet, in our thoughts remain those mysterious, mossy staircases, rising from the rocky banks of the Shennv and vanishing into the misty wilderness above.