Why are ruins compelling? Every year hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of people from many nations travel great distances to see the remains of places of worship, meeting places, or houses, whether built by Muslims, Jews, Christians, Romans, Greeks, Incas, Mayans, Buddhists, or Vikings. Take, for example, Stonehenge in Britain, the Stone Age monument built sometime between 3,000 and 1,600 B.C. We also know that ruins have influenced the imagination for centuries. There’s the famous Anglo-Saxon poem, The Ruin (this version of the opening stanza was translated by R. Hamer in 1970):
The city buildings fell apart, the works
Of giants crumble. Tumbled are the towers
Ruined the roofs, and broken the barred gate,
Frost in the plaster, all the ceilings gape,
Torn and collapsed and eaten up by age.
And grit holds in its grip, the hard embrace
Of earth, the dead-departed master-builders,
Until a hundred generations now
Of people have passed by. Often this wall
Stained red and grey with lichen has stood by
Surviving storms while kingdoms rose and fell.
And now the high curved wall itself has fallen.
Even a ruin can become ruined. Now, in New York and elsewhere, people want to see what remains of the World Trade Center—not on television or in photographs but for themselves. Some may say this is a ghoulish enterprise: Why visit a place of such carnage and destruction? But to what extent is that desire so ghoulish? As Jed Perl writes in the New Republic: “The fascination with ruins gives us a way of lingering over the incomprehensible until it becomes comprehensible. By turning broken forms into pictures we can begin to reconstruct an idea of wholeness.”
Or, as the anonymous author of The Ruin put it so many years ago, the remains of a great building remind one of life what was once there.
And so these halls
Are empty, and this red curved roof now sheds
Its tiles, decay has brought it to the ground,
Smashed it to piles of rubble, where long since
A host of heroes, glorious, gold-adorned,
Gleaming in splendour, proud and flushed with wine,
Shone in their armour, gazed on gems and treasure,
On silver, riches, wealth and jewellery,
On this bright city with its wide domains.