Our tour group walked down a main street. It was narrow, with curbs high and tight and pillars reaching overhead, as to give the impression that we were walking in a slot canyon. This was the main street of the Roman city of Jaresh, only excavated in the 1970s. As we walked the bustle of the modern city was clearly audible only yards away, we snapped pictures with our phones, and tried to avoid sellers hocking cheap plastic flutes for the kids. How different those modern street were from these unspeakable ancient ruins, thought I, what would they think of us?
Our tour guide stopped us at a section of the street. He pointed to the stones making up the road surface. He spoke about how they bulged in the middle to send water off to the side. He pointed to the curb, he indicated drainage holes carved in the curbstones. Then he pointed back to the street. There were bands every ten yards where the stones were aligned differently. He encouraged us to guess what they were. Decoration? Sewer covers? Drainpipes? No, they were to designate pedestrian crosswalks.
What existed 2000 years ago? It’s a longer time than you can coherently trace back. It is unspeakably ancient. Apparently however, crosswalks existed, and drainage systems, and all the problems and particulars that came with them. We walked down the street to the market, as the horns of commuters blared in the modern city outside I noted troughs in the rock where chariot wheels had worn down the stone through the centuries. I saw the inlaid steps where pedestrians would come down from the curb to cross the street. On the side of the road, massive column capitals, once adoring the roofs of the city, sat cracked and worn. Under the wear you could still see the meticulous nature with which they were carved, so detailed you’d expect it to be the work of a laser cutter. In the United States these ruins are so alien they might as well by fantasy. Our country is 200 years old. We make no claims to the legacy of Aboriginal Americans, so our history goes back to 1776, and everything else is prehistory. To us, a civilization that existed 2000 years ago must be the dawn of civilization itself. The first of their kind. What could be before the them? Surely nothing but barbarian savages living in huts.
But no, so much had come before. Rome was founded 9,000 years after the dawn of human civilization. The Myceans, Egyptians, Assyrians, multiple dynasties of Chinese, had all risen and fallen before the age of Remus and Romulus. We tend not to think about it now because we use a calendar that makes it hard to gauge time before 2000 years ago, but Ancient Rome is closer to us than they are to the pyramids of Giza. In all those thousands of years humanity had come up with things we take as modern inventions, like street drainage, advanced carving techniques, and crosswalks.
Exiting out of the ruins of Jaresh I saw the leaps man had made in the 2000 years since. Crosswalks were painted on now, the chariots were horseless, and so numerous automatic light switchers were needed to direct them through traffic. In everyone’s hands were devices that contained electronic eyes, able to convert visual information into a string of numbers and send it halfway around the world in a matter of seconds. To an Egyptian living in the 25th century BC, Rome, with it’s complex city planning and sophisticated architecture, would seem like the distant future. To an observer in Rome, we, with our incredibly advanced and almost universally disseminated technology, would seem like the distant future. And to an Egyptian looking at the modern world, who knows how unspeakably advanced we must seem.