To true lovers of history, this is going to sound blasphemous, but sometimes, ancient ruins just look like a pile of crumbling rocks. Broken pillars, stone bricks overtaken by weeds, eroded carvings… frankly; it can be kind of boring.
Even if the site is actually quite spectacular, after you’ve seen a fair number of them, the fatigue starts to set in and the ancient ruins begin to lose their luster.
So how can you make visiting these kinds of sites more interesting? One way is to envision what it would have been like to live there. By placing yourself in the shoes of the ancient inhabitants and imagining how you would have spent your day – gathering food, grinding grain, attending community meetings, watching plays at the amphitheater, sleeping in tiny mud-brick huts with a family of six, and so on – you can start to bring the ruins alive.
The bloggers over at Hecktic Travels described a similar concept – how while traveling through Turkey, they visited the ruins of a city and decided it was a place in which they would have been right at home during ancient times:
With every site we visit on our travels, we attempt to place ourselves there – wondering what it was like to roam the marbled streets, maybe hear Christian saints woe the pagans, and especially to build the impressive structures without modern tools.
The best way to get yourself into this mindset is to actually know something about the place you’re visiting. For this, reading books about the destination really helps – and I don’t just mean the history section of your guidebook, which can be a bit dry and encyclopedic. Try and seek out books that really bring the place alive and give you a sense of what life was like there. One book I highly recommend is Collapse by Jared Diamond – a fabulously comprehensive analysis of many of the world’s greatest civilizations and the actions that led to their demise. Be warned, it’s a bit dense, but it’s not hard to read and by the end you’ll know pretty much anything you could want to know about some of the ancient empires.
Another book that I personally enjoyed was The Sign And The Seal by Graham Hancock. The book details the historical mystery behind the journey and current whereabouts of the Ark of the Covenant and is great reading if you’re traveling to Ethiopia.
Movies and documentaries are of course, another good alternative for getting a sense of life in ancient times, although I tend to prefer books myself since I can read them while I’m visiting a destination. If you’re looking for reading recommendations, you may want to check out this article from the British newspaper The Guardian, which includes a fairly extensive list of books that relate to travel and history.
What do you think? Do you have any recommendations for books that have helped you dive into the history of a place, or other ideas for placing yourself in the shoes of the ancients?