Monday, October 3, 2011

26. Oxus Chariot Model (Tajikistan, 500-300 BC)

The Persians who conquered the Lydians had one of the first mighty and impressive empires, stretching across the whole mideast from what’s now Turkey to India. They were centered in Iran, where Farsi, or Persian, is still an important language today. MacGregor contrasts their approach to empire to that of the Romans, who were basically the next empire with that kind of size and scale in that part of the world: sounds like the Persians were a lot less in-your-face about being imperial overlords. They allowed local languages and customs; when they had conquered the Lydians, rumors have it that Persian Emperor Cyrus made Croesus his adviser, instead of impaling him on a pole like a normal emperor. That’s great, but because they were so easy-going, and because we don’t have much of their own writing, we don’t know all that much about them; most of the history of the Persians comes from Greek writers or the Bible. The scholars would prefer to get the Persian’s story from the horse’s mouth, as it were.

In any event, the main thing with any huge body of land, like the Persian empire, are roads and transportation. That’s certainly the big issue of our age. Confession time here: I’ve got to boast of a recent powerful moment of personal triumph—I biked to Portland in July, made good time, and in that moment of crossing the Lewis and Clark Bridge over the Columbia River (the state line) I had a little emotional meltdown. I had ridden my bike all the way into the next state.

Crossing the Columbia (view from a bike)

I was probably in my first car when I was just a few days old. Cars have always been part of my world, much as I would love to be free of them. I hate cars, hate everything about them, hate the country they’ve made, hate how they transform the people. This is my big cause, I’d happily give up my life if I could be a martyr to the cause of getting America out of its damn cars. That’s why, as an adult, I’m still obsessed with The Lord of the Rings : to me, that story is mostly about what it means to not have a car. But despite my admiration for Frodo & Sam & Gollum, until this summer I’d never known any way of getting a long distance—i.e., across a state line—without a car or a plane. But of course these things weren’t always around, and they won’t be always around. The Persians used chariots, like the little toy pictured here; the satrap is riding out from the imperial capitol, in Iran, to whatever dinky state, Lydia or Tajikistan or some such, he governs. They had great roads, set up with fresh horses and messengers every such-and-such a distance, and that’s what held the empire together. Lose the ease of transportation, and you lose the empire. We’ll see what happens to us. (Biking is really cool!)

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