We have had a lot of excitement the last couple of weeks, what with Halloween and the midterm election.  Let’s relax a little bit with [checks notes] the horrifying story of a dare gone wrong which lead to the tragic death of a young man? What?? Who chooses this content? Gah!

Well, anyway, this story comes from Australia where, in 2010, teenager Sam Ballard was hanging out with his mates (which is what Australians call friends) and drinking some wine when a small garden slug crawled across his friend’s patio.  In a manner instantly recognizable to anyone familiar with teenage boys, the young men jokingly dared one another to eat the tiny mollusk, and, to show them up, Sam gulped down the tiny creature.  This proved to be an irreversible, fatal error.  Soon Sam’s legs began to hurt and then he fell into a coma for more than a year.  Sam regained consciousness but he was paralyzed and subject to a host of dreadful ailments which ultimately killed him a few days ago.

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There may be a moral to this sad horror story (particularly in the States where, in 2016, 46.4% of the electorate made a seemingly trivial– albeit disgusting–choice which is paralyzing and killing our nation), however there is certainly a scientific explanation.  Slugs can carry rat lungworm disease which is caused by a parasitic nematode called Angiostronjilus cantonensis (crustaceans and frogs can carry the worm as well).  In the happy normal course of existence, the slugs, crabs, and frogs (and thus the nematodes) are eaten by rats which develop lungworm infection in, you know, their lungs.  They excrete droppings infected with lungworms which in turn are eaten by slugs and small invertebrates which are then eaten by rats and frogs. This nematode was originally indigenous to Southeast Asia and nearby Pacific Islands, however as the climate changes and humans move around (taking rats and nematodes with us, apparently) the microscopic worms have spread to Australia, Africa, the Caribbean, and the United States.

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I enjoy nature and have a deep appreciation of ecosystems and all of their diverse inhabitants, yet somehow the preceding paragraph makes me want to burn away rats, frogs, slugs, and nematodes with cleansing fire and live like Howard Hughes.  Speaking of fire, if you must eat rats, frogs, garden slugs, small invertebrates, or nematodes,  you should thoroughly cook them first.  I guess that is a really useful and ancient pro tip for success in life.

There is a bigger reason I am telling this upsetting story though.  Strange microscopic bits of one ecosystem have a way of getting into other ecosystems and causing complete havoc. Rat lungworms don’t even really have anything to do with humans, but when mistakenly consumed by us, they do not end up in our lungs but instead in our brains (btw, this is bad news for the nematodes too, which are unable to complete their natural revolting nightmare life-cycle).

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Paleontologists have long speculated that this sort of mix-up is a factor in many mass die-offs and other large scale extinction events.  Fossil evidence for such things however is exiguous, so they have to look for analogous situations in the modern world (like the case of poor Sam Ballard) or go digging in the genomes of modern living organisms.  These genomes often do carry information about a long strange history of fighting off weird viruses, pathogens, and microscopic invaders, but it is not easy to figure out the specifics within the Rube Goldberg-style world of immune cell epigenetics. Zookeepers and stockpeople (and their veterinary pathologists), however, know all about these sorts of dark misconnections from horrible sad incidents which happen all the time in farms and zoos.  I suppose I am bringing this up because I suspect that climate change, near instant international travel, and modern supply chains, will continue to amplify the problem (I have touched base concerning this in my essays about parasitoid wasps, but these may be a touch abstract, so I am telling Sam Ballard’s story).

We could spend more time and money understanding biology properly to get ahead of these trends (which will be greatly magnified in any synthetic ecosystems which we build on Earth or beyond), or we could continue with our current choice of giving all of our resources to corrupt billionaires to hoard.  While we ponder that choice, let us extend our deepest condolences to the Ballards for their terrible loss.  I am also going to clean my kitchen with bleach and maybe take a shower.

 

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There was a long line at the Brooklyn polls tonight and plenty of time to color in this little (barely) allegorical flounder which I drew in my little sketchbook I carry with me.  Afterwards I stuck my voting sticker next to the cartoon.  Let’s see what the returns reveal as they roll in… Ferrebeekeeper will be back tomorrow with more mollusks, cities, gothic artworks, farm fowl, and so forth.

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Sigh, I guess we had better talk about the American Mid-term election ( I am writing this in 2018 AD, in case the Republicans win everything, and you are reading this in annihilated ruins in a lifeless desert).

Throughout my life, American elections have traditionally been formalistic affairs between two similar parties.  Indeed, years ago, in a more innocent (!) time, I proposed that everyone should vote for the non-incumbent party to prevent the ossification and stalemate which were coming to define American politics.  Alas! such fantasies are now relics of a distant past: the two parties have diverged very greatly (although the false equivalence of “horse race” style reporting still occludes the true distance between them).

The Democrats concentrate far less than I would like on blue sky research, space exploration, and defense funding (which, ideally, is where our national R&D budget comes from).  Additionally the Democrats have not created a compelling narrative for the future and they have petrified national leaders…along with all of the various problems of ego, corruption, and incompetence which occur in politics at a granular level.

I endorse them completely for everything without reservation. Vote Democratic up and down the ticket.

This is not an ordinary election. The Republican Party is changing and metastasizing into something fundamentally un-democratic and truly awful.  Looking at their efforts to dismantle government, rob the state, roll back fundamental constitutional protections, and destroy our international alliances, it is perhaps finally time to use the F-word.

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Indeed, President Trump is an obvious and self-avowed fascist. He makes no pretenses about it.  He openly denounces the press, threatens political opponents, espouses violence, and gleefully supports white supremacists.  Additionally he lies endlessly about everything, trusting that his propaganda mouthpieces will concentrate on other stories to feed to his imbecile brownshirt supporters.  Based on Occam’s razor, he is most likely operating on orders from Russian superiors (he squandered his family fortune, and then misrepresented his crooked finances to increasingly dodgy investors till all that was left for him was to launder money for Russians).  Trump throws everyone under the bus and talks garbage about them…everyone except for Vladimir Putin.  Why would that be?

So I am no fan of Trump, however, this year, he is not on the ticket.   Instead we must concentrate on the other portions of government which are in play tomorrow.  The founders left us a system of checks and balances to constrain the crimes and excesses of unfit executives.  These systems do not work if weak, foolish, and pusillanimous legislators refuse to engage the failsafes.  This is the situation we are now in.  The Republicans in Congress have abdicated all responsibility for the national well-being. They are like the sycophantic senators of the Roman Empire after the Republic fell: they still have the trappings and appurtenances of high office, but all they do is eagerly acquiesce to the whims of Caligula and Nero.

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Vote them out. They all must go.  Vote against the Republicans in congress, even if they once allocated a highway in your district 27 years ago, or served in the Air National Guard, or went to the same school back in the fifties.  Unless you are a billionaire, they care nothing about you and are only looking for ways to take away everything you have. First they will take away your healthcare and then your property and then they will squeeze you dry for their robber-baron friends.

After Mitch McConnell’s successful theft of a Supreme Court seat, and the recent elevation of abusive and unfit apparatchiks to the Supreme Court, there will be no succor from an illegitimate Supreme Court.  If congress does not immediately push back against the rot in the White House, elections will most likely not be free in 2020.  This may be the only chance for voters to prevent tyrrany from breaking the world’s oldest and most powerful democracy–maybe for a generation…or maybe forever.

This is a pretty grim picture.  I did not paint it.  You can see it by looking out the window or picking up any international newspaper.  I suppose we all crafted it together by letting monopolies pour money into Washington and by pursuing our own short-term self-interest (and by letting fear get the better of us).  Historians know that democracies are fragile.  Our democracy is in real peril from within, perhaps for the first time since FDR assumed the mantle of life dictator. Indeed this might be the most extreme challenge to our institutions since the Gilded Age or the Civil War.  There is only one way to fix democracies. So vote! And drag every registered voter you can find to the polls.  If you love Trump and think he is America’s radiant savior, vote! (and maybe check in with the neurologist). If you are like me, uneasy with the Democrats, but appalled by the treasonous perfidy of he Republicans, then vote! Let us throw the GOP out of power so it can rediscover bygone virtues in the wilderness.  We will work on fixing the many many things that need fixed (and on crafting a new paradigm that better suits the changed times) once the house is not on fire.

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I’m sorry about yesterday’s exiguous post.  Usually I edit out Sumi’s additions to my writing, but if a black cat can’t speak out on Halloween, then when can she have her say?

Anyway, I am still thinking about our 2018 Halloween topic: cities and the dead.  I wonder if the week’s worth of posts came out quite the way I wanted.

Let’s look at the entries one by one: the introductory post turned into a discourse upon land usage in the United States. The second post was an article about four (4!) tombs, which hardly seems like a city. The 3rd post was about some pretty cathedrals and a physically abusive Visigoth king. The Vietnamese graveyard was enormously satisfying to look at, but I worry that I didn’t explore why people would lavish so many resources on such a project (a question which is enormously magnified for the Ming tombs). This leaves my drawing of a haunted fish city, which was a work of art by myself and not really a place in the real world.

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I am left with a feeling akin to what I felt when I was in LA: Where exactly is the city?  Everything in Los Angeles was city-like (often beautifully so), but the true heart of a city–the throngs of individuals afoot, the drunkards shouting at each other, the eccentric man dressed as a pickle, the street vendors selling sausages–all that was hidden away somewhere else as you drive around endless freeways looking for it.

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Except in the case of these “cities of the dead”, that magic is well and truly hidden away forever–replaced by inscriptions, marble finials, and ceramic dragons.  I feel like I would have done a better job writing about cities by writing about a guillemot colony or a bacteria culture than by writing about even the greatest cemeteries.

Perhaps there is a fundamental paradox within the concept itself.  Cities are, above all, places where people live and conduct their business.  If there are no people, then a place is maybe not a city, even if there are buildings and monuments and every other trappings.  Maybe cemeteries are really abandoned cities or a wastelands even if they are adjacent to a living city (or inside the city itself). Necropolises are so close to the real thing, but so far away…separated by the greatest of veils.

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I think cemeteries are beautiful and special and I like going to them whenever I go to a new city in order to get a sense of what the inhabitants are like and what they love best, but it is worth recalling that such tourism is an exercise in chasing ghosts.  Of course there are no actual ghosts: specters are really feelings and ideas.  Feelings and ideas are, of course, things that only exist within the minds of the living.  If you are within a City of the Dead it is because you have crafted it within yourself as you wrestle with the past and with the long shadows the dead have cast over us by building the world as it used to be.  The people who used to be here are always with us–in our actions, our outlooks, our genes, and our hearts, but they are not in any cities.  Cities are places for the living. Cemeteries are just places of memory where we try to understand how we got to where we are now and remember what we lost along the way.

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British (Scottish) School; Glasgow Cathedral from the Necropolis

It is Halloween night–a good time to take a break from spooky cities and enjoy some hair-raising movies, candy, and fellowship, but here is a creepy85ctoyggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggwaqv s 7ian painting (whoah! sorry for the typo there–my little black cat, Sumi, ran across the keyboard and, in the spirit of the night, I will leave her addition to this post exactly as she entered it).  Above is a picture of Glasgow Cathedral from the Necropolis (after J.A. Houston).  We will be back in early November to wrap up with some thoughts about cities and the dead.  In the meantime enjoy some Halloween merriment (and this picture of Sumi continuing to distract me from my blogging duties by literally dancing on my shoulders). The two of us are off to eat Milky Way Midnight bars and tuna/chicken Temptations, respectively, and maybe then play with the “‘feline feather flyer cat toy”.  Don’t get so sucked into dead cities that you forget to live! 20181031_224633

 

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No series about the cities of the dead would be complete without a visit to the world’s most populous country, China.   Because of China’s 5000 year+ uninterrupted cultural history, there are some extraordinary examples to choose from, like the Western Xian tombs, or the world famous Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor, a circular tomb with a circumference of 6.3 km (3.9 miles) and an army of more than 7000 life-sized earthenware soldiers (they don’t build ’em like that anymore, thank goodness).  However for artistic reasons, Ferrebeekeeper is going to highlight the most well-known tomb complex in China–the Ming tombs which is a compound of mausoleums built by the emperors of the Ming Dynasty from 1424 to 1644 on the outskirts of Beijing.  Indeed today the tombs are now in a suburb of Beijing, surrounded by banks, residential housing parks, and golf courses.

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The First Emperor of the Ming Dynasty, the Hongwu Emperor, whose rags-to-riches story has no obvious equivalent in history, is NOT buried in the Ming tombs (although don’t forget to follow this spooky link to read about his horrifying excesses), nor is his successor, the Jianwen Emperor, who was usurped and vanished from history.  However the third and greatest Emperor of the Ming Dynasty, the mighty Yongle Emperor is buried there.  The Yongle Emperor chose the spot according to principles of Feng Shui (and political calculus) and he and 12 other Ming dynasty emperors were interred there along with a dynasty worth of empresses, concubines, favorite princes, et cetera etc.  Each of the 13 mausoleums has its own name like the Chang Ling Mausolem, which is tomb to the Yongle Emperor, or the Qing Ling Mausoleum which is the final resting place of the Tai Chang Emperor.

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Some of the subjects of past Ferrebeekeeper posts can be found buried in the Ming Tombs–like the Jiajing Emperor (who is in the Yong Ling Mausoleum, if you are keeping track of this at home).  Considering how much mercury that guy drank, he is probably perfectly preserved somewhere in there glistening like the silver surfer even after all of these years.

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I say probably, because we don’t know.  Only three of the 13 tombs have been properly excavated and explored by archaeologists (these known tombs are the tombs of the Yongle Emperor, Longqing Emperor, and the Wanli Emperor).  In 1644, the whole necropolis was looted and burned by Li Zicheng, the first (and last) Emperor of the ill-fated Shun Dynasty, but, fortunately, he seems to have burned and looted tombs the way he set up kingdoms–very badly and incompletely.  This means there are ten whole tomb complexes of China’s richest greatest emperors which are awaiting the archaeologists of the future (probably…it is always possible that one of China’s more recent autocrats secretly looted everything and sold it to dodgy collectors or hid it under his bed). Imagine the unknown treasures awaiting discovery!

The first paragraph alluded to the artistic merit of this graveyard, and I really meant that.  Just look at the beauty of the Sacred Way in the top photo (this is the main entrance to the tombs which Emperors would traverse when visiting the spot to pay homage to their predecessors) or the ceremonial chamber form the Ding Ling Tomb (which is the third image down).  Best of all, we have an amazing painting (below)! Look at the this beautiful watercolor map/landscape painting from the late nineteenth century which shows the entire tomb complex (the painting itself belongs the Library of Congress).  Naturally, if you click the painting it will not blow up to full size here (thanks to the hateful anti-aesthetic nature of WordPress).  However here is a link to the original image at Wikipedia, you can expand it to immense size on your computer and take a personal tour of one of the world’s most lovely and historically significant tomb complexes.

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As a Halloween treat, here is a pen and ink drawing which I made of a great dark fantasy metropolis (which is also a lurking predatory fish).  As you can see, there are three stages to the composition: the cerebral top portion inhabited by angels, gods, and flying marvels; the primal underworld at the bottom (which is filled with wailing souls, dark sacrifice, and insatiable hunger); and, in the middle, a glistening city between the two extremes.  In the sky, Apollo, god of prophecy and the arts, rides his chariot angrily towards a blithe Icarus.  At far right, Death watches the city while, beneath the towers (beyond life?) the inhabitants…or possibly their souls walk through a Tartarus of appetites and chthonic marvels.  I am sorry that it is too small to appreciate (it took me forever to draw all of the little ghost figures and monsters which are under the fish).  The piece speaks to the larger nature of humankind’s collective existence (and our appetites) but I feel the supernatural monsters and crystal landscape with the heavens also speaks to larger possibilities we could aspire to.  I am sorry it is slightly crooked in this shot: this was the best picture I have but it is slightly distorted (until I can get a finer scan made).

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Ghosts do not seem to care about cultural appropriation.  That is one of the many eye-popping crazy lessons of An Bang Cemetery, an up-to-the minute ultra-necropolis in Phu Vang district of Thua Thien Hue province, Vietnam.  The graves in the cemetery are a mixture of Vietnamese, Chinese, French, Indian, Thai, and American styles.  The monuments reflect religious traditions of Buddhism, Taoism, Catholicism, Confucianism, Đạo Mẫu, Cao Đài, and probably other more esoteric faiths and sects.

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The fishing village of An Bang is on a beautiful white shore in Hue.    In 1975, the reunification of Vietnam caused a diaspora which swept away many of the “boat people” who lived in An Bang.  In the 80s and 90s cash began to flow back into the community from all around the world.

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An Bang Village is not very far from the vaunted imperial tombs of Vietnam’s Nguyen dynasty which lie along the Perfume River (the ancient imperial tombs are a UNESCO heritage site).  The contemporary villagers took some of their inspiration from the majesty, size, and beauty of the classical imperial graves, but they took the rest of their inspiration from…everywhere.  At first blush the American influence may seem to be lacking…but look at the ostentation, the gaudiness, the competitive one-upmanship among the dead (plus where do you think that International money came from?)

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There is a riot of styles and color and meanings, but yet I am not sure I have ever seen anything more distinctly Vietnamese.  I don’t think there are many sculptural installations anywhere that could compare with the utter Baroque riot of An Bang…and that is to say nothing of the corpses, mourners, phantasms, spirits, and what not!  Most of the intelligent people whom I know believe that there is nothing after death, and cemeteries are pointless.  My rejoinder would be that cemeteries are not for the dead, they are for the living.  Plus just look at this color, art, and form!  Of course Vietnam is a developing country, and it could be argued that this money could be spent better elsewhere, but in America we spent 6.5 billion dollars on the 2016 election (to say nothing of the corporate money that went into buying influence) and look what we wound up with.  Maybe the dead are better off with the money after all. They sure know how to live it up in style at least!

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Welcome back to Ferrebeekeeper’s special Halloween series about cities!  Obviously, no such effort would be complete without venturing once again into the realms of the Gothic, that ill-defined but very real concept which encompasses literature, history, culture, and architecture in exceedingly different (and yet weirdly unified) ways across a span of 1700 years.  My first inclination here was to present some famous Gothic fantasy cities—Minis Tirith, Gotham, Lankhmar, Oldtown, and Ankh-Morpork (sob) but the daunting nature of this project quickly became obvious.  Maybe we will revisit these places later (I feel like I have lived in each of them), but right now let us turn to what is arguably the world’s most successful actual extant Gothic city, which is also a place I don’t know nearly as well as those fantasy burgs: the great metropolis of Barcelona!

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I have legions of friends who return from Barcelona singing its praises as the world’s greatest party city, and I remember lots of partial factoids from the 1992 Summer Olympics (which were completely amazing: Thanks Barcelona!).  Sadly, I don’t know much about the actual city which is too bad–of all of the places on Earth, Barcelona has true claim to being the most Gothic city, not just because of its Gothic quarter (the somber medieval buildings were added to and spruced up at the end of the 19th century) , its ancient Gothic cathedral (the Barcelona Cathedral, seen at the top of the post and immediately above), its new Gothic cathedral (The Basílica i Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Família designed by Gaudi, which is immediately below), or its many other Gothic architectural wonders, but instead  because of its history.

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Barcelona has two foundation myths, both of which are amazing.  According to legend it was either founded by the great Carthaginian general Hamilcar Barca (Hannibal’s dad) or by Hercules himself as he roamed the Mediterranean world during his famous labors.  Wow!  The truth is only slightly less amazing.  The Romans first built Barcelona into a major city, but they built on top of a settlement which was already ancient.  Archaeologists have found artifacts/remains which can be dated back to 5000 years ago.

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 Ancient Roman Burial Ground in Barcelona

As the Roman Empire blew apart (because of climate change, cultural stagnation, and disastrous misrule by corrupt dolts), strange groups of barbaric invaders from the hinterlands marauded through what had once been the most prosperous provinces of the West. Among these tribes were Huns, Franks, Sueves, Vandals, Alans, and Burgundians (goodness help us), but perhaps the most infamous of these groups were the Visigoths, who sacked Rome itself in 410 AD.  The Visigoths warred with Rome and its allies for generations while they sought a permanent kingdom (hoping perhaps to become like the Franks, who grabbed up the most beautiful parts of France).  For a time it seemed the Visigoths had found a permanent home in what is now southern France, but the tides of War turned against them and they moved southwards.

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Thus, in the beginning of the 6th century AD, Barcelona was the capital of the Visigoth Kingdom.  In 511 AD, the king of the Visigoths was a nine-year-old child named Amalaric.  Amalaric was an Arian Christian, which is to say he was a follower of the nontrinitarian Christological doctrine of Arius, not that he marched around in studded jackets throwing dumb white power fist salutes (although, frankly, he probably did that too).  He was married to Chrotilda, the daughter of Clovis I and she was a devout Catholic devoted to the trinity. The two fought ferociously about religion and Amalaric would beat Chrotilda savagely to demonstrate the superiority of his Christological doctrines.  At one pointshe even sent a towel stained with her blood to her brother Childebert I to show him the benighted state of her marriage.

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Hmm…We have fallen down a bit of a Medieval history rabbit hole here in describing why Barcelona is a Gothic city.  To succinctly recap, it was the capital of the Visigoths and it has whole districts of Gothic buildings which are either Medieval, or made in faux Medieval styles.  And what about Amalaric?  In the early 530s, he fought the Ostragoth army and was defeated.  He fled back to Barcelona but was betrayed and murdered by his own men (perhaps at the command of Theudis, governor of Barcelona.  Some say you can still hear Amalaric’s ghost, angrily promulgating Arian doctrines among the midnight bubble disco parties of present-day Barcelona, but to me that sounds like something some disreputable blogger made up to get hits.

 

   

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Persepolis (pictured above) was the ceremonial capital of the Achaemenid Empire, the great Persian Empire which ruled the near east from around 550 BC to 330 BC (when Alexander the Great swept through and conquered it).  Persepolis was apparently a rather strange city—an imperial showplace of palaces, temples, and stately grandeur, but with very few inhabitants, at least compared to the thriving Persian cities of Babylon, Susa, and Ecbatana. Archaeologists are still arguing about whether it was a palace complex, an administrative center, or a seasonal city for high Zoroastrian festivals.  Whatever the case, Persepolis’ strange quasi-urban nature is a good segue to today’s featured location: Naqsh-e Rustam, a Persian necropolis which is located 12 km (7.5 miles) from the site of Persepolis (both locations are high in the mountains of what is today the Fars province of Iran).

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Naqsh-e Rustam, the cemetery of Persian emperors, had even fewer inhabitants than Persepolis, and mostly those inhabitants were (and still are!) deceased. The most important tombs are four large tombs cut high into the living rock of the cliff face.  These are the tombs of Darius I (c. 522-486 BC), Xerxes I (c. 486-465 BC), Artaxerxes I (c. 465-424 BC), and Darius II, the great emperors of ancient Persia. The facade to Xerxes tomb is pictured immediately below.

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Not many cities have only 4 long dead inhabitants. Indeed, the site of Naqsh-e Rustam was sacred long before the Achaemenids carved their unearthly mausoleums. The oldest carvings are dated to around 1000 BCE and thought to be from the Elamite kingdoms.  Later on, the monarchs of the Sassanid dynasty (the empire which stood in counterweight opposition to Imperial Rome) also carved great reliefs there.  These illustrate battles and victories.  In the middle of the complex is a mysterious cubic tower known as the Ka’ba-ye Zartosht.  It was made at the same time as the tombs and is presumably a Zoroastrian sacred building, but nobody really knows what is was originally for.

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I wrote about this astonishing place, because I was struck by the majesty and remoteness of the great tombs carved out of living rock, but now that I have started writing, I realize that Naqsh-e Rustam strains any definition of a city (other than as a place of great human-crafted edifices).  The urban culture, the political hegemony, and the sheer human labor required to craft such a site are obvious from the 2500 year old architecture, but the bigger questions about why humans make the things we make, or even about why the Persians organized their great civilization in this fashion are not answered by the haunting graves an monuments.

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