New Orleans on the Aegean
by Justine Nicholas
What can the
ancient world teach us about present-day New Orleans?
at least suggestions, may be found in the cities of Ephesus, Priene
and Miletus. Each is within ten miles of the Aegean Sea in present-day
Turkey. In millennia past, each of these metropoli had its day –
century, actually – in the sun, which shines so copiously in that
part of the world. Today, tourists from Pacific and Atlantic rim
countries converge in these erstwhile crossroads of East and West,
where tourguides spin threads of narrative from tattered shards
of long-past glory.
In each of
these communities resided power and influence comparable in scale
to what American coastal megapoli house today or what was harbored
in Venice, Florence and Genoa during the Renaissance. The most creative,
talented and scholarly people their time designed palatial buildings,
laid out streets, postulated the foundations of later work in mathematics,
physiology and astronomy, composed music and poetry and stood on
stages with the hills as their backdrop and the Aegean as their
fourth wall, so to speak.
voices once echoed, the wind now rasps through cracked columns and
crumbling walls. Their bones have turned into the mud under the
feet of tourists who gaze and snap photographs.
All of these
onetime bastions of intellect and commerce survived wars and fires.
Fortresses fell; future generations would build ever-more formidable
edifices on their foundations. This process continued through the
rise and fall of the empires that subsumed them. But the impulse
to build and rebuild ultimately could not match a force of nature
– specifically, the sea.
In a perverse
irony that parallels the situation in New Orleans, these cities
were undone by the properties that drew settlers to them in the
first place. Like the Crescent City, Ephesus, Priene and Miletus
were ports located on the fingers of rivers and inlets that opened
to the sea. Their fine harbors enabled not only the arrival of ships
from the West: They enabled an easy transfer of silks, spices and
other goods from camel caravans to departing seacraft.
hubs prospered as long as the sea remained high enough to carry
vessels to their piers but did not flood them. Current climatologists
and geologists marvel at the fact that such conditions prevailed
for as long as they did.
the sea receded and the harbors silted up. Tides turned back, but
turbid pools of tepid, murky water remained. Where material and
intellectual wealth were once created, about all that could flourish
was malaria. Gradually, people left these cities for higher – or
sometimes more distant – land. And one of the most powerful earthquakes
in the history of this planet shook and scattered the remnants of
those people’s lives across the land.
Half a millennium
later, the sea that served as a conduit for sugar, cotton and other
fruits of nearby land – and for people who came, willingly or not,
to the city’s docks – would swell into a surge that submerged the
majority of New Orleans’ houses, offices and other buildings. Even
with the predictive technologies that have developed overt the centuries,
people were as helpless against the force of water bearing down
on them as their forebears were against the receding sea. Scientists
say that the sea level is rising, and that within a century, many
people’s favorite American city will be several miles offshore,
surrounded by the Gulf of Mexico if not under it.
Katrina, about 450,000 people resided in New Orleans. Five months
after the storm, about one in six of them have returned. Others
look forward to the day they can come back to their homes, or whatever
remains of them. However, forecasters warn that more storms – perhaps
of even greater magnitude than Katrina – are bound to strike.
the history of the Aegean region can serve as a guide, one must
question the wisdom of building on top of submerged structures and
encouraging former residents to return. On the other hand, one can
also find reason not to despair over the abandonment of an uninhabitable
place: People will continue to be nourished by the fruits of the
talented people who lived there. We can read the words of ancient
poets, physicians and politicians just as we can listen and dance
to the beat of the multitude of music from the Mississippi Delta.
Nicholas [send her mail]
teaches English at the City University of New York.
© 2006 LewRockwell.com