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New Orleans on the Aegean

What can the ancient world teach us about present-day New Orleans?

Answers, or 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.

Where their 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.

These ancient 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.

Without warning, 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.

Before Hurricane 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.

If 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.

January 31, 2006