Inevitably, eventually and hopefully sooner than later, every discerning traveler should ask himself this question: why am I crossing the globe to touch old walls (literally and figuratively)? Is it because old walls are on my bucket list that I have to see the ruins of Pompeii, or is there a deeper emotional longing that prompts me to visit the Tash Mahal? What is this sensation I feel when I run my fingers across ancient marble walls, knowing how much these famous stones have witnessed through the centuries? Far more than checking items off my bucket list, touching old walls, visiting the past without judgement, becomes an essential part of our human experience.
Perhaps we want to see how people lived all these years ago, what made them tick and how they mastered their day to day lives in the midst of strife, threats and hardship. Was there any room for love and happiness back then or was it all just struggle and fear?
Perhaps we are looking for a common humanity that we share with anonymous strangers who lived centuries before our time. They must have had a different relationship with the end of life. Back then, death was all around them – death caused by bloody wars, dreadful diseases and ruthlessly executed religious beliefs. Were high walls and fortifications not built for protection only to be conquered by betrayal, pestilence or treachery?
Perhaps we seek an emotional connection with the past. How does what I am learning relate to my current values and my life experiences? We can see many aspects of our modern existence reflected in the lives of townspeople in the middle ages. The same things that drive us now, apparently motivated the people back then. The same human shortcomings we struggle with today (e.g. pride, jealousy, revenge, religious fervor) changed the courses of history many times over.
Perhaps we just want to marvel at the accomplishments of past generations. How did they craft and transport those enormous stone blocks to build the pyramids? How did the artists of ancient times create the intricate frescos in famous cathedrals? Why does every building we create today seem to lack beauty and creativity when people in the past did such wondrous work with much less technology and knowledge?
There are many reasons to touch old walls. Perhaps not least, because it makes you feel small. It shows you your place in the context of a mostly violent human history and inspires you to learn from those who have come before us. For me, touching old walls, literally and figuratively, continues to bring up more questions than answers.
The success of our journeys cannot be measured by the pictures taken, attained knowledge, the fun we had or by the number of check marks on our bucket list. Success is, when we can see patterns in the human condition - worldwide and through the ages – and then decide not to repeat the mistakes. That is what old walls are for.