When we visit sites of early civilization — Athens, Rome, Jerusalem, Angkor Wat, Pompeii, Machu Picchu or Petra — ancient wisdom seems like ancient history, evidence of a culture that no longer exists. It is very easy to believe that we have evolved, that modern society has progressed. But the real loss remains elusive: What might we have learned from these extinct peoples?
Sixty years ago this week, many residents of Los Angeles became aware of the Nazi Holocaust for the first time, thanks to a dramatic pageant staged at the Hollywood Bowl by an alliance of Jewish activists and Hollywood celebrities.
The legacy of Athens was not only the glory of Western democracy. It was also the brutality of Roman tyranny.
The pagan Roman Empire was the most complex and refined civilization that had ever appeared on earth. Its religious practice ensured eternal protection by the gods. Its emperor was appointed by the divinity as ruler of the Roman state. Although the empire flourished for many centuries, its religious system did not. The Roman Empire Christianized under Constantine, and this new reality created a new Christian self-concept: imperial Christianity. The Christianization of the empire proved the triumph of Christianity over all its religious competitors and demonstrated that God loved the church and its mighty kingdom.
This new and improved Roman Empire was called the Byzantine Empire, and its Christian emperor became known as God's regent on earth.
Chan Chan is the world's largest mud city. Lying just outside the town of Trujillo, on Peru's northern coast, Chan Chan's high earthen walls feature pre-Columbian carvings paying tribute to the civilization's many gods.
Only three weeks ago it was possible to speak in optimistic terms about a united front against terrorism. History seemed to be blowing at our back, pushing the forces of civilization onward and upward to victory against the scourge of modern times. Writing in this space in early October, I quoted with admiration the prediction made by former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak; that the nations of the world would now join together against terrorism much as the nations of the post-Napoleonic period had defeated piracy. For a brief heady moment, it looked like we American Jews could sit back in the warm protection of our nation acting out of grief and righteous revenge.