Turning Gold into Stones


Cycling on our transcontinental expeditions whether it is the Silk Road, the Orient Express, the Tour d’Afrique  or TransEuropa we see and admire magnificent castles, pyramids, old ruins and other wonders of architecture. But I venture to say that nothing compares to the number of palaces, churches, cathedrals, monasteries, citadels and fortresses one can see in Spain. This intensity of such wondrous construction begs a question; where does the money to build these came from?

Lonely Planet writes that when it comes to Spain there is a joke, that the Spaniards had invented the reverse of Alchemy. For centuries the world’s great thinkers were consumed by the search for the mythical Philosopher’s Stone.

The Philosopher’s Stone is a legendary substance said to be capable of turning base metals into gold or silver. The joke is that the Spaniards after pillaging the Aztecs, Mayans and the Incas empires for the silver and the gold, turned them into stones – stones that I and you go to admire.

Flickr photo by Neticola

I thoroughly enjoyed seeing the wonderful structures every few kilometers but after cycling on the Vuelta SudAmerica and visiting the Inca, Aztec and the Mayan cultures, I could not help but be tinged with an uncomfortable thought.

How many people died for me to see these wondrous structures? And the more I thought about it, the more I realized that perhaps all National Tourist Boards around the world need to add to the information about a particular place not only the name of the king, noble, architect and pope who commissioned the building or who designed the structure, but also how many people died in the process of construction, how was the project financed, how many slaves, prisoners, indebted and forced labor it took for these structures to be build.

Directly or indirectly when we go to see the Great Wall of China, the Taj Mahal, the Terracotta soldiers in Xian or the spectacular midrassa in Samarkand, the spotlight is on the emperors, generals, the politicians, the architects, the imams and the popes. I wonder if a minute of silence before we leave these places, to meditate and pay respect to the thousands of unknown workers who actually had to build these wonders without safety boots or helmets, would not add to our appreciation and contribute to a better understanding of these places, the cultures, to our own humanity and vulnerability.

And perhaps and I say just perhaps makes us think where still today young and old, male and females, work under difficult and dangerous situations just to have something to eat.

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