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Inglorious past: Glen Mutel

Admire the wonders of the world by all means. Just try not to think about how they were built

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I used to work around the corner from a wonderful little cafe. It sticks in my mind partly because of its marvellous omelettes, and partly for the poster on its wall, showcasing the New Seven Wonders of the World. Many a lunchtime I’d sit and stare at it, contemplating the majesty of the Colosseum or the sheer scale of the Great Wall of China. Often, I’d congratulate myself for having seen some of these amazing buildings; equally often, I’d chastise myself for not having seen them all.

And every now and then, as I finished my last forkful of spinach and cheese omelette, I’d remember that most of these wondrous edifices were built by slaves.

Ah, slaves. So abundant, hardworking and replaceable — where would the modern-day tourist be without them? From Angkor Wat to Chichen Itza, so many of the world’s most awe-inspiring attractions were built by the coerced and mistreated. As a demographic, they’ve got a pretty impressive track record.

Understandably, it’s something that we as travellers would really rather not dwell upon. In fact, I’m sorry for bringing it up. Were this a Fosters commercial, I’d no doubt be shown the ‘Paddle of Rebuke’ for putting such a downer on proceedings. But whether we like it or not, the past is a pretty murky place. And so many of its wonders seem to have been built on the backs of the downtrodden.

It’s a shame, really, that the impeccable white walls of the Taj Mahal or noble columns of the Parthenon should be tainted in this way. It would be far nicer to think of them as the achievements of fair societies, where all were equal and life was just. But throughout the ages, tyrants have always had an uncanny knack for getting things done. I know if I ever needed a palace built sharpish I’d trust a despotic slave driver to finish it quicker than a unionised contractor.

Of course, travel and ethics are awkward bedfellows at the best of times, and if you become too sensitive to the injustices of the past you’re going to end up with some pretty limited itineraries. So many historic buildings have dubious legacies — whether they were knocked up by dictators or facilitated by staggering social inequalities — that the only really ethically safe bets are New Towns, like Milton Keynes or Telford.

The fact is, it’s difficult to feel true solidarity with people who lived hundreds of years ago. The passage of time takes the sting out of things. Take the 700,000 craftsmen and labourers who constructed China’s Qin Mausoleum and the tomb of the Terracotta Army. That they were then were all then executed to keep the location a secret isn’t pleasant. I’d go as far as to call it a touch ungrateful. But these tragic figures are today mere historical footnotes.

And in a strange way, their story adds to the appeal. When we marvel at a mighty palace, pagoda or pyramid, we know the conditions that produced it can never be recreated. We know we’ll never again see a day when thousands of slaves can be put to work for decades, cutting, carving and carting huge blocks of stone at the whim of an emperor. And that makes the buildings they constructed seem all the more rare, and, I suppose, all the more precious.

However, sometimes the passage of time doesn’t quite remove the sting. And I admit I was a little shocked to learn the White House was partly built by slaves. That revelation felt too close to home — after all, what if the same were true of the Houses of Parliament? But then again, how many beautiful British buildings were financed by the slave trade? And what of all those stunning Western European cities, which boomed on the back of the slave economy? Arrrrrghh, it’s a bloody hornets’ nest! Is nowhere sacred?

Still, there’s always the pyramids of Giza — built not, as you might expect, by slaves, but by free men. Free men who led very short lives on account of years of backbreaking labour, but free men, nonetheless. And they were given honourable burials. Who could ask for more than that? Enjoy your omelette.


Published in the Jan/Feb 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)