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Jim Eagles: Self-tributes set in stone

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Pride may be one of the seven deadly sins but it's interesting to ponder how many of the amazing places we travel around the world to see would never have been built if it wasn't for rampant egotism.

Pyramids and palaces, temples and churches, obelisks and victory arches have too often been erected purely to feed the ego of the builder.

Hadrian's Arch at the entrance to ancient Athens even has the inscription, "This is the city of Hadrian, not of Theseus".

The peasants may have starved but pharaoh built his place in eternity, and the modern age is not so different.

New York's Empire State Building was the result of a contest between John J. Raskob, of General Motors, and his bitter rival Walter Chrysler, of Chrysler Corporation, to see who could build the tallest building.

The world's present tallest building, the Petronas Twin Towers in Kuala Lumpur, was in part a couple of large digits waved at the West by Malaysia's then prime minister Mahathir Mohamad.

And it hasn't stopped there. Overweening business tycoons continue to come up with plans for still taller buildings - at least four buildings taller than the Petronas Twin Towers are on the drawing boards, and vainglorious dictators continue to erect statues to themselves.

One of the signs of the end of Soviet oppression was the toppling of all those effigies of Lenin and Stalin, Romania's Nicolae Ceausescu and Bulgaria's Georgi Dimitrov, and their communist brothers.

Ironically, those toppled images are becoming tourist attractions, as curious Western tourists examine these rather quaint symbols of what life was like on the other side of the Iron Curtain.

It is probably not quite the sort of immortality the statue-builders had in mind.

The classic image from the second Gulf War was of Iraqis and US soldiers combining to topple one of Saddam Hussein's giant statues in central Baghdad.

It will be a sign that life in Iraq really has returned to normal when tourists start flocking there to marvel at the sumptuous palaces, glowing portraits and magnificent statues the dictator erected to glorify himself.

And still more statues are left to topple. Travel has already featured pictures of an extraordinary 20m bronze statue of the late North Korean dictator Kim Il-sung.

It is presumably safe so long as his son continues to rule the hermit kingdom.

But one day, we can rest assured, it will be hauled down and either melted into door knobs or dragged off to an amusement park.

The futility of this mad pursuit of immortality is beautifully summed up by Percy Bysshe Shelley's poem Ozymandias.

I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said, "Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert ... near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lips, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings,
Look on my Works ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away."

But, of course, there is another side to all this. The motives of Ozymandias and his ilk may be sinful and their lust for immortality ultimately futile but the result for later generations can be wonderful, nonetheless.

Without the pride of Ramses II - whose works evidently inspired Shelley's poem - there would be no Great Temple of Abu Simbel with its four giant statues of the man.

It was Jayavaram II's belief in his own divinity which gave us the Cambodian marvel of Angkor Wat.

But for the ambition of Henry III and VII there would be no Westminster Abbey. Only the ruthless drive of Peter the Great, his daughter Elizabeth, and Catherine the Great gave us the Winter Palace and Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg.

Had it not been for Napoleon's vanity there would be no Arc de Triomphe. And but for the will to win of John J. Raskob, there would no Empire State Building for King Kong to climb.

Might we one day also give thanks for the vaulting ambition of Saddam, Ceausescu and Kim Il-sung? I think it's fairly unlikely.

Even the giant bronze statue of Kim is hardly in the same league as, say, the 33m Colossus of Rhodes built some 2300 years ago.

In fact, in spite of the vast progress in engineering over the centuries, it is hard to think of many modern edifices to which people will travel vast distances to gaze in astonishment.

Places such as the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, the Sydney Opera House, the Eiffel Tower, the Olympic Stadium in Munich, the Chunnel between England and France, the Aswan and Hoover Dams, the Forth Bridge in Scotland, the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, the Petronas Towers and the Empire State Building are certainly worth a visit.

But will they still be here in 400 years, let alone still creating awe in 4000? Again, unlikely.

Perhaps the problem with today's builders is that their vision is too petty.

Many of them may be megalomaniacs but few thought they were actually gods.

As a result, they have built for today rather than for eternity.

Even those who do seem to have regarded themselves as divine have poured their resources into huge homes with gold taps and second-rate statues of themselves rather than some modern Karnak or Teotihuacan.

One day we may go to gawk and giggle at the creations of Saddam or Kim but the consequences of their pride will never stand alongside those of Amenhotep III or the Emperor Hadrian.

 

- NZ Herald

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