Landmarks and Context
Today, during a cold and rainy kickoff to the Fall season, I found myself daydreaming about a Summer visit to historic central Rome. Of course I got to see the major tourist attractions, but I was unexpectedly impressed by the victory columns. These monuments were built to honor Roman emperors by telling stories of wartime glory. They also served another purpose, as important landmarks for pilgrims visiting an unfamiliar city.
Millions of people embark on a pilgrimage, or some sort of spiritual journey each year. Mecca, Jerusalem, Yellowstone, Graceland… all impressive places to be sure, but what keeps people coming back? Tradition? Search for a deeper meaning? Desire to see something first hand? In today’s networked world, what could you possibly see that hasn’t been thoroughly documented in photos, video, and even 3d models?
In a word, context. The sequence of little details that surround and connect major landmarks allows us to create a mental map of a place. To that map we attach stories, and in retelling the stories we create shared experiences.
For me, visiting Rome was not a spiritual journey. I was a tourist, not a pilgrim… and yet the experience was deeply meaningful. While walking through 2000 year old streets, I felt connected with a long arc of human civilization. It was humbling, but also gives me hope that we can build our own cities to stand the test of time.
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