Friday, 3 August 2012

The Bagan Question

23 Wonders down, and almost a year since I first began my Wonder hunting, and I have to admit that something is bothering me. That something is "The Bagan Question".

Especially observant readers may recall that during my review of Bagan I disqualified it and instead focussed on one of its major temples, Ananda Temple, as my Wonder. The crux of my argument was this:
Bagan forces me to think hard about my definition of what a Wonder is. Because everything I have described so far is a sprawling area the size of Manhattan with around 3000 brick ruins. Can that be described as a single Wonder? I would never consider Manhattan Island to be a single Wonder; instead I have selected both the Empire State Building and the Statue of Liberty as candidates, with Manhattan being the impressive surrounding context. But perhaps comparing a modern city to a set of ancient ruins is disingenuous. Nonetheless, I find it hard to reconcile Bagan with being a single sight - and I feel a Wonder should be a single sight. A Wonder doesn't need to be a single building, but it needs to be a relatively compact entity of associated buildings. Bagan might have been built by one kingdom, but it was built over hundreds of years by many different kings, and is a series of buildings rather than a specially designed set of buildings.
Basically, Bagan was too big, too sprawling, too diverse to be considered a single entity, a single Wonder. There being no official authority on what qualifies and what doesn't, I've had to make it up as I've gone along as to what can be considered a Wonder and what can't. Stripped back to its very basics, we can go to the dictionary for their definition (of wonder as a noun):
6. something strange and surprising; a cause of surprise, astonishment, or admiration: That building is a wonder.
7. the emotion excited by what is strange and surprising; a feeling of surprised or puzzled interest, sometimes tinged with admiration: He felt wonder at seeing the Grand Canyon.
This is helpful to keep in mind, and exactly what I hope is evoked by the various buildings and structures I see, but doesn't do much in a practical sense to discern what qualifies and what doesn't. So I can go back to the original source, the classical Seven Wonders of the World. And with these, we are simply looking for this: the seven most remarkable structures of ancient times. Sounds straightforward?

It's not. If we are to go hardline, and only include single, discrete structures then we are forced to disqualify a lot. The Forbidden City is out, as is the Kremlin, as are the Roman ruins of Leptis Magna and Baalbek, as are the Mayan ruins, Teotihuacuan, the Nazca Lines, Easter Island. As would be, fairness would have to dictate, the Great Wall of China. Petra too - disqualified. I would have to strip back the pyramids of Giza to just the Great Pyramid, a nonsensical decision for me as the three pyramids plus their surrounds (which include the Sphinx) are very much a unit.

So restricting Wonders to single structures makes little sense, and only dilutes the quality of the list. An extension is required; rather than having to be a single structure, a Wonder can encompass a set of associated structures. The pyramids of Giza now clearly qualify, as does Petra, the Great Wall, and many others. Great. And according to this definition, Bagan is back in too. Ah, but it doesn't stop there - suddenly the entire site of Angkor would count rather than just Angkor Wat. Historic city centres from around the world - Prague, Venice, Brugge - are in. And this is too much. I love the historic hearts of cities, and would gladly tour these for months or years, but I think it's a stretch to call any of them individual World Wonders. They may contain individual buildings that qualify, but the entire city centre doesn't. There's just too much happening there: too many buildings with too many functions and purposes; too much of an experience as a whole.

I find myself then with a difficult conundrum: too strict a definition and I severely dilute my list; too loose a definition and I dilute what the essence of a Wonder is. Where do I draw this fine line to get the right balance? What differentiates visiting a ruined city, like Bagan, from a living city, like New York or Prague? Because, no doubt, there is a difference.

And that difference, as suggested above, is the experience. There is a more singular experience when visiting city ruins than when visiting a living, breathing city. With ruins, the many buildings, which once had a variety of functions, have become even. Some may be grander, some may be more beautiful, but functionally they have become the same. All ruins are equal in terms of function. They are reminders: they evoke a different time and a past civilisation. And they can be fantastic at this. But functionally, and practically for the visitor, they do little else. At best, some are still used as part-time temples. In comparison, a living city has a wide range of buildings with a wide range of functions, and thus has a wide range of experiences. There's a lot more do to, there are many different ways to spend your day. Hell, you can live there. The possibilities are diverse.

And that's it - there is no unity of experience. A city can be an amazing place, but it is not a single experience. Ask two different visitors about Bagan - they might have very different opinions, but they will have had comparable experiences. They will have visited a variety of temples - and that's it. Sure, they might have done it on bicycle, or by horse-and-cart, but the experience of having looked at, wandered through, clambered up, and no doubt shrugged off some touts will be similar. Unlike New York, people don't visit Bagan for the shopping or the dining or the entertainment, they visit it to simply wander and look. Sure, a sightseer in New York might do the same, but their experiences will still be greatly different due to the life and variety of the city. Even a visitor to a more compact city centre, such as Prague, will have a greater diversity of experience, because there is more to do - eating, shopping, living, doing business are all possible. But in Bagan, as with other ruined cities, there is just seeing. It is a focussed experience.

Focus is a key part of what determines a Wonder. For a single structure, it is very easy - one building, one Wonder, one focus, like the Taj Mahal. This easily expands to a close set of associated structures, such as the pyramids of Giza. For a city, the single visual focus is not there, but if the experience is singular and focussed then I believe it qualifies. So visiting Bagan, visiting Roman ruins, visiting the many parts of the Great Wall of China are single experiences. I would hope that visiting Easter Island will be likewise - I'll no doubt find out. But New York City is not a focussed experience; instead visiting its landmarks such as  the Empire State Building or the Statue of Liberty are the sights and experiences within the city. A smaller historic city centre is also a sprawl of sights and experiences contained within a dynamic area with a variety of functions and purposes. A terrific place to visit - but not a single entity or Wonder.

Taking into consideration the single focus of experience, I can draw up a list of definitions to hopefully answer the question, "What qualifies as a Wonder." Thus, as concise as possible, these are my qualifying attributes when qualifying a Wonder:
1. It must be man-made.
2. There must be a single focus, either:
     a. visually; that is, a single structure or set of associated structures
 or b. experientially; that is, a unity of purpose within the varied structures that comprise the Wonder, that constitute a non-diverse experience for visitors.
With that, Bagan is allowed back into my list of Wonders (and, at the time of writing, the number 5), something I always felt should be the case, but didn't have a defined justification to back it up. Future visits to places such as the Kremlin and Leptis Magna don't need to be bothered with concerns about whether or not they count. And there are no issues with entire cities, or even more compact city centres, for all their diverse joys of life and possibilities, being considered as single Wonders on a technicality.

The only slight grey area remaining is that of Angkor Wat and the overall ruins of Angkor. Although the overall area of Angkor is way too large and spread out to be considered a single Wonder, the central area of Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom (including Bayon), Ta Prohm and Preah Khan is certainly small enough to be cycled around in a day, and could certainly be considered a single experience. But even from a hot air balloon (as I discovered) they can't all be seen together, and Angkor Wat is very much the dominant part. For now, I'll keep Angkor Wat as the Wonder.

1 comment:

  1. Not sure if you'll see this comment what with this post being put up nearly three years ago but I found what you've written really useful when I was having the same issues with my own wonder list.

    The one I'm still struggling with is the Temple of the Emerald Buddha/Grand Palace as compared to things like the Kremlin or Topkapi Palace. For some reason I see the Temple and Chakri Maha Prasat as separate landmarks even though they're in the Grand Palace complex while I see the Kremlin and Topkapi as one. Entirely inconsistent I know and it does my OCDesque tendencies no good at all!

    Did you ever consider things like major squares for your list (e.g. Tiananmen, Times, Trafalgar)?