The dead man lay sprawling on the floor. His fingers were curled into a ball, shielding his head from the ground. His hair would have blown in the breeze, had there been any inside the British Museum. Somehow, he’d made his way there after 5,000 years.
Tourists came and went, a blur of people and languages from around the globe. They snapped pictures and stared in awe of the mummified person on the floor. “The living,” I thought, “are dancing around the dead.” It all seemed a bit macabre.
I didn’t have the heart to take my own photo.
I turned my camera, instead, to the other galleries of the museum—a colossal collection of antiquity frozen in time. The first room alone sucked me in for 30 minutes, under the shadow of a 3,000 year old statue of Ashurnasirpal. But the Assyrian king’s image was just the first of an incomprehensible list of famous names from the tomes of history.
Artifacts from Ramses, Cleopatra, Alexander, Caesar, and Ptolemy littered the aisles. The ruins of ancient wonders laid themselves bare before my eyes. I walked through the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus, beside the roof of the Parthenon, and around the foundations of the Temple of Artemus at Ephesus.
All of this is to say that, yes, I was paying attention in history class. And if you were the type of person to do the same, the British Museum will overwhelm you.
It’s the kind of place where the Rosetta Stone is sort of casually lying around, where a 5,000 year old mummified man is hardly worth note at all—he’s just sort of there, in the corner of a library beside an array of rusted tools that some farmer pulled out of a bog.
The British Museum is incredible. It’s also insane.
As I strolled through its corridors, I formed two distinct and diverging opinions about the place: one, that you could travel the world for a lifetime and never see wonders like the ones gathered here. Two, that the British Empire oversaw the greatest crime spree in the history of humanity.
“A lot of people feel that way,” said Gabby, as we rounded the top of Tower Hill. A few hours after the museum, we were in the midst of London Night Tour part II. “The Greeks and the Egyptians want their stuff back. I can see that, but I can also see that if it hadn’t been collected it might not still exist.”
She’s right, I suppose. In a world where ancient artifacts are destroyed by religious sects, it’s unlikely that at least some of those wonders would still be around if they hadn’t been packed in a crate and shipped to London.
The top of Tower Hill has several features: All Hallow’s by the Tower, a church on the spot where hundreds were executed for their crimes over centuries, the remains of the ancient Roman wall at Londinium, and a view of the Tower of London, where yet more people were executed for their crimes over centuries. It’s a spooky place at night, especially with a full moon rising over the Thames. And as we walked down towards the river below, I thought back to the dead man.
5,000 years. He was older than almost every statue and tablet in the place—a reminder that no matter how high we rise, we all turn back to dirt.
Notes: London is in the rearview. I’m off to France for a few days at the home of Matthieu and Anna, who have a fantastic AirBnB in Brittagne. Travel tip: cheap flights from London will land your Boeing 787 in a field for about $20. That field is a great way to get into France, as you’ll skip the long lines at major airports for two guys with rubber stamps that pose as customs. From that field, you can rent a small, European car for around $30 a day (provided you can drive a 5-speed.)
While I did drive some in the U.K., something feels right about a steering wheel on the left hand side and a manual transmission on your right. Matthieu and Anna don’t speak fluent English, but they’ve got a great dog and a crazy American neighbor who apparently has guns or fireworks or both. Since I’ve got fast wifi for once, we’ll get along fine.
I’ve booked the new Souled Out car for at least three days, but the idea of a trans-Franco road trip is starting to grow on me after skipping the airport lines via the countryside. As always, feel free to chip in to the Souled Out gas fund…it helps more than you think!
Tout a l’heure. -JS