There’s something about great construction works that stir the blood. Magnificent cathedrals, bridges that span vast rivers, castles and skyscrapers, they all stand as monuments to human achievement. I remember watching the tragedy of the Notre Dame cathedral fire unfold and thinking how devastating the loss of such an iconic piece of history. Every time I see that great church I think of Charles Laughton swinging down from the bell tower to rescue his fair maiden, declaring sanctuary as the hunchback took refuge in the tower with his beautiful prize.
More recently, I watched Queen Elizabeth arriving at Windsor Castle for her own piece of sanctuary during the COVID-19 lockdown and marvelled at the resilient structure that has stood for 900 years and has protected kings and queens through the ages. Castles and palaces abound in Britain and having been born and raised in England, I still have a great sense of pride in these truly wonderful structures and the pageantry and history that surrounds them. I’m certain that most Brits feel the same way, just as the French must revere their cathedrals and chateaus, the Louvre and grand palaces like Versailles. Yet, as I got to thinking about this, I started to wonder how it is that such symbols of elite power could inspire pride in the hearts of the masses. Like most great monuments, they are built on the backs of the underprivileged and impoverished.
Throughout history, people of wealth and power have exploited society’s weakest and used them to build ever more wealth and power, symbolised by great edifices and grand architecture. Absolute monarchies and military dictatorships had long ruled the world before modern democracies evolved to give some measure of control to the people. I say “some measure of control” because we are still largely at the mercy of the rich and powerful, and in many countries, just as oppressed as those who struggled through the middle ages. It took a revolution in France to place their palaces in the hands of the masses. A civil war in Britain eventually ended in a compromise, handing power to an elected parliament while leaving wealth with the aristocrats and the crown.
It wasn’t just kings, queens and emperors that manipulated the vulnerable to build their riches, churches acquired vast amounts of wealth and power and took a leading role in controlling the population. While the poor underclass lived without basic needs, they were taxed and stripped of meagre assets to fund grand churches, monasteries and temples of every faith throughout the world. It’s a story repeated; the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Even today, churches are some of the world’s wealthiest organisations while parts of their flocks suffer great hardship.
While the vast majority of the world’s population have at some time lived in poverty and ill health, the privileged classes have taken advantage, building extravagant constructions to immortalise themselves in time. Many of the most vulnerable paid the ultimate price. It has been estimated that the Great Wall of China was built at the expense of at least 500,000 lives, not to mention the cost in pain and misery. The great pyramids of Egypt would tell a similar story as would most of the world’s great wonders.
Great projects at the expense of lives are not confined to ancient history. Modern feats of extraordinary endeavour have continued to place a heavy toll on those tasked with their construction. Over 120,000 workers lost their lives building the Suez Canal. America’s Trans-Continental railway cost 1,200 lives, and while everyone knows of the death toll when the twin towers came down, building the World Trade Centre took 60 lives from the ranks of construction workers. Qatar’s 2022 world cup construction projects have so far claimed 34 lives, but independent estimates put the number at well over 1000 when cardiovascular deaths due to heat exhaustion are taken into account. Whichever way you want to put it, it’s too high a price for poor migrant workers to pay so the rich can play games.
So, why is it that we can look at a grand tomb or a palace built by a king and experience wonder and awe, pride in a heritage that surely left our ancestors begging on the streets and burying their dead? Surely we could be forgiven for tearing them down and leaving them in ruins.
Surely we could be forgiven for tearing them down and leaving them in ruins!
Perhaps we recognise the human cost and want to let them stand as reminders. Or, maybe it’s simply our admiration for what human beings can achieve in the very worst of conditions, recognition of the blood, sweat and tears, the sacrifices made by ordinary men and women that stirs our love for such monuments.
What those in power sought to have built were tributes to themselves, legacies to immortalise them as great men and women. But, what they got instead are lasting memorials to the ingenuity, graft and sacrifice of those whose names are not written in stone. They are the men women and children who suffered to achieve their immortality, and it’s to them we pay tribute when we look on with awe and admire these extraordinary national treasures.
The exploitation of the common man is far from ended; the rich and powerful still rule the world and those less fortunate continue to pay the price.
We are still building monuments, modern monoliths of glass and steel that soar skyward to the heavens. The exploitation of the common man is far from ended; the rich and powerful still rule the world and those less fortunate continue to pay the price. The world’s richest 1% owns 44% of the world’s wealth. In 2018, 26 people owned as much wealth as the bottom 50% of the world’s population. But, that’s a story for another time.