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Apocalypse soon?

Civilisations always rise and fall — ours is no exception

Is the world coming to an end? Children of the last century had cause to ask themselves that question, with the nightmare of nuclear bombs looming over their lives. Perhaps atomic warfare was always a madness too far even in the surreal conflicts of the Cold War, but its shadow fell everywhere.

For those, like me, who grew up in the wake of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the promise of a different, more hopeful world has rapidly receded. 9/11 brought back all the paranoia and proxy warfare of the last century, and still disaster after disaster has unfolded. The economy collapsed in 2008, never to fully recover. Hopes that climate change would be met with a radical global response have utterly perished, with hollow and inadequate promises still echoing from a dozen pointless summits. Authoritarianism has advanced globally, with China being hailed as a model of non-democratic modernisation and economic development. Now Russia has invaded Ukraine, hammering away at the creaking structure of the liberal world order. 

All the assumptions and certainties that I was born into about where the world was going, and what I could expect in my life are under violent interrogation by events. More locally, Britain itself is fraying at the edges, with Northern Ireland and Scotland starting to pull away from the Union. Economically, productivity is plummeting, the cost of living is spiralling upwards, trust in institutions has collapsed, debt has rocketed and young people are locked out of the housing market. 

With so much disaster and dread massing on the horizon, it’s a compelling moment in which to revisit a text that we’re all aware of, but very few of us have ever read: the Book of Revelation (or The Apocalypse, for Orthodox and Catholics). “The time is near,” it announces. How are we to think of that, reading a 2000 year old text? The world clearly didn’t end, and the time was not near. Or was it? 

Today, every one of these cities is a ruin

Last week I returned from a trip to Turkey, where I visited the churches mentioned by St John in the Book of Revelation. The author of the book addresses his apocalyptic work as a letter to seven ancient cities: “What thou seest, write in a book, and send it unto the seven churches which are in Asia; unto Ephesus, and unto Smyrna, and unto Pergamos, and unto Thyatira, and unto Sardis, and unto Philadelphia, and unto Laodicea.” (Revelation 1: 11)

These cities were unbelievably wealthy. Sardis, for example, was once ruled by Croesus, whose name entered history as a byword for extreme wealth. The cities of Asia Minor were ideally situated, near quarries of stone and marble, mines full of iron and precious metals, fields bursting with grain, hillsides covered in olive trees and vineyards. They lay at the end of the silk road, and the trade between Europe and Asia flowed through them. 

Not only the wealth, but the technological, political and intellectual sophistication of these cities was extraordinarily apparent, even 2000 years later. Archaeologists have excavated them extensively, with more revealed every day. The cities that we now see primarily date from the peak of their size and wealth, during the golden age of the Roman Empire, when commerce and Imperial sponsorship exalted them to unparalleled power and prosperity. These were cities carefully planned by Greek and Roman architects, with internal plumbing, sewers, public baths, miles of aqueducts, vast theatres dug into the hillsides, libraries and temples of elegant marble, covered stone colonnades, and huge agoras where debate and commerce echoed. 

It seems extraordinary that anyone in these great cities heeded St John, when he condemned them for pride, idolatry and fornication, or mocked their riches and said, “you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind and naked”. No doubt, surrounded by the outward signs of wealth, peace and the overwhelming power of the Roman Empire, many of their inhabitants believed their lives would continue in the same fashion forever, scaling ever greater heights of comfort and earthly splendour. But today, every one of these cities is a ruin inhabited by lizards and wild dogs. 

The ruins of the Temple of Artemis at Sardis, Turkey (Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images)

Earthquakes, and invasions by Arabs, Turks and Mongols, saw the seven proud cities reduced to rubble. The Earth may still spin on its axis, and new metropolises are exploding into existence across Turkey, but the world known by these men and women certainly came to an end. Whilst we accept, to a degree, our own individual mortality, many — especially secular humanists — find comfort in the transhistorical reality of human culture, history and memory. Even if we as individuals must die, surely our culture, worldview and ideology is immortal? 

As a few of my British pounds were multiplied into huge Turkish meals, hotel rooms and bus journeys, I was reminded of the fact that I’m in the globally fortunate one per cent of one per cent — who was I to complain of disaster amidst historically unprecedented plenty? Not that Turkey is a poor country by global standards, indeed; at least till recently, its economy has been booming. 

Izmir (Smyrna to the Greeks), is the only one of the seven cities to have a city of any note carry on its name. It has gone from a modest bustling port of 60,000, to a vast warren of over four million inhabitants, drawn from Turkey’s swiftly growing, young and well-educated population. They are descending on cities like Izmir in search of the jobs created by the global economy. Turkey is a massive exporter, currently manufacturing (amongst other things) a third of British TVs. 

Nor, despite the authoritarianism of Erdogan, was there much evidence of stern conservative Islamic rule. There were fewer headscarves in evidence than you’d find in the streets of London, and other than the much-ignored call to prayer echoing over the streets, you’d be hard-pressed to distinguish it from any other European city on the Mediterranean shore. 

Two images were overlaid: a vast global economy, with Starbucks on every corner and mobile phones in every hand, timeless and inexorable, a system too vast to die — and these unearthly ruins, pale and elegant and terrible in the blazing sun, pillars rising like proud skeletons announcing the triumph of ruin and entropy. 

The lesson of the seven cities rings mutely out: wealth can flit away, gone as mysteriously as it came; terrible armies can boil up from beyond the horizon and ravage your city; the very earth and elements can rebel and the earth can swallow up all you have ever loved. 

Disaster and catastrophe are recurrent and cyclical in St John’s Apocalypse

Returning to Britain, with its soft glow under a gentler sun, and plunging joyously into the Platinum Jubilee, it was easy to reassure myself that I lived in a “fortress built by Nature for herself Against infection and the hand of war”. But barely a year ago this country was still in the clutches of the Pandemic, and war has come again to Europe — “power was given to him that sat thereon to take peace from the earth”. 

It’s nothing but historical hubris to imagine that Britain, or the liberal democratic world order that we helped build, is immune to the cyclical tendencies of entropy and disaster. So what does Revelation have to teach us?

Although there have always been credulous millenarians and fundamentalists desperate to force the words of Revelation to fit present circumstances, the real gift of the text, even for a secular reader, is its universal and timeless significance. Disaster and catastrophe are recurrent and cyclical in St John’s Apocalypse, and the face of evil is perpetually shifting and evolving. Not only our own lives, but the civic and collective immortality of human culture is subject to death and decay. Apocalypse confronts us with death at its true, terrifying scale: at the level of societies and civilisations. 

But something curious occurs in the unmasking of the mortality of human culture — the soul of the individual rediscovers its immortality. Revelation, for all its surreal and fantastical imagery, is a frighteningly practical document: its purpose is to give men and women the strength to endure torture, persecution and death without abandoning their principles.

We shouldn’t be hypnotised by the shining cities, by the veneer of civilisation and technological sophistication. It’s worth a trip to Ephesus to learn this lesson. As I walked along the flagstones still marked by the wheels of chariots, surrounded by the lost glories of the ancient world, I was under the most powerful spell. The ancient world that all my western cultural baggage encouraged me to revere and romanticise was all around me. 

Statue of Arete at the Library of Celsus, in the ancient city of Ephesus (Izmir, Turkey. Photo by Mahmut Serdar Alakus/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Before me reared up the most seductive symbol of all: the Library of Celsus. One of the very largest libraries of the ancient world, it was once filled with plays, poetry and philosophy. Standing upon the façade were four female statues depicting Sophia (wisdom), Episteme (knowledge), Ennoia (intelligence) and Arete (excellence). Here was a monument to human reason, a temple to humanity at its most refined and brilliant. Even compared to the technological and economic might of modernity, it’s hard not to feel awe at the unearthly skill of Greek sculptors, the elegance of their buildings and books, the poetic sense that seems to run through every aspect of their ordinary lives. 

And yet. These were the same streets St Paul walked, the same agora where he preached. Only a short walk from that building that embodied all that the liberal enlightenment had venerated, was the theatre. Yes, the place where Aeschylus and Europides had rung out, where the poetry of Hesiod and Homer was declaimed. But also where wild animals fought for the amusement of the crowd, where prisoners were humiliated, tortured and killed. 

The shining cities, luxurious and refined, were built on blood-drenched conquest and the labour of thousands of slaves. These were the cities that human reason built, and they were torn down by the forces of nature and the violence of rival armies. As Tom Holland wrote about in Dominion, we’re all the inheritors of an ethics that descends from Judaism and Christianty — we’ve quite forgotten that there was a world before that. 

Greco-Roman pagans were refined, dignified, tolerant and idealistic, certainly, but they had no compunction about the subjugation of the weak by the strong — they regarded this as natural, and even morally and metaphysically just. Helpless infants were exposed and killed if they were burdensome or disabled. Slaves could be beaten, tortured, raped and executed at the whim of their masters. The humiliation and pain of defeated enemies was a form of mass entertainment, and was a spectacle to be enjoyed even by the most refined philosopher or artist. 

Reading the Bible that great aid to the weak and the oppressed, the poor and meek the white pillars of the temples and the elegant arch of the theatre were suddenly cast in a sinister, gory light. And this is what the text of Revelation, this great book of inversions, was intended to effect in the reader: “These are they which came out of great tribulation, and have washed their robes, and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” In the ancient pre-Christian world, purity is secured by power — but for the author of Revelation, the powerless martyr is the one who conquers, and it is the blood of the innocent which washes clean the souls of the victims. 

We’re so used to placing our sympathies with the underdog, and valorising the struggles of the weak and oppressed, that we risk forgetting how exceptional such a perspective is in human history. And in an increasingly secular age, we have dangerously defined our civilisation by the material progress it has made rather than by the ethical principles we uphold.

Beyond the end of the world stands the one who can endure it: not the temple or the library, but the human person. Revelation invites us to build a civilisation that integrates the tragic understanding of entropy, but oriented towards an eternal hope: “And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.”

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