according to the new york times, on this day in 1923, tutankhamen's tomb was opened in luxor, egypt. according to la jornada today, developers are seeking to build hotels in the archaeological and protected natural area of tulum, in the yucatan peninsula. both circumstances are newsworthy, one thrilling and one very distressing.
i have visited tulum (pronounced "to-loom")only once, almost fifteen years ago, but hope to never forget the afternoon i spent there with two good friends and a dear teacher. the experience remains memorable in part because my favorite redhead, nancie, had managed to either eat or roll around in something very nasty, provoking prodigious allergic rashes all over her lovely, fair skin. it was one of those things that cause the non-sufferer to feel sympathy and sick fascination at the same time. like i said, unforgettable.
but our time there was also significant because, after escaping the crowded, pina colada-pushing resort city of cancun in a rented volkwagen bug, arriving at tulum felt like being led straight to the holy grail. granted, that was more than a decade ago, and i don't know how much has changed. the main street leading up to the ruins was also not free of tourist souvenir shops even then, though they were, nonetheless, worlds better than locales vending knockoff senor frogs t-shirts.
still, it was clear that those who'd made their destination tulum were there to experience, well, tulum. there wasn't a hotel in sight--just the ruins, the beaches, the visitors, and that sublimely turquoise blue water. it was a place for the imagination to soar, for the yearning to know more about these ancient people to expand exponentially inside one's mind. the idea of building hotels there is utterly disheartening.
the value i place on archaeological sites and findings is, in large part i think, a result of personal background. my parents, intentionally or not, raised me with a deep-rooted veneration of the people who lived before us. stories of grandparents, great-great uncles, and myriad distant ancestors have been given a high place of honor in our family's collective memory. i take a good deal of pride in knowing that i and my brother are products of these stories; remembering those people helps me feel like more than a simple individual. we also make use of what they've left behind: china, linens, photographs, jewelry and letters, to name a few examples. but we also take care of those things the best we can.
and that is how i feel about places like tulum. building hotels there is nothing other than a scheme to make money, having nothing to do with taking good care of a national treasure of ancestry. i won't bore you with a list of destructive effects that hotels would have on the area; common sense allows almost anyone to predict them. some may argue that the new accommodations would benefit the local economy and create more opportunities for employment, yet history rebuts that the native population receives very little economic benefit, and the jobs pay an insulting minimum wage. my hope is that the legal system will prevail, its sword being the illegality of building on land that is protected by national decrees, both environmental and archaeological.
but beyond my own reasons for wanting places like tulum to be hotel-free, there exists a larger question behind protecting archaeological discoveries: why should we? i'm sure each of us can rattle off explanations about the importance of preserving our past, keeping us from becoming single-minded capitalist philistines if we don't, or whatever. but what really inspires us to do it?
i'm going to propose that it's this: mystery. no matter how much human beings know about themselves and about each other and about their ancestors, we will always remain somewhat of a mystery to each other. and more importantly, recognizing the mystery keeps us from becoming too sure of ourselves, reminding us that we're not all entirely in control, or with all the answers. it helps us maintain a sense of wonder. it keep us from thinking we're gods. people with god complexes have made famously huge mistakes, and the results seem to have an almost nuclear half-life, radiating damaging social effects for eons.
i think that's why it's necessary to do the best we can to take responsible care of tulum, the treasures of king tut, or any other archaeological gems--because especially in this day and age, we need as much mystery as we can get.