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367. Dispersion (VI)

The temple complex is a square within a square within a square; in the centre lies a small circle—the central chamber where ceremonies took place. There are four entrances to the temple that all run directly to the central chamber. “They talk about squaring the circle, but these people have circled the square,” quipped one early archaeologist at the site, in reference to a faint circle that runs around the square’s exterior. The comment has become an archeological boilerplate and any book you picked up on the subject—from an advanced textbook to a tourist guide—features the little quotation.

The complex was discovered in 1936, but this initial discovery did not become public until well into the 21st century. What had happened was that a goatherd had stumbled across the complex as an adolescent; he chased after a kid that had become separated from the herd. As it happened, a sandstorm had gripped the desert that month and it had uncovered the temple complex for the first time in centuries and centuries—for, as you know, the complex goes back to long before the Egyptians and long before any civilisation we know on earth.

The goatherd told his family and a few people in neighbouring tribes he met on his wanderings with the herd. A French colonial official noted it in his diary, but he saw it as a curiosity not worth investigation; a PhD student found his entry a few years ago and publicised it—if the man had taken it seriously we would have known about the temple complex sometime in 1938; and it is tempting to imagine how different the world might have been had we known it then.

The complex is often described as “a mystery” and, naturally, it has attracted a great many cranks and profiteers over the last few decades. You are familiar with the sort: proponents of ancient astronaut mythologies or inter-dimensional travellers from Sirius. Nonetheless, the temple complex is a genuine mystery; for a start, it is constructed entirely from sand—and yet it has stood, barely eroded and degraded, for century upon century. I have run my hand along its walls and it reminds me—though very smooth—of the sandcastles I used to play with on the beach as a child. Of course, the sand has been stained and decorated in various way, so it is not plain and unadorned. Indeed, aside from the mystery of how this compacted sand has remained untouched for aeons we are faced with the mystery presented by the glyphs and patterns on the temple walls.

The time was that there were a few men—highly intelligent and reclusive—who would, after day job as an architect or nuclear technician, pick up facsimiles of ancient manuscripts and decode forgotten languages. These men were, frankly, eccentric; they would only eat boiled eggs for every meal—some poisoned themselves young or drove their cars off isolated quays into the ocean. For us archaeologists, though we could never admit it, such men were the only ones who could decipher lost languages; and, sad to report, though my colleagues will not admit it, such men no longer exist and have not existed for many decades.

This is why, in my view—and I may speak freely, for I retire next year—we have not penetrated this desert mystery, despite all the decades of work at the site. The type of man who could grasp our problem no longer exists. This is why the mystery of the complex will go unresolved; perhaps it is not for our civilisation to discover what this civilisation—lost beyond time and memory—really thought and felt about the world. For now, we must settle for our somewhat childish attempts to draw inferences from the images on the temple’s walls, though images can mislead to a very high degree; and, truly, I count all attempts—even mine, so celebrated by the academy—as childish in this regard; perpetual mystery.


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