I have a bit of a confession to make. I am an author of science fiction and genre-related stuff. Okay, that’s not much of a confession, but it’s true. My day job consists of writing about space and science, but I’m also a big-time nerd who really loves the classic and hard SF. The stuff that really makes you think and expands your mind, love it! The stuff that does that while also being scientifically plausible, even more so!
As a general rule, I don’t like to talk much about “the process.” But once in a while, I do enjoy getting into discussions with readers and other writers about where ideas and inspiration come from. Both are fickle, but there are some sources that continue to inspire me decades after I began writing.
For example, history, monuments, and ancient cultures— that stuff has a direct line to my inspiration bone! There are countless examples of ancient sites worldwide that are recognized by UNESCO that are a testament to human ingenuity and accomplishments. But it’s the ones we know the least about that are the most fascinating to me!
These are the places shrouded in mystery that remind us just how creative our ancestors were and remind us that there is much about our origins and history that we don’t know. And boy, do I ever love drawing on that whenever I’m putting pen to paper and trying to create worlds of my own!
Here are just a few examples that have inspired me repeatedly over the years…
This ancient city, located in southern Anatolia (Turkey), is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is deeply fascinating for several reasons. First of all, it is the OLDEST known settlement and is dated to the Neolithic Period (ca. 7000 to 1700 CE) — when many societies in Eurasia began transitioning from hunting and gathering to sedentary living and agriculture. The city is believed to have been occupied between 7500 and 6400 CE, reaching its peak around 7000 CE.
Like many settlements in the area that are dated to this period, Çatalhöyük is built atop an earthen mound (a tell, or tele) that facilitated its defense. Archaeologists also theorize that the area once had a flowing river and alluvial clay beds, which would have been fertile lands for agriculture. The disappearance of this river due to shifting weather patterns is also thought to be the reason for why it was abandoned before the third millennium BCE.
Another fascinating aspect of this ancient city is the layout: the houses were built almost shoulder-to-shoulder into the Earth, and the people entered and exited via the roofs. The rooftops were where the people congregated to carry out their trade, ceremonial rites, and other activities rather than in a central plaza or square.
This city is basically a time capsule that lets us know how humans were living during one of the most crucial time periods in our history. It stands among countless sites located from Anatolia to Central Asia. But this one has the honour of being the oldest one we know of.
Teotihuacan is one of the most well-known heritage sites in Mexico and Latin America. The city itself dates back to 600 BCE, and the site remained a scattering of small villages with a maximum population of 6,000 people until 200 BCE. Between the second century BCE and the 8th century CE, the site evolved into a massive urban complex that spread its influence throughout Mesoamerica.
Sometime after 750 CE, the city was abandoned and — like many Mesoamerican ruins —remains a source of wonder and intensive study. To this day, no one is entirely certain what happened to the great city’s builders due to a lack of records. For the most part, what we know of this city comes from the Aztecs, who came upon the the city in the 15th century.
What they had to say about Teotihuacan was steeped in myth and legend. The name itself in Nahuatl means “the place where the gods were created” (or “birthplace of the gods.”) Alongside the Toltec city of. Tula, Teotihuacan was also known as “Tōllān,” which translates to “among the reeds” in Nahuatl. These names reflect how the Aztecs felt about the ruins, thinking that it was both a place of origin and a long-lost capital.
To the Aztecs, from what I’ve learned, the site was both awe-inspiring and fearsome. Not only did it tickle their mystery bone, but it must have spoken to something pervasive in their culture. Basically, the Aztecs knew that their people were interlopers. According to legend, they were a nomadic people that arrived in the Valley of Mexico in the 13th century, and settled around Lake Texcoco.
This massive lake supported large settlements for millennia, but the Aztecs were forced to settle in the southwest part, which was made up of brackish water patches and marshlands. Nevertheless, the Aztecs turned the area into one of the most built-up and densely populated cities in the world over time. By 1427, they had expanded and entered into the Triple Alliance with the neighbouring city-states of Texcoco and Tlacopan.
Soon, their reach extended to the entire Valley of Mexico where they found the traditional lands of the Olmecs, Toltecs, and other civilizations that predated then.
Nevertheless, the Aztecs never quite felt like they belonged and the sight of these ruins must have reminded them of that fact. From what I’ve read, this inspired a sense of fatalism in their culture and the belief that their presence in the Valley needed to be maintained by force and appeasement of the gods – hence all the conquest, tribute, and human sacrifices.
Today, there is still so much we don’t know about these sites and the people that built them, and much of what we’ve learned is the stuff of legends. The same is true of the ancient Mayan cities that dot the Yucatan peninsula (more on that below).
Another site that inspires me immensely is Cahokia, an ancient city site in Illinois. The mound structures there today were once stepped earthen pyramids in a city that housed an estimated 20,000 people. According to archaeologists, the settlement was established between 600 and 700 CE and the pyramids were built three to four centuries later. The city is believed to have reached its peak around by 1050 CE, becoming the largest settlement in the Americas north of Mexico.
By this point, about 120 immense mounds existed within the city limits, covered with and surrounded by buildings and plazas. Archaeologists have also uncovered evidence of large-scale agriculture, a massive central plaza, stockade defenses, ceremonial and burial areas, and large structures. In short, Cahokia was once a thriving city with all the accouterments – like trade networks, ceremonial rites, warfare, and the sciences.
It’s existence is also demonstrative of how Indigenous peoples north of Mexico were in the process of forming large settlements based on agriculture and sedentary living (the cornerstones of “civilization”) in the Pre-Columbian Era. While Cahokia was abandoned before European settlers showed up, nations along the entire eastern seaboard had urbanized, based on the domestication of beans, squash, turkeys, and maize.
This led to the region being “well-people and towned” (by the settler’s own accounts) by the time colonists began showing up by the 17th century. In this respect, Cahokia is symbolic of the transition taking place in pre-Columbian North America. It also inspires one to wonder what would have been had Europeans not conquered and occupied the region, destroying so much of the local peoples and their cultures in the process.
Next up, there’s the ancient temple complex in Cambodia known as Ankor Wat in modern-day Cambodia. This site is the largest religious monument in the world, whose name translates to “Capital of Temples” in Khmer (the native language of Cambodia). The site was constructed by the Khmer Empire in the early 12th century, originally as a Hindu temple dedicated to Vishnu and gradually becoming a Buddhist temple.
As always, what we know about this site is the result of intensive archaeological investigation and cultural research. Whereas the former was subject to all manner of Eurocentric bias, the latter efforts were focused on learning from the ancestors of the builders. In fact, when Europeans began studying the site in the 19th century, they theorized that it must have been built by Alexander the Great or the Romans (in keeping with their imperialist dogma).
Only with time and the deconstruction of such racialized notions of development have western observers come to appreciate that the ancestors of the modern-day Cambodians were “civilized” – i.e., artistically and scientifically gifted – enough to build this temple and many similar structures throughout the region. In fact, Ankor Wat is one of many “wats” in the nation.
And with that knowledge secured, what we’ve learned about Ankor Wat has grown by leaps and bounds, and none of it fails to impress! Every nook, cranny, and restored piece of artwork on the walls tells a story of a great empire in the region created by its indigenous people. And the preserved ruins serve as a reminder of what their proud progeny are capable of doing.
This is one ancient city that I actually had the pleasure of visiting (along with Tulum) when I did some backpacking around southern Mexico in 2006. Chichen Itza is perhaps the best-known and best-preserved example of classical to postclassical Mayan architecture, though the hardcore backpackers would probably insist that Uxmal, Palenque, and others be included — there’s no shortage!
The ruins of this city area testament to the creative and engineering genius of the Mayan people and their continued occupation of the Yucatan peninsula. The city itself is believed to have been inhabited from the 7th to the 13th century CE and housed as many as 50,000 people from very diverse backgrounds. As a major hub in the Yucatan, it would have served as a focal point for trade and brought people from far and wide together.
What is especially intriguing about Chichen Itza is just how many examples of ancient Mayan structures can be found at this one site. Not only is there the stepped Temple of Kukulcán (El Castilo), a ball court, an observatory, a plaza, a steam bath, a warrior’s temple, a long hall of columns, and a plaza, the site combines different styles of architecture that were contributed over the centuries (a testament to its diversity).
Much of what we know about the people who built it comes from their ancestors, the over 6 million of people who live in Southern Mexico today who speak Mayan and maintain many of the traditional cultural traditions. Contrary to popular perception, neither the city nor the culture ever underwent “collapse.” Though the city had experienced a period of decline after the 10th century CE, it was not completely abandoned and experienced a resurgence by the time the Conquistadors arrived in 1526.
And like the many urban centers the Maya built up in the region over the centuries, what remains is both awe-inspiring and sobering. It is a testament to human ingenuity, creativity and a reminder that even the most prominent civilizations eventually decline.
Why are these places and similar ancient sites of such interest to me? Why aren’t places like the Acropolis, the Colosseum, the Forbidden Palace, or the Pyramids? Of course, these places are magnificent and I would love to visit each of them. But the “Tollans” — the places that are steeped in legend and myth — those are the places that really get my blood pumping and my mind going!
Why the difference? Most likely, I think it’s because these monuments are in places where’s there’s been continuous habitation. The progeny of the makers live among the ruins still and see them every day. There really isn’t much mystery to that.
But when it comes to the ruins of ancient cities that were lost or abandoned long ago, there’s that added element of mystery. The progeny of those ancient people live on, of course. But the fact that these places fell into disuse, were reclaimed by the elements, and were subsequently rediscovered gives them a certain power and allure that you just don’t get elsewhere.
What’s more, they speak to the part of me that is deeply interested in origins and how our species came to be. The historical record of our species is filled with gaps and periods that are dark to us. What could be more fun than shining a light into that darkness, never knowing what you were going to find?
Now imagine you were doing that on another planet, searching not for answers about the history and origins of our people but of another intelligent species altogether! What could be more exciting than uncovering evidence of an ancient civilization that predated our own? Not only would there be endless opportunities to learn, but the mere act of discovery would shine a light on the greatest mystery of all!
Is humanity alone in the Universe? Tell me that is not the ultimate stuff of mystery!