Henceforth, let the inhabitants of the world be divided into two classes – them as has seen the Taj Mahal; and them as hasn’t.
Edward Lear, Indian Journal
This garden, this place on the river’s bank,
These carved doors and walls, this arch, this vault—what are they?
The mocking of the love of our poor
By an emperor propped upon his wealth.
My love, meet me somewhere else.
Sahir Ludhianvi (translated by Carlo Coppola with MHK Qureshi),
Did I really see the Taj Mahal? Of course, I did. After all, I have the memories, the photographs, the companions to prove it. Documents, records, and witness statements could be found. Our driver might have kept his receipts. The hotel might still have a registration on its books. Some might suspect, however, that I never properly visited the tomb of the Mughal empress Mumtaz Mahal and her bereaved husband Shah Jahan at all. It could be that I sleepwalked through a pre-set sequence of perceptions and feelings dictated by the millions of travellers who preceded me. The marble tomb with its floral pietra dura inlays; the flanking minarets; the stately mosque to one side; the manicured char bagh gardens lined with cypresses between mausoleum and gate; the sluggish, depleted Yamuna flowing behind with the forlorn estate on its far bank – how much do I remember, and how much consists of a pack of mental overlays imprinted by a thousand other images and narratives? In suspicious hindsight, the blazing illumination of discovery may feel like nothing more than a commonplace case of déjà vu.
Any biography has its peaks and troughs, its sparkling summits and its dreary plains. And, for the past two-and-a-half centuries, people of some material means – first largely in the West, then around the globe – have come to believe that voyages represent the best, or fastest, way to scale those peaks of experience. I learned to share that often unreflecting faith. I came to want, even need, travel, like any conforming Western consumer. During the pandemic lockdowns I sorely missed it. And with the belief that voyages should punctuate a fulfilled life like exclamation marks goes the conviction that some marks stand taller than others.
The urge to erect a hierarchy of must-see monuments long predates the Enlightenment and Romantic eras that turned travel for personal enrichment into a mass pursuit. The first lists of ‘Seven Wonders of the World’ began to appear from Greek writers in the second century BCE. Around 140 BCE, the poet Antipater of Sidon drew up the original ‘bucket list’ of top destinations. He boasted of having set eyes on ‘the wall of lofty Babylon’ and its hanging gardens, marvelled at ‘the huge labour of the high pyramids’, admired the Colossus of Rhodes, and so on. The original Seven Wonders cult coincided with the pacification of the Mediterranean and much of the Near East under Roman rule, enforced by Rome’s Hellenistic client states. The intimate links between tourism and empires (of various kinds) go back at least two millennia.