The Inherent Contradictions of The Forgotten City
The story in The Forgotten City revolves around the close relationship between the cultures of ancient Rome, Greece, Egypt, and Sumeria. Historically, what seems to be a Roman city turns out to actually be a Greek city that was built on top of an Egyptian city, that was built on top of a Sumerian city. I mean this quite literally; the cities have apparently been buried and then rebuilt in the game, instead of being demolished beforehand, the message that all these cultures are basically just variations of each other couldn’t be more clearly communicated. The point is that all of them grew from the same stock, like how Pluto, Hades, Osiris, and Nergal are in fact one and the same god that happens to be known by a bunch of different names.
The fact is that Romans, Greeks, Egyptians, and Sumerians had a lot more in common. Their cultures weren’t duplicates of each other, but these people definitely drew inspiration from what they saw in the world around them. The result was a kind of cultural convergence. As an archaeologist, I’ve spent a lot of time studying how ideas are shaped and reshaped as they travel from place to place; Nergal became Osiris, then Hades, and eventually Pluto because of shared beliefs about life after death, which emerged from constant contact between Sumerians, Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans over the course of several centuries. In that regard, the story in The Forgotten City is a pretty accurate perspective on the past.
But the aesthetics don’t measure up though. Take a look around in the splendorous locales of The Forgotten City, and you’ll see a significant difference between the Roman and Greek cities on one hand, and the Egyptian and Sumerian cities on the other. While the former two are blindingly white, the latter couple are covered with colour. Structures in the Roman and Greek cities are completely made out of lily white marble. You can see some paint on the interiors, but they’re otherwise bare, apart from a few streaks of red and blue. But the same can’t be said about the Egyptian and Sumerian cities. These are supposed to have been scoured by the sand, but you can still make out the traces of paint.
The reason for this goes back to conversations about colour in ancient Rome and Greece that began in the nineteenth century. People have never wanted to accept that buildings in these two places were painted. In fact, the curator of a museum in Germany, Georg Treu, opened this debate by publishing a study under the title, “Should We Paint Our Statues”? The answer he received from curators around the world was a resounding “no”; it was simply not believable that Roman and Greek cities were covered with colour, But this was a different matter with Egyptian and Sumerian cities, however.
Why has there always been so much resistance towards accepting that Roman, Greek, Egyptian, and Sumerian cities were all smeared with paint? You just don’t see this in The Forgotten City. The former two are blindingly white. The latter two are covered with colour. The answer to this question basically boils down to orientalist assumptions about western and eastern civilisation: the western Romans and Greeks as opposed to the eastern Egyptians and Sumerians. Western civilisation has always been seen as refined and sophisticated, and the east being considered, even today, immature and ostentatious. The fact that cities were covered with colour in all four of these places really rubbed them the wrong way: they just had to be different. This worldview became so deeply entrenched over time that people just stopped questioning it.
That doesn’t change how the cultures of ancient Rome, Greece, Egypt, and Sumeria were all closely related. For one, Romans and Greeks would have been very different people without the influence of Egyptians and Sumerians, which would have been evident in the cities they built. In fact, they might not have built cities in the first place, a lineage that can be traced back to Sumeria where they seem to have grown from the need for centralised planning while irrigating fields.
Fundamentally at odds
For these reasons that are rooted in orientalism, the aesthetics in The Forbidden City are fundamentally at odds with the story, pulling in completely opposite directions. While the story is about what the cultures of ancient Rome, Greece, Egypt, and Sumeria have in common, the aesthetics imply a distinction between western and eastern civilisation when it comes to their use of colour. The result is a world that never seems to find its footing, because these two critical components are constantly undermining each other. While you’re told in the caves beneath the city that Pluto and Hades are just other names for Osiris and Nergal, you’re shown that Roman and Greek cities sharply contrast with Egyptian and Sumerian ones. It feels like there’s a missed opportunity to impart a more nuanced message in all of this.
You might be thinking at this point that none of this really matters. Who cares after all if people in ancient Rome and Greece played around with paint? But the underlying assumption about the difference between western and eastern civilisation didn’t just disappear over the course of the twentieth century. This represents a problem because it props up the concept of a real distinction between “us” and “them”: the assertion that “our” culture is necessarily opposed to “their” culture. It’s a dangerous idea that is also simply not true.
Similar to the Romans and Greeks on one hand and the Egyptians and Sumerians on the other, Americans and Europeans have a lot more in common with Africans and Asians than you might think. When you go looking for differences, you end up finding more similarities between our cultures instead. In the end, the lines between western and eastern civilisation are a lot blurrier than some people want you to believe.