Roads—Arteries of Civilization
FROM time immemorial, people have kept in touch with one another by means of a vast web of trails, roads, and highways. These testify to man’s desire to travel and trade—and also to make war and build empires. Yes, roads reveal a darker side of human nature as well.
The history of roads, from the time that foot and hoof pounded out the earliest trails to our modern multilane expressways, is more than a tour into the past. It is also a study of the human spirit.
“The first serious road builders,” says The New Encyclopædia Britannica, “probably were the Mesopotamians.” These people dwelt in the region of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Their processional roads, this source adds, “were paved roadways in which burnt brick and stone were lain in bituminous mortar.” The description is reminiscent of what the Bible says of early construction materials: “Brick served as stone for them, but bitumen served as mortar.”—Genesis 11:3.
For the ancient Israelites to fulfill their religious obligations, roads were vital. Nearly 1,500 years before the birth of Jesus Christ, the Israelites were commanded: “Three times in the year every male of yours should appear before Jehovah your God [to celebrate a spiritual festival] in the place that he will choose.” (Deuteronomy 16:16) That place came to be Jerusalem, and often whole families would attend these joyous occasions. Good roads were a necessity!
Evidently, the major arteries were well built. The Jewish historian Flavius Josephus said of Solomon, who reigned a thousand years before the birth of Christ: “He did not neglect the care of the ways, but he laid a causeway of black stone along the roads that led to Jerusalem.”
Israel had six cities of refuge that gave asylum to accidental manslayers. The roads to these cities were also kept in good repair. And Jewish tradition indicates that well-maintained signposts pointing to the nearest city of refuge were set at every intersection.—Numbers 35:6, 11-34.
Roads became vital to the spread of commerce, and one of the most desired commodities of ancient times was silk. It is said that long before the Israelites became a nation, the Chinese discovered how to make silk from the thread spun by a worm, but they kept the manufacture of it a secret until after the birth of Christ. Even before then, silk had become so popular in the Western world that according to the book A History of Roads, by Geoffrey Hindley, edicts were issued “to restrain its use by men,” since such use “was considered effeminate.”
The trade route by which silk was transported from China was known as the Silk Road. By the time Marco Polo traveled that road to China toward the end of the 13th century C.E., it had been in existence for 1,400 years. For more than 2,000 years, the Silk Road was the longest in the world. The route stretched some 8,000 miles [12,800 km] from Shanghai, China, the home of silk, to Gades (modern Cádiz), Spain.
The greatest strides in road building grew from an appetite for empire. The road system of the Roman Empire under the Caesars, for example, spread throughout Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East to an estimated total of 53,000 miles [80,000 km]. When Roman soldiers were not engaged in wars, they were sometimes put to work building and repairing roads.
The importance of roads in conquest was also illustrated in recent times. Adolf Hitler’s quest for domination of other peoples was rapidly accelerated by his program, begun in 1934, of building the autobahn. According to historian Hindley, this program gave Germany “the world’s first network of motor expressways.”
Road Building—A Science
Roman surveyors, using an instrument called a groma, laid out roads that were as straight as arrows. Masons chiseled out highly artistic milestones, and engineers set a weight limit on freight. The roads had a foundation and a durable surface. But the key ingredient in their longevity was a brilliant system of drainage that was enhanced by a slight curvature as well as by the road’s elevation above the surrounding countryside. Thus the term “highway” was coined. Shops even sold road maps.
“Confronted with the achievement of the Romans as road-builders,” says a historian, “a writer is bound to find himself fighting off superlatives, and it is doubtful whether any other single monument from Man’s past has been of more lasting service than the roads of Italy.”
The Appian Way, which runs south from Rome, is, according to the book A History of Roads, “the first stretch of paved road of any length in the history of Western man.” This famous highway averaged 20 feet [6 m] in width and was paved with large lava blocks. While en route to Rome as a prisoner, the apostle Paul traveled over this road, parts of which are still used today.—Acts 28:15, 16.
Many may find the road-building skills of early South American Indians equally amazing. From the 1200’s to the 1500’s, the Incas built a network of 10,000 miles [16,000 km] of roads, which united a nation of nearly 10,000,000 people. These roads cut through some of the most inhospitable and rugged terrain imaginable, traversing desert and rain forest and even crossing the mighty Peruvian Andes!
Regarding one road, The New Encyclopædia Britannica reports: “The Andes route was remarkable. The roadway was 25 feet (7.5 metres) wide and traversed the loftiest ranges with cutbacks and easy gradients. It included galleries cut into solid rock and retaining walls built up for hundreds of feet to support the roadway. Ravines and chasms were filled with solid masonry and suspension bridges with wool or fibre cables crossed the wider mountain streams. The surface was of stone in most areas and asphaltic materials were used extensively.”
The horse was unknown to the Incas, but their network of roads provided them with what has been called “a veritable running track for the royal messengers.” One historian noted: “Along the whole length were staging posts, about a mile and a half [2 km] apart, each housing a small garrison and a relay of professional runners. Each stage was sufficiently short for a rapid relay and, operating day and night, the service could carry a message from the capital at Cuzco to the city of Quito, 1,250 miles [2,000 km] away, in a matter of five days. This meant averaging ten miles [15 km] an hour along a road never less than 15,000 feet [4,000 m] above sea level—a speed never achieved by the regular Roman imperial post!”
Source of Tragedies
Arteries of the human body can become clogged, and this can result in tragic consequences. So, too, roads that have served to improve the quality of life can become clogged and contribute to lowering it. Roads through rain forest, wilderness, bush, and national parks take their toll on wildlife. And often native peoples and their forest homes suffer too. Says the book How We Build Roads: “The Trans-Amazonian Highway, though undertaken in the name of progress, destroyed large areas of rainforest and was a disaster for many of the people living in the forest, as it destroyed their whole way of life.”
Cities too are experiencing a savage backlash as each year more vehicles clog urban arteries. Eventually, if funds are available, an expressway is built. But in the long term, these roadways encourage more traffic, which increases the pollution that is sickening millions. What is more, some 500,000 people worldwide are killed in road accidents annually, and another 15 million are injured, some horribly. By comparison, World War I took the lives of about nine million combatants. But then that war stopped. Death on the roads, on the other hand, is death by installment—more than 1,000 deaths a day, day after day after day!
Yes, in many ways our roads are a statement about us—a character reference spelling out our strengths and our weaknesses. They also tell what we think of this magnificent planet that has been entrusted to our care.
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The Appian Way, traveled by the apostle Paul, is still in use
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About 500,000 die in road accidents worldwide each year