The ruins of the Roman Colosseum and other ancient wonders remind us of the glory of lost civilizations, but they also raise many questions. How were they built? How did their infrastructures work? And how did they survive through the ages? Premiering on Feb. 11, the PBS "Nova" series "Building Wonders" aims to provide answers.
"Certain buildings are like snapshots in stone — the physical embodiment of the ideals of a culture at a particular moment in history. If ancient cultures had profile pictures, these buildings would be the image they would project to the world," says Providence Pictures' Gary Glassman, producer of the series that has previously profiled the Parthenon, Sphinx and Great Cathedrals for "Nova" specials. "The three current buildings we feature — Colosseum, Hagia Sophia, and Petra, which is actually an entire city — also symbolize the ideals of the people who built them, have survived for 2,000 years, and continue to spark our imaginations."
Glassman's approach going in was to "rely on the same technique used since humans sat around campfires: spinning a great tale. And these buildings have a great story to tell. How we do that is through a genre we've created that I call documersive, a mashup of classic detective story documentary to discover the context in which these buildings were originally designed and constructed, then immersing the viewer in the real challenges modern scientists and engineers have to overcome to actually building some element of these monuments." His next challenge was "managing three monumental building projects half way around the world, working with scientists, builders, artists, engineers, and the protectors of these world heritage sites."
Toward that end, he had to first secure cooperation, and was "incredibly lucky to connect with people who reacted to these ambitious projects with an unqualified 'Yes!' — from scientists and scholars, public officials and government agents, workers on site, my incredibly talented production colleagues, our partners at ARTE in France, Nova, and PBS."
The first episode, "Colossuem: Roman Death Trap," feeds into the enduring fascination with the culture's bloodthirsty gladiator battles and other deadly forms of entertainment. "We admire the Romans for their engineering and culture and ruling much of the world for more than 500 years. When you see the Colosseum, you can imagine what went on in there and wonder how such an advanced culture could justify what seems to us such savagery," Glassman reflects. "Perhaps we are fascinated by the fact that they didn't try to sanitize the bloodshed it took to bring such prosperity to its citizens and the reason they were able to build such a spectacular empire. They attributed their success to their military might and discipline and they proudly displayed spectacles on the stage of the Colosseum and punished those who dared to question Roman world order."
The episode uses reconstructions to demonstrate how these spectacles, including sea battles and wild animals preying on human victims, were staged. "We actually built a lift and trap door system, installed it in the most famous amphitheater in the world, and released a wolf into the arena for the first time in 1,500 years," Glassman says. "In a way, we built a time machine that gives our audience a glimpse at what it meant to be in the audience in the Colosseum. I think people may be surprised by how the building and the bloody spectacles that took place inside were so important to the success of the Roman Empire, and how the building was consciously designed to achieve the Emperor's political goals, reinforce social hierarchy and maintain Roman world order."
He notes that the Colosseum structure was the prototype for modern-day arenas. "The Super Bowl is a direct descendent of the Colosseum. Perhaps people will be surprised that we may not be so different from the Romans."
As for the second episode, "Petra: Lost City of Stone," the backdrop for a climactic scene in "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade," is about a once-thriving metropolis in the Jordanian desert. "How did ancient people 2,000 years ago carve these temple-like structures and create a whole city in the desert? To find out, a geoscientist and sculptors team up to carve a Petra-like façade in a cliff," Glassman says. "Archaeologists and hydro engineers also discover how the ancient Nabataeans supplied enough water for a city of 30,000 to not only survive, but also display water in fountains and pools, transforming Petra into the Las Vegas of the ancient world."
The Hagia Sophia, lococated in Istanbul, has survived centuries of earthquakes, but was it by miracle or by design?
For "Hagia Sophia: Istanbul's Ancient Mystery," Glassman's crew traveled to Turkey to discover how the iconic cathedral managed to survive centuries of earthquakes. "Hagia Sophia, which means 'holy wisdom,' was built in the year 537 and only the pyramids surpassed it in height for nearly 1,000 years. It has survived clashing empires, transforming from church to mosque to museum. But most remarkably it has withstood 1,500 years of city-busting earthquakes," says Glassman. "We investigate whether it is surviving by miracle or design: a team of engineers and builders construct a model, place it on a shake table and hit it with a series of simulated earthquakes to unlock Hagia Sophia's seismic secrets. You'll have to watch to see if it collapses."
Glassman is already at work on new "Building Wonders," but being superstitious, he doesn't want to reveal details. But he welcomes suggestions for future investigations on Facebook. He believes that these structures have a lot more to tell us. "When the ancients designed these buildings, they weren't just building them for immediate gratification. They aspired to greatness and to speak to eternity. They were projecting power, wealth, and worldliness, building God's house on Earth, or putting their empire on stage," he says. "I hope people who watch these films are inspired to dream big and realize there's not much we can't do if we dream big and have the will to just do it."
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