In a clear memory I stand on a bridge, a very old bridge, and look back at Prague Castle on the high ground. The bridge is made of stone, hand hewn, and black. However, this bridge wasn’t made from black stone. Rather, Charles Bridge became black over time. Though built of clean, washed stone, the effects of coal soot in the city painted the bridge into its somber, colourless form. Behind me, exquisitely carved statues in their black coverings crouch, ponder, or reach out skyward to the elusive light. Even nature seems unable to resist the dreariness of Czech communism. In those oppressive days behind the iron curtain, while the city of Prague crumbled, the Kafka-esque government decided to restore the bridge. In the midst of the noble effort we marvelled at the soot and majesty, snapped our pictures as we stood mostly alone on its paving stones, oblivious to the renovation work going on underneath. A young artist sat by one of the statues selling his pencil drawings of the bridge. My sister looked them over, and bought one. That was July, 1970.
A bridge is a construct of engineering as much as it is a work of the environment in which it appears. Taking part A and joining it with part B, a bridge creates a new pattern out of an old. Prior technology used to cross the river – boats – become obsolete. Witness the disappearance of ferries following the construction of the George Washington Bridge in New York City. At once, human traffic can flow like the river it crosses bringing trade, speed of communication, unification of process; armies of soldiers are quick to follow.
Yet, sometimes these armies arrive in the form of tourists. In Tbilisi recently, we stood on a modern pedestrian suspension bridge across the Kura River connecting the old city with the new. The Peace Bridge of Georgia, constructed strictly for pedestrians, is a recent addition to the Tblisi landscape.
Peace Bridge in Tbilisi, Georgia. Copyright James V. Michalec
In a country suffering devastating decline following its sudden, unplanned departure from the soviet space, the European designed structure stands out as not just a fun way to cross the great divide, but a form of architecture born out of a changed political environment as well. This bridge was not built for commerce. As an ultra-modern example of architecture, the bridge serves to stimulate discussions of culture, aesthetic taste, and spending policy.
I am reminded of these things when I stand on bridges, especially older bridges, bridges older than the Charles. Outside Marageh, Iran, there lies a functioning bridge built during the reign of Hulagu Khan, grandson of Genghis Khan, destroyer of Baghdad.
Hulagu Bridge in Marageh, Iran. Copyright James V. Michalec
His occupation of this part of asia and the middle east has never been noted as an era of innovation and prosperity. Still, the empire had to be sewn together, controlled, and made whole. This ancient Marageh Bridge, once so essential to that endeavour, remains while the empire long ago disappeared. Lying well outside the city of Marageh, in a quiet agricultural section, it bakes in the sun. No historical marker decorates it. No tourists swarm over it as they do on the Charles Bridge in Prague (a much cleaner bridge these days). It lies at peace with the world, easily handling the occasional automobile or curious adventurer, though no designer ever imagined such a use.
Author with Charles Bridge in background, 2014. Copyright James V. Michalec 2014