Amongst the huge stacks of reading material that I always seem to accumulate, even while traveling, I have just picked up a copy of Philip Parker’s new book The Empire Stops Here. In a nutshell, the book documents Parker’s epic tour around the former edge of the Roman empire, “visiting all its astonishing sites, from Hadrian’s Wall in the north of Britain to the desert cities of Palmyra and Leptis Magna,” the book jacket explains. We’re reminded that “the Empire guarded and maintained a frontier that stretched for 10,000 kilometres, from Carlisle to Cologne, from Augsburg to Antioch, and from Aswan to the Atlantic.” So why not explore the whole thing?
[Image: Hadrian’s Wall].
On page one Parker writes that “I have concentrated deliberately on the edge of the Roman world, on the lands that promised victory, booty and glory and yet so often left the bitter taste of compromise or defeat instead. Here, unique societies developed, distinct from that of the mother-city” – frontier micro-cultures amidst border country that, even today, remains populated with architectural and anthropological evidence of these long-ago evaporated Roman outposts. Outpost tourism, perhaps. Edge-traveling.
It would be a curious project, indeed, to try something similar for a nation-state today, when borders are often fluid and even exportable. In fact, I’m reminded of a plan to “take the UK border overseas,” as the Times reported last year, dematerializing the actual national border and replacing it with a series of offices and points of entry maintained far away in the country of origin. Right when you think you’ve found the perimeter of Britain, it’s relocated yet further away, pushed to an airfield or embassy two thousand miles in the distance.
How interesting would it be to set out to explore the edge of a country – only to be unable to find it? China Miéville meets Tlön by way of the UK Border Agency.
For now, Parker’s book only seems to be available in the UK – but I’ve got high hopes for it and plan to report back as I read further. You can listen to a brief interview with the author here.
4 thoughts on “The Edge”
You must have an amazingly large library! 🙂
You should photograph it for your blog.
Geoff, you raise an interesting point with this. The issue you're addressing is referred to by international relations theorists (and like thinkers in other disciplines) as "extraterritoriality" – think in terms of the legal posturing that allows for forward-deployed islands of sovereign entitlement, like embassies. Sanctuary, inverted.
Overseas borders are indeed an interesting thing to experience. On a recent trip back from Singapore, by way of Canada, I re-entered the United States while in the Toronto airport. There is a whole enclave, including shops, all within the confines of the US border patrol. Simply the act of going through customs before one's flight, rather than after it, offers a bit of cognitive dissonance.
On a lesser scale, the same thing is true re-entering the UK from Belgium via the Chunnel. There one only has a tiny departure lounge before boarding the train, maybe a thousand square feet of UK sanctioned territory surrounded by a foreign country, linked only by a rail line and the interior of train cars.
As a US citizen, I find the borders of my own country to be fascinating. We live full-time in our RV and travel extensively within the US and Mexico. The land just north of the US-Mexican border is a strange place, full of fear and suspicion, perhaps even "the bitter taste of compromise."
And yet, there is a fluidity that is charming and colorful. Mexican values of hospitality seep into our Southwest, and American business ventures move southward. Both English and Spanish are spoken, the food is exciting and often excellent. It is unlike anywhere else in the US, and one of my favorite places to travel.