World Roads Persia Egypt Romans

Movement is as old as the earth. And Man is of the earth. Since earliest times he has been a great roamer. As early as 10,000 B.C., Man the Traveler opened a route to the Baltic to obtain amber, "that special act of God." The earliest man-made roads were built to obtain salt; the oldest Roman road was the Via Salaria, the "salt road" to Ostia.

Persia excelled in good roads "crowded with men on the King's business." The caravan trade, extending its way into India, found roads already built; for, ever since man invented the vehicular wheel in 3000 B.C., traffic had rolled out of the larger Indian villages. Alexander the Great said of these same roads, built of claymade brick with stairways of broad steps and low treads easily climbed by laden camels and lined "with all manner of trees bearing fruits," that they were the best he had ever seen.

Egypt too had its roads. As early as 3000 B.C., a ten-fathom-wide road had been built by King Cheops for the purpose of transporting the huge limestone blocks destined for the Great Pyramid. "The road," said a certain Greek geographer, "was not much inferior, in my judgment, to the pyramid itself." There were ancient manygated roads in Africa over which one moved across the desert. Sennacherib the Assyrian built his royal road and made "it shine like the light of day." Darius the Persian constructed another from Susa to Babylonia, spacing it with stone markers and posthouses. In Crete there were wagon roads which led to the palace of Knossus. The Greeks became systematic road builders, extending their roads into Sparta; and, even at this early date, they prepared a manual on road repairs. Most of these early routes were luxury highways and over them moved obsidian, amber, gold, jade, silver, emeralds; and for delicacies, Greek fruits such as olives, figs, lemons, almonds. Spices were carried to every destination; silks came over the caravan routes, frankincense and perfumes from Arabia.

The Romans constructed the first road system. Now for the first time the "road" was open to all, without tolls or prerogatives. It was no longer exclusively one road only for the luxury trade, or reserved for royal travel. Pompey built his roads over the Alps; Africa was traversed by a Roman road network from Gabes to Tebessa; Emperor Claudius built roads in Britain. On all of these, milestones were commonplace while posthouses mushroomed all along a Roman way. At the height of the Empire, the longest continuous road ran from Antonine's Wall in Scotland to Jerusalem, a distance of three thousand miles. Even during the declension of Rome the building of roads went on in Spain, in France and in Africa.

After the seventh century the upkeep of roads throughout Europe and along the Mediterranean rim was neglected, and by the sixteenth century for a traveler to arrive in Madrid he needed "a falcon's eye, an ass's ear, a monkey's face, a merchant's word, a camel's back, a hog's mouth, a deer's foot." For a thousand years Europe's roads remained quagmires. It was Napoleon who rebuilt the Roman Road in the nineteenth century.

Yet during these same centuries, far across the world a people called the Incas built a road system which bound together all the discordant elements of their land--the desert, the mountains, the jungles--and was in many respects superior to any European road network. "Nothing in Christendom equals these wonderful roads in Peru," said a literate conquistador. "The great Inca road from Quito to Cuzco is as much used as the road from Seville to Triana and I cannot say more . . ."

During my many years of exploration through South America I had heard much about and had seen fragments of these fabulous royal roads of the Incas. Now at long last I was determined to seek the reality of these ancient stone arteries and, wherever they might lead--through jungles, across deserts, over towering mountains-to follow from the starting point to the end this great Inca highway system--these roads which for centuries bound the Inca empire together and which, like the Persian highways, caused the downfall of a great and ancient civilization.

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