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In Search of Protective Settings

THE buildings of greater Cairo stretch all the way out to the pyramids now.

When I first saw them 30 years ago, I was en route to a posting in central Africa. They stood then on the edge of the desert. I climbed Cheops, wondering about the fellahs who had moved those mammoth blocks of stone under the relentless sun.

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I had a sense of being alone with the Sphinx. I beheld it for a long time, feeling that we connected personally. (And why shouldn't we? We were alone on the edge of emptiness.)

Nowadays, apartments crowd virtually up to the feet of the Sphinx. Visiting the great pyramids of Giza, you no longer feel alone with them in an unpeopled desert. Instead, you stand ``alone'' at the edge of a busy parking lot in a high-rise suburb.

Should such a fate befall great monuments?

In the late spring of 1962, driving a rental car to a friend's wedding in London, I sped across Salisbury plain. I was all alone; the countryside was deserted. Just trench-coated me, a few cows, a cloud-dotted sky overhead, and green England below. Suddenly I saw monoliths in a pasture: Stonehenge.

I parked the car on the verge. (I could have parked it just as safely in the middle of the road.) I walked across the pasture land to the immense slabs of rock, those massive silent stones holding the secrets of centuries. I moved around and through the circle they form. I touched the monoliths; I leaned against them; I tried to line them up, one with another. I wondered what use the ancients made of the stones and reveled in my private audience with them.

When I revisited the site 25 years later, visitors no longer held private communion with Stonehenge. A barrier of webbing protected the circle of stones. And with good reason! Stonehenge was no longer watched over only by clouds and cows. It had become a world-class attraction, complete with a parking lot, tour buses, and prescribed pathways clogged with tourists. There were even guards, needed, I suppose, to keep a graffiti-watch on students from nearby schools.

Should such a fate befall great monuments?

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Years ago on summer evenings, rangers pushed flaming coals off Glacier Point into the Yosemite Valley below. The nightly ``fire falls'' were a gimmick, naturalists now tell us, to lure visitors to Yosemite National Park.

On a recent afternoon, I stood in the great meadow on the valley floor. I wasn't far from where I'd stood years ago, a kid at summer camp, watching the live coals drifting down through evening darkness from Glacier Point.

Now I was watching the break-up of a storm. For two days it had dropped rain on us; it had dusted Sentinel Dome with snow and replenished the falls sliding off its granite slopes. Mist floated about the dome. Now and then it parted and the rain-washed air would show, in a kind of super-focus, a snow-touched pine, every branch sparkling and clear against the lightly whitened slope behind it.

THE ``fire falls'' are gone now. Visitors no longer need luring. They come in such numbers - 4 million a year - that great gray owls no longer hunt in the valley. Naturalists are not sure why. In addition to acute vision, the owls use keen hearing to hunt. Naturalists speculate that the noise of automobile and bus engines deny the owls the use of that hearing.

So the world is filling up with people. Is that any news? So more of them want to see cultural wonders and natural beauty. Is this a calamity? No.

But it does make one grateful for the places that are protected by their settings.

We were told you could ride horseback into Petra, in southwest Jordan. You could even take a horse-drawn cart.

But we wanted to walk through the narrow corridor of cliffs. And we wanted to do it alone - before the mounts and the carts of our companions forced us to eat their dust. So we hurried into the mile-long passageway. In some places it seemed no wider than our arm span.

They all laughed, those who rode or were driven. But let them. Walking in, I believe, is the only sensible way to enter Petra, the ancient Nabatean-Roman trade entrepot carved into the red rock of Jordan. The cliffs close you in, but they open your imagination. Each step takes you closer to a mystery. With each step, anticipation of what's ahead builds.

As you near the entrance into Petra, the trek rewards you with glimpses of an immense colonnaded facade. But it's not a building. It's an elaborate rock carving from which a building has been made.

Making this trek, you also feel a strange satisfaction. Petra was a secret for hundreds of years. The narrow corridor you're passing through protected the ``rose-red city'' against visitors in the past. Perhaps it can do so in the future.

My first glimpse of the Taj Mahal came from the roof terrace of a hotel in Agra. It was clearly visible - and quite enthralling. You simply disregarded the foreground of rooftops, ramshackle, very earthbound, and concentrated on the up-soaring sweep of the Taj Mahal's dome.

Later that day we visited this tomb, one of the most famous sites in South Asia. We passed from the tourist-pestering bustle of Agra through a gate to enter a quiet, well-kept garden. (Such things as this garden should happen to all great monuments. And even to natural wonders.)

We proceeded forward, moving toward a gate similar to the one we had passed through. To our right stood a magnificent building, also a gate. Through its open doors we beheld the Taj, carefully framed, beautiful, and remote.

On the other side of this gate you move out onto a large wide platform. From it you behold the long reflecting pool, which leads your eye to the Taj itself. On either side of the pool stretch immaculate gardens laid out in rigid symmetry.

At first, the Taj overwhelms you. You may approach it, mount to the platform on which it stands, and walk completely around it. Then you return to the garden and take up a place from which to admire the tomb.

Contemplating the Taj in this way offers an extraordinary experience. After a time you realize that the setting is crucial to the experience you're enjoying. Suddenly you're full of admiration for the setting, and also for the architect who understood that the impact of this jewel depended largely on its setting.

THE garden does not call attention to itself, for appropriate settings do not do this. It - and the walls surrounding it - are large enough to hold at bay the noise and bustle of Agra. It also absorbs the sound of the visitors who, interestingly, do not make much noise. The garden is clean, though not antiseptic. It is well-tended and spacious. It respects itself and visitors respect it, too.

The growth of world population - will it really double by sometime in the middle of the next century? - puts most cultural sites and natural wonders at peril.

Overdevelopment has destroyed the natural beauty of Waikiki. Smog and urban pollution are defacing the Parthenon.

Can Nairobi National Park survive the urban sprawl that threatens it? Can the American National Park System keep ``development'' from destroying Yosemite, the Tetons, and Yellowstone?

There are no quick or easy answers to these questions. But Petra and the Taj Mahal make one grateful for protective settings already in place. They are one reason why it is so satisfying to walk through Petra and so restful and reassuring to visit the Taj Mahal.

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