Welcome to Oxford—Get Lost

That’s a recommendation, not a threat.

My first full day in Oxford, I aimed myself towards the city center and walked. This turned out to be the right choice, as I happened upon the Radcliffe Camera, the Bridge of Sighs, the boathouse, and a dozen other “must see” sites.

So, I am left no choice but to conclude that this city has some underlying magic that guides wanderers to see what deserves to be seen. Much like my feet, this blog wanders a bit, but it gets somewhere eventually after retracing its steps and trying different streets. “Journey before destination.”

When I eventually meandered into the Ashmolean Museum, the same magic was at work.

For some strange reason, the other folks in the Ancient Near East exhibit didn’t mirror my hanging jaw.

“That’s the Enuma Eliš!”image1

“Those are reliefs of the apkallu!”

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“That’s the Epic of Gilgamesh!”

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“That’s the Sumerian King List!”

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I didn’t even know what three of those four things were two years ago, when I was last in this city. This is my third time in Oxford, which must make it one of the foreign cities I’ve visited most frequently, though I didn’t plan it. I suppose it’s the magic at work again.

I first came here when I was much smaller (contrary to popular belief, I was not always this tall, though the long hair was already a fixture). All I really remember from that visit is eating at the Eagle and Child and taking a photograph with a quotation from the iconic Merry and Pippin exchange from LOTR at the Prancing Pony.

The second time, I had just graduated from high school and was nervous but eager to enter higher education. Shortly after senior year ended, there was a school trip to England. And so, primed with thoughts about school, I walked around Oxford for a day, seeing a dozen of the colleges, making way for champagne-soaked students fresh out of their finals, punting down the river.

The city was much sharper in resolution that time than when I was little. Part of that is due to age of course, but the other part is personal development. I’d been thinking more about educationwhat it is for, what shapes it should take. And here was a city built of education. To this day, education is the largest employer in Oxford. Not much of a surprise when the university is older than the Aztecs by a couple of centuries (yes, really).

People have been teaching at Oxford since the late 11th century, nearly a millennium ago. Now that’s Old.

It’s hard to get a sense of the Old when you’re in America. When I see “Tattoo Parlor, est. 1997” on State Street, I think that’s old.

But Oxford is Old, and I liked that. I decided then, I would try to come back to this Old City of Learning. I didn’t realize I would be back quite so soon.

Now I’m here for the third time, and it is a charm.

I pass a half-dozen colleges on my way to get a sandwich. Professors and students roll by on bicycles. The architecture earns the place its nickname: the City of Dreaming Spires. I am partial to Gothic architecture, thankfully. The spectre of my Art History class in high school keeps haunting me here… If you’re interested, the columns on the Radcliffe Camera have Corinthian capitals, while the Ashmolean’s columns have Ionic capitals and those bracketing the entrance are fluted. Somehow that all makes sense, though I couldn’t explain how. All I know is that Corinthian suits the Radcliffe Camera, while Ionic suits the Ashmolean.

Also known as: the photo from Oxford you actually wanted me to post.

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Returning to what I saw inside the Ashmoleanit was Older still. And as I’ve said, I like Old things.

When I had last been in Oxford, before starting college, I only knew the Epic of Gilgamesh. Yesterday, I was transfixed by an apkallu‘s gaze (they are striking works of art, let alone the theological relevance). I’ve learned a lot these past two years, both at Westmont and independently due to the intrigue sparked by my classes. There’s untold more to learn, of course, but at least I know enough to get disproportionately excited by Old things in the ANE exhibit.

Again I wandered, this time across the hallway into Ancient China. It was a disorienting shift, to be honest. I don’t have much commentary on the art there, except to say it was beautiful. Funnily enough, one of the placards noted that a painting’s subject had been portrayed by the actress Shu Qi, who starred in a movie* we watched in Theology in Film. Liberal arts educations–you never know when they’ll come in handy.

Education does tend to surprise though. You never know when you’ll learn something that turns your world upside down. And you learn these things with other people. When you read a book, you start a conversation with someone from across space and time. 1600 years still isn’t enough distance to keep Augustine from blowing the minds of young theology students.

It also isn’t enough distance to keep me from ranting at Augustine in all-caps while annotating City of God Book XV, but he didn’t know about the apkallu, so we’ll let it slide.

But that’s how knowledge comes about. Premises and conclusions. Exchange of ideas. Agreement and disagreement. And–ahem–talking off another SCIO student’s ear about Babylonian myths. (Sorry not sorry.)

And that’s why I love it here in Oxford. It’s a place to get lost, talk about ideas, and occasionally play Russian roulette with hot wings or stumble upon an Anglican Vacation Bible School service. Those are different stories though, for a different time.

*Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons directed by Stephen Chow. It’s fantasy adventure meets romantic comedy meets Buddhism, if that’s your style.

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