Reach for the Sky


…before looking up at the sheer rock criss-crossed by a zig-zagging metal stairway.

At the bottom of the steps to Lion Rock lingers a Sri Lankan in flop-flops and a shabby, thin cotton shirt.

‘He is waiting to help you up the seven hundred and fifty steps,’ warns our tour guide in the early morning heat, ‘but he’ll expect a big tip at the top.’

Reinforced by pride mingled with a personal determination to reach the top unaided, each of us in our elderly group climbs on. An old lady ignores the helper’s proffered assistance when he attempts to support her elbow as she climbs one of the larger interval steps. I politely refuse his attempt to gently push me from the rear up an iron staircase with, ‘I’m OK, thank you.’

The route upwards is not straightforward. It weaves its way up several levels via uneven stone steps and across the giant rock via a narrow staircase. At Lions Paw we pause and gaze over the plain below before looking up at the sheer rock criss-crossed by a zig-zagging metal stairway. The helpers have long departed for new prey; only the steep climb to the top remains.

‘I’ve counted seven hundred,’ says an optimist below me. I climb with renewed vigour, the view at the top will be worth the effort, I console myself. It is.

Fifteen hundred years ago, when the tyrannical King Kashyapa I came to power after killing his father and usurping his older brother, he decreed the building of a palace on top of the 660 feet-high volcanic plug.

Any despot craves recognition and a palace on the highest point around was his ideal solution. Then, his loyal subjects laboured long and hard. With crude tools they cut stone steps up the vertical rock-face before building a palace complex complete with an oblong bathing pool at the summit of the rock.

Today, only the foundations and the large bathing pool remain. But judging by the extent of the foundations on the summit as well as the gardens and buildings below, it must have been impressive during his twenty-two-year reign.

Three thousand years before, in the Nile kingdom of the pharaoh Khafre, the greatest building for millennia was built. Ignoring the mathematical ratio between the height and volume of a pyramid, Khafre decreed a 450-foot high mausoleum. It remained as the highest building in the world for nigh on four thousand years until Gustave Eiffel built his tower to advertise the Paris Exhibition of 1889.

Megalomanic kings had disappeared and Gustave’s tower was only granted a twenty year lifetime. Yet at 1063 feet (324m), it became the tallest building in the world and unwittingly started a race to the sky which has accelerated through the last century to today. Engineers with an understanding of the nature of forces and with materials lighter yet stronger than stone now thought about the kudos of which former kings such as Kashyapa had dreamed.

Americans undisturbed by Europe’s Great War and imbued with a greater sense of nationhood and pride now took on the world mantle of great builders. Using steel and concrete they started to alter the skyline of Manhattan island formerly occupied by the unimaginative Indians whom the first Dutch settlers of New Holland called “Manhattos” or “Manhattans”.

In 1931, the Empire State Building took the crown for the highest building from Gustave Eiffel’s tower, which had been given a reprieve by the savvy French authorities. The highest building now reached 1454 feet (443m).

Drowning in arrogance and ripe with money from banking, railroads and mass production, the Americans transformed Manhattan and other major town centres by reaching for the sky.

At the moment of the completion of the ill-fated World Trade Centre 1,368 feet (417m) in 1973, another unforeseen event was about to transform the world. Not patricide, like King Kashyapa but Sheikh Yamani and his Arabian oil committee (OPEC) had decided to quadruple the price of oil. Now the fountain of the world’s money became the Middle East.

Dubai then was a sleepy hollow divided by the creek across which ferries glided from one side to the other without urgency or punctuality. Suddenly, spurred on by ambition and oil money, it transformed itself into the most fantastic city studded with buildings which towered over previous rivals for the claim of the highest in the world. In 1999 came the 1053 foot-high Burj Al Arab followed in 2009 by the Burj Khalifa, a spaghetti strand of gleaming glass capable of bending in the highest winds and withstanding the shock of an earthquake. It captured the world record and stands 2,717feet high (828 m).

They all came and went; pharaohs who wanted immortality, megalomanic kings lusting after glory, ambitious nation builders keen to assert the New World’s image and now oil-rich sheikhs who want to make the desert bloom. Where will the race to the sky turn next?

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