The great rock shown here, which is 345 metres (1,130 feet) high, has two names: Uluru and Ayers Rock. This is because the site has significance for two cultures that both have a hold on it.
The modern administrators of the Australian continent are of European descent, and their history goes back to the nineteenth century, when the name Australia was adopted – derived from the Latin word australis, meaning ‘of the south’. In this era the rock was named after Sir Henry Ayers, who was governor of Australia in 1873, when the rock was ‘discovered’ by William Gosse. In 1987 it was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Seen through European eyes, Ayers Rock is not an architectural object at all, but a striking geological formation that has been left standing above an enormous plain while the surrounding rock has eroded away. At some point in the distant past, the rock's strata must have been deposited horizontally, but upheavals have left it with strata that are now almost vertical.
The visible part is a small proportion of the whole, which penetrates deep underground. The rock's prominence in the landscape means that it can be seen from huge distances, and in different atmospheric conditions, especially when the sun is low in the sky, it seems to change colour and to be responsive and alive. It is a natural wonder, a source of fascination, a place that people want to visit.
The name Uluru has been in use for much longer – maybe for 10,000 years. Aboriginal culture developed separately from that of the continent's incomers, and when the two cultures came into contact it was clear that the Aboriginal people had a fundamentally different way of interpreting the world. In Aboriginal culture there is no linear history or book-learning, and there are no houses. There is strong attachment to place, through a profoundly ingrained nomadic habit of moving along traditional tribal journeys. Many of those journeys converge at Uluru.
There are various accounts in Aboriginal tradition of how the Earth's features took shape. In the time of the ancestors, the Dreamtime, the world was featureless until the rocks were given form by singing or by other means – and the songs that conjured the rocks and streams are sung on the traditional journeys, or Songlines, which maintain the creation.
Far from being unique to the Aboriginal people, the recognition of resonance between place and music is one of the few cultural insights that are very widely shared. In western tradition it was orpheus who civilized by his song and Amphion who charmed the stones of Thebes into place by music. Joshua at Jericho played music that caused the city walls to fall. German Romantics said that architecture was frozen music. Birdsong establishes territories, and human beings share a surprising amount of DNA with nest-building birds, so perhaps in music and building we awaken our ‘inner bird’, calling forth ancient primitive instincts.
The various caves and fissures at Uluru are interpreted as incarnations of events that took place there. There is a mouth that silently screams in anguish, a scar that runs with water when a word is shouted, and bodies everywhere. However it came to be as it is, Uluru is experienced in Aboriginal culture as a memorial.
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