When away from home, you learn about things that you possibly never would had you just stayed in the same place. It's inevitable in a way. Things like the intricacies (or lack thereof) of foreign transport systems, the taste of different kinds of food and some basic features of common life are all things that you can't help but learn when travelling. One can learn more than that, though.
For example, how many people can say (without looking it up first) what the third tallest building in the ancient world was? I certainly couldn't - not until the same day I went to see it recently. The first two are easy to name: at 146 and 142m in height respectively, the Pyramids of Cheops and Chefren are world-famous, and easily the most distinctive structures in Egypt. Even if people cannot remember the names of the Pharaohs interred within, most people would at least be able to point out their location. Ask people to name the third tallest structure, however, and it's a bit like asking them to name the full crew of Apollo 11: they remember that there was Neil Armstrong, Buzz Alrdin and some other guy.
Given a chance to guess, most people would throw out a few possibilities: perhaps it was a pyramid in Peru? Those knowledgeable about their Ancient Wonders might suggest the Pharos at Alexandria, which would earn them a cookie for being almost right, however even before its destruction in the early 14th century, the Pharos was eclipsed as the third tallest building in the world by a country far removed from Egypt.
Here's a picture of the building I'm talking about:
What you see above are pictures of the Jetavanaramaya Stupa in Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka. When it was built, around 300BC, it was the third tallest building in the world, after the Pyramids, and remained so until the 14th century. When built, it was 122m tall - beating the Pharos by about 7m. Despite this, I had absolutely no knowledge of its existence until I saw it in the guidebook while cycling around Anuradhapura.
Now, why had I never heard of the Jetavanaramaya? It's in a beautiful city - one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world, it was the third largest building in the world, and if you go by mass, and include the foundations, it is actually more massive than the Great Pyramid. Yet nobody knows about it. I suppose that Sri Lanka's recently concluded civil war has not helped to promote the country's image as a great and ancient civilisation.
Here's another photo of something I saw in Anuradhapura:
Take a look at that tree. Looks important, right? It has its own compound and everything. Well, that is the Sri Maha Bodhi, the oldest historically authenticated tree in the world. This tree has been tended and looked after since 288BC. To put that into context: Qin Shi Huang first unified China in 221, some 60-odd years after the Bodhi Tree was planted. That's right - this tree is older than China. Think about that for a moment. For over 2000 years, people have been tending this tree continuously, even during periods of Indian occupation. A tree's not like a building, either. It's possible to restore a building after decades of neglect. With a tree, however, neglect results in the tree just dying. The fact that the tree is still there and still thriving is a testament to the longevity and continuity of Sri Lankan civilisation.
Yet, before I went to Sri Lanka, I did not have much awareness of just how much there was to Sri Lanka. I've listed two examples, and these are just two sights in a single city. It was a reminder to me just how much my knowledge is limited by ethnocentric factors. Growing up in a western nation, I was regularly exposed to European and Mediterranean culture. Ancient Rome, the Greek city-states, Norse mythology and so on have always been familiar to me. I am already equipped with a basic understanding of many countries' histories, simply due to where I was born. Similarly, through my study of Chinese, I have developed an understanding of East Asian civilisations.
Places like Sri Lanka, however, were always relegated to the status of the cultural "other". I still find it to be a very exotic country - a mere week-long visit is in no way enough for me to truly understand the culture. Still, I have learnt at least something about it - as evidenced by this blog post. It's not much, granted, but at least now I am more fully aware of how little I know, and how much more there is to learn about the civilisation of Sri Lanka. I do not doubt that I will continue to discover more and more areas of ignorance as I continue to travel. This is a good thing - discovering the depth of one's ignorance is an important lesson to learn!