Tuesday, July 8, 2008

The Glory that was Rome ... in Africa

Spending half a day in Tarquinia, half a day in Pompeii and half a day on the site of ancient Carthage inspired me to study history again. I came home and read Susan Raven's 'Rome in Africa' and Paul Lachlan's 'The North African Stones Speak'. I would recommend both even to casual readers. Paul Lachlan's cultural prejudices are exposed in a comment here and there, but on the whole, style and content are wonderful. Both books are older studies that have been brought up to date and republished.

History of Carthage

What is amazing to me is how much ancient history I do not know, despite an avid interest in the subject throughout my life. For every site I have visited, moreover, there are a hundred I have not seen. There is no substitute for actual experience, although actual experience is magnified enormously by knowledge. I wish I had read those books BEFORE I visited Carthage, but if I had, I suspect that my frustration at being allowed only a few hours in Tunisia would have overwhelmed me.

I spent almost a month in Roma once, and yet it seems as though North Africa has far more of ancient Roma to show the world now than any site in Italia. The Roman Empire, whether you hate it or admire it, was rather amazing. To think of the thousands of miles that it covered, from England to Libya! All the roads and aquaducts, amphitheatres and temples... but beyond that, the fact that they laid grids everywhere. Surveyors tirelessly working on plans, whether or not the plans ever came to fruition.

It is difficult sometimes to visualise the past. The topography of the countries have changed. What once was a port may be miles inland now. That certainly is the case where Etruscan ports are concerned.

I do not know why the distant past holds such fascination for me. I never wanted to travel to the future, but I still long to go back in time, to see the England of Charles the First, and even further back, to live among the earliest Neolithic settlers of Europe. The Roman Empire is fairly modern in terms of civilisations. It is no wonder really that we see resemblances to our own 'civilisation' in all the works of Rome.

Perhaps my longing to visit Libya is partly based on the fact that it wouldn't be thronging with tourists. The negative part of visiting Pompeii was the fact that one could not look down any path without seeing veritable hordes of 21st century tourists. Carthage wasn't much different actually. Coachloads of tourists swarming over the ruins...

And yet, who knows? Perhaps Libya would be the same. One of my greatest contacts with the ancient world occurred in the Long Barrow near Silbury Hill one rainy afternoon. Not a tourist in sight, enabling me to commune silently with the past. I went over a little gate on a path that was made for sheep rather than humans and walked up a muddy hill to Long Kennet.

West Kennet Long Barrow

I visited Avebury the same day. Avebury is very different from Stonehenge because very little remains of its original configuration. The standing stones have been moved, removed, or otherwise realigned. A major highway cuts through the original grounds. Nonetheless, something magical remains.

That was an odd experience as my own visit at twilight coincided with a professional photography shoot. I can't recall what they were shooting, but it was some sort of advertisement with the stones of Avebury in the background.

Where on earth can one go now, though, and truly expect to be 'off the beaten track'? There are shows like 'Globe Trekker', visiting every corner of the globe and televising the journey to the masses.

In my own case, however, it is not as if I would like to deprive others of the journey but merely to have a few moments by myself in these places. If only...

In that sense, Montserrat was the antithesis of a spiritual pilgrimage. It was more like queueing for a ride at an entertainment park than any religious experience. In fact, the pushing and shoving and queue-jumping was horrific and one wondered at times what spiritual benefit possibly could be gained by such behaviour. The fact that the shrine was due to shut in less than half an hour may have offered some excuse for the indecent attitudes that prevailed in certain quarters. In the same crowd, however, were others who went out of their way to help the infirm and disabled.

Perhaps part of the true nature of a spiritual pilgrimage is to test the soul. Grace is earned through patience and selflessness in these situations rather than a brief glimpse of an icon or statue. I am an animist and I do believe in the efficacy of certain objects or locations to some extent. I do think that these powers are partly dependent on the state of mind and will of the 'pilgrim' rather than independent in nature. In that sense, we do create our own gods.

Despite the negative circumstances of the visit, I did have some magical if fleeting moments at Montserrat. The mountain range rather than the statue was the source of the energy I felt. No wonder the ancients thought of mountains as the ladders to heaven! There is a sense of entering a borderland that stands between our earthly state and the realm of the gods. I expect centuries of reverence and wonder play a part in this as well. In any event, despite the fact that the buildings and pilgrims were modern, one sensed ghostly footsteps, becoming part of an endless chain of humanity that sought to touch the sky.

On the other hand, travel to historic sites of any kind is a pilgrimage of sorts. Whether it is an ancient Bath or a Temple, the passage of time as well as the attention of the masses for hundreds or thousands of years creates a peculiar power that resides in the stones as well as their silhouettes. Places become icons. Witness the 'leaning tower of Pisa' and the 'Eiffel Tower', possibly more visited than any phallic representation of an ancient Power. These buildings are recognised by people throughout the globe, despite the fact that they actually are devoid of any significant content or historical event. Any place, object or structure can become imbued with special significance by virtue only of its long popularity.

I am including two photographs of pillars here. One is the site of a famous martyrdom. The other is nothing more than the site of an ancient bathhouse, yet both possess a special aura of power and mystery now. The blood shed on one site may make it a place of religious pilgrimage but one could argue that ancient Baths are dedicated to the elemental power of Water and when situated by the sea, have tremendous spiritual potency that overrides the simple functional nature of the place. After all, ablutions are a fundamental spiritual rite in almost every religion.

In any case, I would have liked nothing better than to have had the time to wade into the sea on the site of the Baths of Antoninus in Tunis. To watch the sun set framed by the silhouettes of ancient pillars and arches, in the midst of all that ruined splendour would have been a very spiritual experience. Instead, I was forced to adhere to a tour schedule, to be bundled back to the ship with the rest of the tourists...

I should not be ungrateful. At least I saw these places. I breathed the air. My feet trod the ancient stones. It is far, far better than nothing but, like an incipient addict, I long for more.

No comments: