There was a time when mare nostrum (which is the term the Italian government used for its efforts to control illegal immigration from North Africa and to save lives on perilous rubber dinghies) was truly “our sea”. Magnificent cities ordered the Mediterranean’s coasts. Trade was intensively carried out and our Tuscan museums, (especially Florence’s Museo Archeologico), are full of the most beautiful artefacts from all shores of this most prodigious inland sea, one which has been essential to the way our civilization developed into what we are today.
Volubilis in Morocco, which we visited early in our married lives, was a supreme example of the wealth and glory of these Mediterranean urban centres.
Timgad in Algeria we never did visit. Perhaps hopefully one day we will: one doesn’t hear much about Algeria these days. Maybe that is a good sign.
During our honeymoon spend in Tunisia we saw the spectacular amphitheatre of the city of El Djem, another witness to the erst-while grandeur and central focus of these Mediterranean cities.
I never got to Libya’s Leptis Magna. A friend did and waxed lyrically about its grandeur.
Ptolemaic Egypt was overshadowed by the supreme achievements of the ancient pharaonic dynasties. Who could ever destroy the cosmic majesty of the pyramids or the temple at Karnac as “idolatrous”?
Approaching the eastern part of the Mediterranean coast I was privileged to wander among the majestic ruins of Baalbek, just before the Lebanese civil war which, luckily did little to ruin this most wonderful of Roman cities.
Jerash I saw more recently – indeed it was just last November that we wandered around that magnificent circular colonnade which is one of the wonders of this stupendous city.
Petra of the Nabateans is beyond words to describe. Again we managed to see it last year and its supernal vision changed our whole consciousness.
On the Turkish Aegean coast, which we reached during our epic Morris traveller journey in 1991, we saw ever more magnificent Hellenistic and Roman cities:
For each one I wrote a little something which I felt summed the atmosphere each city imparted:
On fiery hills, in summer’s blanching heat
the city, lizard-like, basks on scorched stones.
Athena’ s temple ranks its columns’ feet
and unlimbed sculpture melts with shards and bones.
Fanned out by arduous slopes, the theatre seats
spread round a stage whose backcloth is the sea,
where vanished plays of heroes’ mythic feats
once spoke to men and charmed the immortal She.
With parchments cast to winds and altars gone
do I yet hear the songs of ancient days
when censers burned and golden statues shone
and unremembered poets hymned their lays?
Below bare mountain’s late meridian sleep
Asclepion’s spring flows past the goats and sheep.
We might have met among the olive groves
that clutch this slope like lovers’ fast embrace
and walking to unknown thalassic coves
I would have kissed your bright selenic face.
Your house still stands among entrailing plants,
the doorway open to a silent room,
while from the theatre imagined chants
perfume the air and take me to your tomb.
I spread my arms upon your cosmic dust
and recollect the love which might have been
so vast, so big with hope, so full of trust
that now is past, untasted and unseen.
I sit upon the empty marble chair
and feel your warmth while I caress your hair.
Rose-spider icicles in summer’s heat,
are caught by incandescent webs of snow
as mountain’s blanched lagoons caress bare feet
and waken hearts with hot seducing flow.
Upon the hill a metropolis spews
the monuments of weird disjunctive time
while sediments of calcareous ooze
deposit wedding castles in the slime.
White boats of the universe sail deep blue
above gold honeycomb of fallen walls;
alone, the stones converse with me and you
and actors play to empty theatre stalls.
The city, sleeping on dusk’s goat-browsed hills
returns to silence while a song-thrush trills.
I kiss warm lips in evanescent blue
and stare into white eyes of unnamed hopes,
at marble beauty breathing life anew
amid high-columned squares and altar slopes,
Within dark perfumed temple of delight
I touch your olive skin and stroke your locks
and walk deserted streets while evening’s light
falls down upon the town and mountain flocks.
Half-finished statues lie inside the gate
like wishes unfulfilled, like love unmet
for your enfolding grace am I too late
within your breast have suns already set?
Cicada night now stirs with silver rain
as life attempts the meaning of its days.
Amid scorched stones, the sordid root sprang here
in heaps of monoliths and pediments,
and drowned a childlike earth in blooded fear,
emasculated priests and bare laments.
Where is your gold and silver now, great King?
That burnished stroke has crumbled into dust
the temple votaries no longer sing
and all your treasury is turned to rust.
White columns’ tempest-shaken marble staves
against a broken sky, a raven screech
across the ether of uncoded waves:
this is the city wrecked upon a beach.
And yet what brilliance shines upon these stones
above dusk graves, beyond the vanished bones.
Your letter didn’t speak about all this;
how could it, when you were concerned to kill
false gods, emasculate seducing bliss,
and clean the world for God’s almighty will.
For were you blind to library’s facade?
or fail to enter in and read its books
and did you think it was one big charade,
just like the world, full of illusioned looks?
Yet when you walked this marbled colonnade
and heard the pagan theatre audience cheer
and saw Diana’s shrine in dusky glade
had you no fond regrets, had you no fear?
Can people, wrapt in pleasure, be mislead
when Christ forever reigns and gods are dead?
THE SUBMERGED CITY
In golden summer’s turquoise sunset dreams
we walk enclasped along white-sanded strands.
A burnished sea laps evening’s dying gleams;
alone, we fly to magic-carpet lands
or dive into green waves, discover walls,
Atlantis colonnades, protean shrines,
submerged enmarbled city shopping malls
and mermaid woods of salt-encrystalled pines.
Embraced by diamond suns, the seaweed pools
unwrap algaeic triton’s arcane rites
while votaries swim past in silver schools
illuminating oceanic lights.
Returned from whence we came in primal birth
we land anew upon this Mother Earth.
I look through horse’s eyes upon the hill
that flamed those early nights with magic fire
and filled my mind with strange prophetic thrill,
seducing beauty, unsurpassed desire.
A resined wood perfumes the darkened room,
hushed legs climb down steep rungs into white light.
Was this the way they sealed a city’s doom,
dismantled hearts and caused a nation’s flight?
King Priam’s gold melts with the setting sun,
the face of Helen’s etched across this sky,
on dying plains a battle’s lost and won,
in song of birds I hear a city’s cry.
The walls unloose their fabled tale of war
and love upon a distant, foreign shore.
My heart is aching when I consider that I could have seen the jewel of all Mediterranean ancient metropolises, Palmyra. I passed so close to it on my hippy trail all those years ago and never visited it!
Now threatened (and perhaps, as I write, being bulldozed) by dark forces of barbarism and ignorance a place where “ignorant armies clash by night” Palmyra was founded as a caravanserai stop on the desert between Damascus and Baghdad.
From thence it developed into one of the wealthiest cities within the influence of the Roman empire. Under its great queen Zenobia it seriously challenged the power of Rome and extended an empire from Turkey to Egypt.
Zenobia, whose name derives from the Arabic Zeynab (as in Zeynab Badawi, BBC’s brilliant world news correspondent), was such an alluring woman, said to be even more beautiful that Cleopatra, that when she was finally captured she was allowed to parade as a captive through Rome in golden chain and then given a luxury villa near Tivoli to spend the rest of her days!
The Arabic influence on Palmyra was strengthened when it was conquered by the Umayyad dynasty and became a flourishing centre of Moslem civilization. Yes, civilization – people who preserved the greatest of Roman and Greek learning and developed the sciences of astronomy and geography when the northern border of the Mediterranean sea were being invaded by hordes of barbarians from central Asia and were only able to save their former great learning by the skin of their teeth..
Palmyra was truly the crossroads of cultures from Egypt, Greece, Persia, and Rome. It was a cosmopolitan city with taste, magnificent architecture, prodigious wealth and a highly elegant way of life. Among those who graced its intellectual life was Cassius Longinus who wrote that highly influential treatise on literature “On the Sublime”.
Are we now to see all this wonder and extreme beauty destroyed before our very eyes on our television screens? There’s one part of me that suggests “let me go there and tie myself to one of the columns of the great temple of Bel and let me die in the truth of what is beautiful rather than live in an iconoclastic world which has already seen the destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan and the Lions of Nineveh.
I do not exaggerate when I say that the latter days barbarians, who are driving out hundreds of thousands of innocent people from their homes ,who are instilling punishments worthy of the darkest days of our own sadly recent history, who are demolishing not just a Greek, not just a Hellenistic, not just a Roman but a Moslem city, are also demolishing a part of all of us who derive the majority of our ethos and culture from those very life-giving, world enhancing roots that have made the planet we live on – for all its terrible imperfections, its abuses, its injustices: a positive place in which to live, to love and to treasure.
Another set of lines seems to come out of me at this moment to add to those already written above – I am just SO ANGRY about what’s happening out there……
Zeynab, your golden chains which trailed Rome’s streets
now tie me to your heart, stricken by fear
that nothing will destroy the world’s deceits
disposed upon civilization’s bier
I shall walk your colonnades in dreams,
tread as a phantom upon your theatre’s rows
open unseen doors and allow sunbeam’s
light upon that exquisite desert rose.
As temples collapse and creeds disappear
as statues crumble and pediments are smashed
and ignorant armies rejoice and sneer,
is all we care for eternally trashed?
We cannot stand and wait and watch and weep
Can lives really end in endless sleep?
Here is Zenobia (Zeynab) herself having a last look on Palmyria. The painting is by Herbert Schmaltz and is in Adelaide’s art gallery in Australia.
Are we to join her too?
At least we can join a performance of Tommaso Albinoni’s opera “Zenobia – regina dei Palmireni” from 1694 given in this performance at Damascus in 2008…….happy times….
It’s so sad to realise that of Albinoni’s fifty+ operas only two survive complete, most having been destroyed when the scores held into the Dresden Library were burnt by firebombing. Since Albinoni was reckoned to be the equal of Vivaldi and Gasparini, if not better than them, then this surely is another tragic loss. When will we ever learn to preserve what is truly precious!.