Sunday, September 9, 2012

Under the Shadow of Vesuvius

Just one of the city's meandering roads
Last weekend we visited the ruins of Pompeii.  Since elementary school I had been reading about the ancient city's tragic fate and I had always wondered about a place that just seemed so far off and mysterious.  Being that this was our fourth trip to Italy in the past year, we decided it was time to visit this UNESCO World Heritage site receiving 2,500,000 visitors a year and see it for ourselves.

Petrified remains; human and other
The demise of ancient Pompeii came about with the eruption of nearby Mount Vesuvius on 24 August 79 AD.  (Yes, this is ancient history).  Over the course of three days, between thirteen to twenty feet of ash and pumice from the erupting volcano buried everything that laid in its path of destruction.  Buildings, humans, and animals and all of their accompanying accessories were petrified where they stood and lay undiscovered and undisturbed for close to 1700 years.

Prior to its destruction, Pompeii was a city covering over 160 acres with a population of approximately 20,000 inhabitants that was still recovering and rebuilding from an earthquake that had destroyed parts of the city close to twenty years before.  Its economy was largely agricultural but Pompeii was also a vacation destination for wealthy Romans.  Located much closer to the sea at the time it was by all accounts a thriving part of Italy's Campania region.

I just love these
Portions of the buried city were first uncovered in 1599 and excavations have been continuing ever since.  While parts of the ruined city remain buried and untouched, what is believed to be the majority of the preserved ruins are open for viewing with more opening to the public each year.  I thought I knew what to expect when visiting but in reality, I was unprepared for the expansive awesomeness of Pompeii.

Evidence of the city's successful heyday is clearly shown in the excavated ruins.  We visited on a relatively cool and cloudy day which worked to our advantage both in terms of thin crowds who might have been deterred by the weather and the sun since there is essentially no natural shade in Pompeii.  We spent several hours roaming through well-worn narrow cobblestone streets and brick ruins, viewing amazingly well preserved frescoes, and since Sidney was us, splashing in muddy puddles and sampling from corner water fountains.  Wandering past the remnants of what had once been shops I wondered about the goods that might have been sold there.  Standing in the shadow of the Edifici Amministrazione Pubblica I wondered about the judges who once ruled on court cases in these impressive confines.  Climbing the steps in the Teatre Grande I thought about the groups that had gathered in this grand amphitheater.  Viewing a well-preserved but spartan kitchen I wondered about the meals that were created within its confines.

Because of my love of all things history I always appreciate the historical significance of all of the ancient sites we visit.  The sheer will, hard work, and determination that went into erecting these buildings, streets, and cities long before the advent of heavy machinery and equipment that today makes such feats easy.  How long must it have taken to place each stone and brick in place?  (The fact that Pompeii was still recovering from an earthquake twenty years after the fact speaks directly to this difficulty).  Beyond the architecture and infrastructure, however, I wonder about the people who walked, worked, and lived within this ancient city.  Regardless of one's socio-economic class, life would not have been easy by today's standards.  Take the aforementioned kitchen for example; cooking the simplest of meals must have been such a tedious task.  Given the hard sharp edges of the buildings and streets, I wondered where the children played.  Did their mothers worry about cuts and bruises as much as I did while we were there?  (As if to put my worries to a test, Sidney experienced his own share of falls and scrapes during our visit).  While it is not possible, I would love to be able to spend just one day walking in the footsteps of one of Pompeii's (or any ancient civilization for that matter) citizens.

Our visit to Pompeii was memorable and should be a definite stop on everyone's travel itinerary through the Campania region of Italy. There is a reason that Pompeii has been a tourist destination for over 250 years, was included as part of the traditional Grand Tour of Europe and still attracts so many visitors each year.  If you get a chance to go, do it.  You won't regret it.

The Temple of Jupiter with Mt Vesuvius looming in the background

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