POMPEII- AN ANCIENT MARVEL OF THE WORLD
Though this trip is part of our Amalfi Coast tour , the narrative should start from the time we arrived at Naples and should also include our visit to the ruins of Pompeii, since Pompeii is also part of Southern Italy.
We had a super comfortable ,super –deluxe train journey from Rome to Naples. After 12 days of travelling by bus and metro in the metropolitan cities of Paris ,Barcelona and Rome we had planned to rent a car and enjoy the rest of our trip at a leisurely pace at the Amalfi coast and Catania ,Sicily.
Reaching Pompeii –
So with an immense feeling of satisfaction, that we would be able to end our trip the way we usually do – drive around , we approached the car rental . But our instant sense of relief turned into an instant sense of horror! Samit couldn’t find his driving license. So, we stood there for a while , dumbfounded, racking our brains about what to do next. Obviously there was a major, 180 degree change of plans. Since we had to now travel by bus or ferry , which again was time bound , we had to omit places which would have been easier to access by car but difficult by bus.
But before that we had to reach Pompeii – a well preserved archeological site in close proximity to the Bay of Naples and a 20 minutes drive from Naples city – which was on our itinerary for the day.
We went back to the train station looking up for trains and found one which left for Pompeii in an hour. What we boarded was a jam-packed local train which took one and a half hours to reach its destination and which stopped at almost 10-12 stations before reaching the Pompeii Scavi station .So what was supposed to be a pleasant 20 minute trip with all the luggage snugly kept in the car dickie, turned out to be a nightmare, with us running to board and struggling inside an over-crowded local train with three large suitcases and hand luggage , stopping at every possible excuse.
Pompeii Archeological Park –
After reaching Pompeii we had to store our luggage somewhere. Not sure how far we had to drag our luggage, we picked the first option we found- a place next to the train station which charged quite a lot. Another pain was that , we had to drag the luggage down a flight of steep stairs to the locker room given to us. Since it wasn’t a priority,we hadn’t done any research about luggage storage and later on found out that there was a storage room at the entrance of the Pompeii Archeological Park. Not only was the room free of charge but also easily accessible.
We were famished from all this stressful activity from the morning till noon, which had drained most of our energy. So before entering the park we sat to have a lunch of pasta and chicken at a restaurant next to the station . By the time we entered the park it was already 2 in the afternoon. In all this time Samit had contacted our host Francesco of the BnB –Casa Vacanza Pappacoda at Agerola , we were staying in and he graciously came to our rescue by offering to pick us up and take us to the BnB. He was to come around 5pm, so we had only a few hours to explore the ruins.
HOW TRAGEDY STRUCK POMPEII :
The pomp and splendour of the past –
The famous ruins of Pompeii are located in the Campagna region of Naples ,Italy. There is no dearth of ruins in Italy ; whichever city or town you go to, you’ll always find a plethora of archeological wonders in every corner ;but Pompeii and its neighouring town Herculaneum holds a special status.
Pompeii is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Italy and deserves a little background information.
Pompeii was a much sought -out, prosperous city situated 23kms south of Naples and at the base of Mount Vesuvius, a powerful, active volcano. It was first occupied by Greek settlers in the 8th century B.C and then the Romans in the 2nd century B.C. But by the turn of the first century A.D., due its proximity both to the Lattari mountains as well as the Bay of Naples and also due to the rich agricultural land surrounding it, Pompeii had turned into a successful resort for the affluent and distinguished citizens of Rome . By 79 AD, Pompeii had a population of 20,000.
The eruption –
In 79 AD tragedy struck- Pompeii, Herculaneum and many other neighbouring towns and villages were buried under around 20 ft of volcanic ash and pumice due to a massive eruption of Mount Vesuvius . The history of the place and the dramatic nature of the eruption has been an inspiration for many books and movies throughout the ages.
It was at school where I had first learnt about Pompeii ,from the book ‘The Last Days of Pompeii’ written by Edward Bulwer-Lytton.
The question –
The question arises –why would the people of Pompeii build such a great civilization next to a volcano capable of wiping out everything in its path? True that the Southern part of Italy had always been-and still is- prone to earthquakes. The Vesuvius volcano is part of a volcanic stretch that falls on the divide between the African and Eurasian tectonic plates on the Italian peninsula and had been erupting for thousands of years even before Pompeii came into existence.
The Vesuvius has erupted almost 50 times. The earliest known eruption was in 1780 BC ; another massive eruption had struck in 63 AD which had caused much damage to both Pompeii and Herculaneum – just 17 years before the one that had destroyed Pompeii. So it seems the people of the region had grown accustomed to such earthquakes and eruptions.
A death-blow –
But the eruption of 79AD came as a death blow to a whole city. The eruption,which would have been a magnitude of 7.5 on the Richter scale , lasted for two days.
Mount Vesuvius showered volcanic debris – fragments of ash and pumice – all over the city of Pompeii. Buildings were destroyed, the population was crushed and the city was buried to a depth of more than 20 feet beneath this volcanic debris , causing the roofs of many houses to fall.
The next day, pyroclastic material and gases consisting of high speed, dense, and blisteringly hot ash clouds, demolished wholly or partly all structures in their path, incinerating or asphyxiating those residents who had not been killed by falling debris ,altering the landscape, including the coastline .
Pliny’s description of the eruption –
Pliny the Younger, a lawyer, author, and magistrate of Ancient Rome, had actually witnessed the eruption and has given a vivid description in two letters written to his friend , the historian Tacitus. Pliny the Younger, who watched the eruption from Naples, compared this “cloud of unusual size and appearance” to a pine tree that “rose to a great height on a sort of trunk and then split off into branches”. Today, geologists refer to this type of volcanic eruption as a ‘Plinean’ eruption.
DISCOVERING THE RUINS OF POMPEII :
The impact of the volcano was so sudden that most of the remains of Pompeii have been perfectly preserved for more than 19 centuries beneath layers and layers of ash and stone. The ruins that we see now were first discovered in the 16th century by the Italian architect Domenico Fontana who worked on St. Peter’s Basilica and other famous buildings of Rome and Naples.
The discovery was a revelation to a whole world that was astonished by a sophisticated Greco-Roman city frozen in time. The excavated city offered a unique, detailed picture of everyday life of its inhabitants.
After sorting out the baggage situation we entered into the site. It was mind-blowingly massive. Of course not as large as the ruins we had seen in Rome, still formidable in its own way with a feeling of being more compact.
So much was saved from the past -public buildings, private houses, businesses and shops, public baths and gardens. The city of Pompeii was shaped irregularly because it was built on a prehistoric lava flow.
WHAT IS INSIDE POMPEII :
The Forum –
We entered through the Marina gate and first came to a huge open space which used to be the Forum – with the huge statue of a Centaur in the middle. The Forum was the centre of the city’s religious, economic, social and civic life; it was a large rectangular area surrounded by a two-story colonnaded portico.
On the northern end of the Forum was the temple dedicated to the Capitoline triad of deities: Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva.
The southern end of the Forum, was the meeting place of the city council and the offices of the magistrates of the city.
To the east was the Triangular Forum with the Macellum, or large provision market, the Temple of Vespasian and the large Basilica, the most architecturally significant building in the city. Across from the Basilica was the Temple of Apollo, another old temple in the city.
The Triangular Forum was also the site of the Doric Temple, the oldest temple in Pompeii.
To the west of the Triangular Forum was the Temple of Venus Pompeiana, patron deity of Pompeii.
A small theatre , a large theatre , the Temple of Isis, the enormous Amphitheatre and Palaestra or gymnasium with a central natatorium or swimming pool – still in pretty good condition – are all situated on the east side of Pompeii.
The Baths –
Many public Baths –simple as well as luxurious-were scattered throughout the city: the
Stabian Baths,the Forum Baths, the Central Baths; a well-made aqueduct supplied water to the public baths, to more than 25 street fountains, and to many private houses (domus) and businesses.
But the most significant discoveries were the hundreds of private homes of both famous figures as well as ordinary people.
The Houses –
The House of the Surgeon is the best-known example of an early atrium built house (a rectangular open patio around which a house is built, basically the central room of a Roman house) during this period.
The House of the Faun occupied an entire city block with two atria (chief rooms), four triclinia (dining rooms), and two large peristyle gardens – a peristyle garden was located in an open courtyard of a house and was usually surrounded by colonnades; various ornamental plants and statues were found in the garden. Its facade was built of fine-grained gray tufa ( a type of limestone) from Nuceria, the chief building material of this period and the walls were decorated in the First Pompeian, or Incrustation style of painting- a type of fresco made of several layers of damp plaster.
The famous Alexander the Great mosaic found in the House of the Faun is probably a copy of a lost Hellenistic painting.
In fact the frescoes, mosaics and graffiti from Pompeii were a tremendous inspiration for the 17thcentury artists, architects, potters, and even furniture makers in Europe .
Another amazing discovery were the garden sites .Remains of carbonised food plant, roots, seeds and pollens, have been found from these gardens. Barley, wheat, and millet were all produced along with wine and olive oil, in abundance which reveals the agricultural prosperity of the time.
Even the independent shops of sculptors, toolmakers, and gem cutters, as well as the factories for garum (fish sauce) and lamps, bakeries, fulleries (processing and cleaning plants for wool),graineries all provide information about so many aspects of social, economic, religious, and political life of the time.
The Food Counters –
In fact archaeologists have recently discovered a vibrantly frescoed thermopolium , Latin for hot drinks counter, the ancient equivalent of a hot food and drinks street food shop to Roman passersby . Traces of nearly 2,000-year-old food were found in some of the deep terra cotta jars containing hot food which the shopkeeper lowered into a counter with circular holes.
The front of the counter was decorated with brightly coloured frescoes, some depicting animals that were part of the ingredients in the food sold, such as a chicken and two ducks hanging upside down.
Traces of pork, fish, snails and beef had been found in the containers, proof of the great variety of animal products used to prepare dishes.
The Bodies –
But what haunted us during our visit were the plastered bodies on display at the site as well as the adjacent museum.
To recreate these preserved bodies, plaster was poured into soft cavities in the ash, which were about 30 feet beneath the surface. These cavities were the outlines of bodies, and they retained their forms despite the soft tissue – soft spots that still held the bones of the cadavers decomposing over time. The plaster filled in the spaces formerly occupied by soft tissue.
The bodies of Pompeii are even more lifelike than they appear.
Some of the bodies were found in the fetal position which indicates death from asphyxiation while other bodies were found in relatively casual positions which indicate that incredibly high temperatures killed them instantaneously by what scientists call “extreme cadaveric spasm,” where the body’s muscles instantly contract from extreme dehydration.
It was a pretty gruesome sight ,seeing a body dead in a sitting position.
Bidding adieu –
After seeing all this we came back to the open Forum. In spite of being the shoulder season and the latter end of the day, the place was thronged with people. The Vesuvius looked magnificent in the glowing dusk and the place looked serene and peaceful . While leaving the site we peeped into the museum, that also displayed more plastered bodies in various positions as well as innumerous skulls .We gathered some interesting tidbits about Pompeii and saw a video on how Pompeii was destroyed and recovered.
Francesco car had arrived and it was time to say Arrivederci Pompeii.
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