See the pyramids along the Nile….

#100. See the pyramids.

I’ve seen the only remaining wonder of the seven wonders of the world, have you?

whoa, it's a pyramid! by me

The first thing that I ever wrote down on my list of 100 things to do before I die was to see the pyramids. I have been fascinated by Egyptian history since reading Lloyd Alexander’s Time Cat when I was little and finding out that the Egyptians thought that cats were gods. I’ve always been a cat person, okay?

There’s something iconic about getting to see the pyramids. Eiffel towers, Colosseums, Statues of Liberty are the bookmarks of travel guides, the milestones of trips around the world.

The question is, do you see the pyramids to say that you have seen the pyramids, or do you actually see the pyramids? Do you stop and think about what you’re seeing? About how long it has survived? About the thousands of people who built it, or the millions of people who have stood where you’re standing and looked up?

The pyramids aren’t what you think they’re going to be. Behind them you can see downtown Cairo. Across the street from the Sphinx there’s a Pizza Hut and a KFC. The pyramids are no longer a relic of a great civilization. They are, instead, a magnet for tourist dollars and cheap souvenirs.

I wouldn’t let them ruin it for me. As I stood there on the sand, I forced myself to look up and not at the merchants circling nearby. I forced myself to remember every favourite moment in all of my favourite historical fictions that made me fall in love with ancient Egypt.

The pyramids are a feat of engineering and design. A colossus, withstanding the test of time and giving the Pharaohs what they desired most - immortality. Because thousands of years later, we still stand amazed.

The one where I get stuck in a ruined city

On August 24, 79 AD, Mount Vesuvius, an active volcano in the vicinity of modern Naples in Italy, erupted and buried the surrounding settlements of Pompeii and Herculaneum under a mile of rock and ash, killing up to 25,000 people.

Pompeii and Vesuvius, by me

Pompeii remained buried until the 16th Century, Herculaneum until the 18th. In 1804, the first real excavations of Pompeii began to uncover the city. Large scale excavations of the ruined city continue to this day making Pompeii one of the largest and most famous archaeological sites in the world.

The plan was to get to Pompeii from Rome and back again in one day. Pompeii is closest to Naples, about 2.5 hours from Rome. We arrived at Termini, the central Roman train station, at about 9am on Monday. We struggled through buying our tickets, and spent about 20 minutes with a dictionary trying to read the Italian tickets and figure out where were supposed to be waiting for the train and where we would sit once it arrived.

We boarded the train and found our seats, only to be almost immediately yelled at in Italian that we were in the wrong seats. We tried to show the two ladies our tickets and prove that we were in the right place, but they just kept saying “No, no!” And so, assuming we must be wrong, we left the seats and went up the carriage to ask an employee and another man who spoke English. Both pointed us back to where we had come from. Finally, we squeezed our way through small, crowded hallways to the seats we had started with. The ladies were gone and our seats were now vacant. We sat down and I watched the Italian countryside through the rain on my window for most of the journey (punctuated by naps, of course, because it was quite early still.)

With the train and a transfer to the Metro in Naples, we got to Pompeii at about 1pm. The site is open until 5pm, so we had enough time to see most of it (not all, though, because it really is an entire ancient city.)

It was pouring rain by the time we arrived, and though it was frustrating to have to hold up my umbrella and my camera at the same time, it also made the site a lot more interesting to me. Pompeii is a major tourist location, and I’ve heard that in the summer it’s packed beyond belief. Since it was the off season, and since it was raining, Pompeii really did look like an abandoned, ruined city. A city of the dead. You could walk several streets before running into another person. It gave a very surreal, ghostly aspect to the site.

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The streets of Pompeii are still paved with cobblestones and still have the stones in place for the pedestrians to cross without stepping in puddles or debris. In the rain, they were more rivers than streets and we were glad for the raised sidewalks on either side. We wandered the streets of Pompeii, walking around a city that was frozen in time in 79AD. It was amazing to see the way a town looked in the Roman Empire. With wall paintings, mosaics and graffiti still in tact, it was easy to imagine yourself a Pompeian in the houses and courtyards.

A room with wall paintings, by me

When they excavated Pompeii, they didn’t find dead bodies. They were incinerated in the heat. But the way the ash and rock had fallen created pockets of air in the shape of where the bodies had been. Therefore, archaeologists were able to make plaster casts of the people who had died in Pompeii. In the summer I understand that many of these are left in situ, among the buildings of the city so that you can see where they died. In the off season, however, the casts are kept in an open storage area.

Praying, by me

As someone studying archaeology, Pompeii was a wonder to see. I have been reading in textbooks for years of all the things we’ve found out from Pompeii. Because it was frozen in time, it alloys us to see how a Roman city would have looked in the 1st Century AD. Graffiti, wall paintings, amphorae and shops can tells us countless things about the Roman way of life.

Needless to say, we spent as much time as possible at Pompeii.

At around 4:25 we made our way back to the main gate to buy the guidebook. The last admission was at 4:30, so we ran out quickly to get the book and then nipped back in. An employee told us not to go too far, since they were closing in half an hour. We told him that we were going to go see the Villa of the Mysteries and exit that way.

And so, we walked across the city to the Villa. We got there at about 4:50, just in time to see the Villa and exit on time. But when we were done looking around the Villa, we realized that we couldn’t find the way out the book had described. There was a fence that kept us from going any further past the Villa.

We decided to go back up the hill to see if we had missed the exit on our way in. A man told us that we had to go back towards the main entrance. We were confused, but we continued up the hill anyway.

After walking for a while, we realized that the path we were on wasn’t going to lead us to an exit. By now it was 5:20 and dark, and there was no one else in Pompeii. Everyone had left for the day. We still had no idea how to get out.

We had two options, either to go back down into the city and keep walking to the main entrance and hope we could still get out that way, or go back to the Villa of the Mysteries and continue to search for that exit. Standing on top of the hill, we could see Vesuvius, the city of Naples and the intense dark of the dead city below. The only house nearby had dogs that were barking loudly and, in my anxious mind, angrily. I was worried we would have to stay in Pompeii all night.

Stuck in Pompeii at night, by me

We decided to go back to the Villa and try our chances there.

When we got back to the Villa it was about 5:40. We jumped two fences to get past it, trying to follow the signs that said “Uscita” (Italian for exit.) Finally, walking around with only the flashlight on my keychain for light, we found the exit. A woman in the building at the exit saw our flashlight and opened her window. She started yelling in a mix of Italian and English that they were closed, we had to leave. I yelled back “I know! We’re trying! Uscita! Uscita!”

Finally, we got out of Pompeii and didn’t have to spend the night with only two toblerones and a package of Fruit Joys, possibly ending up food for the famous Pompeii stray dogs.

Of course, on the way down the hill in the dark I tripped and went over on my ankle and I ended up having to buy a Tensor (/Ace) bandage to keep me walking all over Rome for the week.

A Roman Holiday

Rome is one of the world’s greatest cities*, presently and certainly historically. Once, it was the heart an entire Empire, centre of the known world.

The Colosseum, by me

I fully expected to fall in love with Rome. I’ve been enchanted by Roman history for years. My head was full of Julius Caesar and SPQR as I stepped off the plane at Ciampino airport. I had this idea of Rome, something about motorcycles and warm nights and a beautiful flowing red dress, something I’d dreamed up years ago from movies and books. I had an idea that this would be like the first time I went to Paris or London, that I would fall under the spell of a great city, catch a glimpse of it’s beauty, character and charm.

I didn’t.

Surely, there was a great deal to see in Rome. The Forum was amazing - the axis on which the Roman world spun for centuries. The Pantheon was beautiful, an iconic work of architecture that captures the flavour of the height of Roman power and the beauty of a gilded Christian Empire at the same time.

The Pantheon, by me

But there was very little character to Rome. It was not a city of love, like Paris. It was not a city of the world, like London. It was a city of the past. I didn’t fall in love. I thoroughly enjoyed the ruins, the pasta, the gelato. But I’m not in a rush to get back anytime soon.

*According to The Economist and Time Out, the world’s greatest cities are: 1. New York 2. London 3. Paris 4. Berlin 5. Chicago 6. Barcelona 7. Tokyo 8. Istanbul 9. Rome 10. Sydney.

So many miles

Tomorrow afternoon (weather permitting) I’m leaving Newcastle for Edinburgh. Sunday at 6am I’m leaving Edinburgh for Rome.

I’ve never been to a city even a little like Rome before. I’ve never been anywhere where I didn’t speak the language.

I’m going to be back in Newcastle for one day before I go to Egypt the next week. If I think Rome’s going to be different, than Egypt is even more so.

I won’t be able to update while I’m in Rome or Egypt, but I’m going to try to write posts the old fashion way, by hand, so that I can put them up when I get back. Because, as I said a few posts ago, what I love most about this blog is that it teaches me how to tell my own life’s story.

A story that’s about to get pretty damn exciting.

The Secret History

Apparently The Secret History by Donna Tartt is quite a famous book. Apparently, people read it in high school. Not much in North America, as far as I can tell, but often in Britain. Which is odd, because it’s a very American book, in my opinion. It mimics books like Catcher in the Rye and the Great Gatsby. It is full of their themes, of their types of characters. Of their discoveries.

The first part of The Secret History was very good. The plot starts with the narrator joining a small Greek class at an elite arts college, handpicked by a professor who is charismatic, mildly famous and quite the classicist. The parts in the beginning where they talk about classics, either Greek translation or classical plays, were my favourite. I thought surely the plot would follow some sort of classical theme, and I was ready for it. I got all the references they were making, and I loved it.

Then the book suddenly turned into a murder mystery and abandoned the idea of classics all together for most of the novel, save a few brief references. I found the plot intriguing, and wanted to see how it ended, but there was definitely a part in the middle of this very long (629 pages!) book that I was bored and had no idea where they were going with it. Then the ending was good, especially the epilogue.

I had higher hopes for this book than panned out, but it was still a good read.

My favourite lines, mostly from the beginning:

“Does such a thing as ‘the fatal flaw,’ that showy dark crack running down the middle of a life, exist outside literature? I used to think it didn’t. Now I think it does. And I think that mine is this: a morbid longing for the picturesque at all costs.”

“There is to me about this place a smell of rot, the smell of rot that ripe fruit makes. Nowhere, ever, have the hideous mechanics of birth and copulation and death - those monstrous upheavals of life that the Greeks call miasma, defilement - been so brutal or painted up to look so pretty; have so many people put so much faith in lies and mutability and death death death.”

“‘After all, what are the scenes in poetry graven on our memories, the ones that we love the most? Precisely these. The murder of Agamemnon and the wrath of Achilles. Dido on a funeral pyre. The daggers of the traitors and Caesar’s blood - remember how Suetonius describes his body being borne away on the litter, with one arm hanging down?’
‘Death is the mother of beauty,’ said Henry.
‘And what is beauty?’
‘Terror.’
‘Well said,’ said Julian. ‘Beauty is rarely soft or consolatory. Quite the contrary. Genuine beauty is always quite alarming.’”