The Legendary Pompeii

I’ve written about Pompeii before, but I can’t help but feel I did a pretty shoddy job of it considering just how impressive the location I’m talking about is. And so I’m doing a take two on this, now with more detail and description. More of a narrative historical overview approach rather than the ‘this is what I saw and what I did from last time. Links are all to pictures I took while wandering Pompeii.

Pompeii is a small city in Naples Italy famous for being the most intact Roman ruins in the world and the remains of one of the ancient worlds most grand tragedies. It was almost two thousand years ago the volcano Mt. Vesuvius erupted and in a an event that could only be described as apocalyptic the city of Pompeii was buried in flame and ash. We can imagine it now, the sky a pitch black from ash and smoke. The cities inhabitants running, screaming, illuminated only by the dreary red of flames as ghastly silhouettes amidst the carnage. Those that don’t perish in the fires wishing they had as they are buried in burning ash as it descended from the sky like a terrible hellish snow, those unfortunate souls last moments that of choking on searing ash as they collapse to the ground in agony and perish. People and animals alike dying, being buried alive, burning. Soon not just the people are being buried, but the city itself. And as the volcanoes wrath subsides and the sun can once again be seen in the sky, nothing remains of the city that once was. It’s people, its buildings, all of it simply gone.

Time passes and the tragedy becomes a memory, then a story, then myth, and is then forgotten entirely.

The story sounds surreal, a work of horrible fiction, but that is the tragic tale behind the small city of Pompeii. It was by accident that the city was rediscovered during the building of a villa for the King of Naples and since then has becomes one of the greatest archaeological sites  in the major world. A city, perfectly preserved for almost two thousand years. Nothing like it exists anywhere else! And so archaeologists flocked to the site and began the massive dig which continues to this day as new rooms are uncovered and explored, new buildings unearthed and locations ancient and wondrous exposed to the light once again.

Of course Pompeii’s most gruesome and yet eerily fascinating claim to fame today is perhaps not so much the city itself, remarkable although it may be, but the inhabitants that once lived there. While excavating archaeologists took note of strange gaps in the ancient ash, holes and shapes they couldn’t rightly explain at first. The idea eventually came to fill these gaps with plaster and to then carve the casts from the earth themselves, preserving the shape of whatever it was that had left this odd cast for archaeologists to study. I’ve no doubt they knew what to expect, yet all the same I can only imagine the mingled emotions which much have greeted those men and women as the first of these shapes emerged from the ground. The mingled fascination and horror as they saw before them the shape of Pompeii’s residents in their final hours of agony and death. Pompeii’s ancient populace once again emerging into the light of day.

With this discovery Pompeii’s claim to fame was complete. You see as the populace was buried in ash it preserved their shapes perfectly, the ash around their still forms hardening over the years even as the bodies themselves rotted away and dissolved, leaving behind eerily detailed casts of those poor souls for mankind to once again discover so very many years later.

You can see them yourselves now if you so choose, many of these forms on display within Pompeii, sometimes even in the locations in which they were found although now preserved and protected by a glass covering but otherwise open to public view. For although Pompeii remains to this day an archaeological site of paramount importance it has also gained fame as a tourists location which anyone with the time and money may visit and admire and beyond any doubt one of the most memorable locations which I have ever visited.

The site itself is easy enough to find as there’s a train stop for the small town of Pompei, the name of the modern town which surrounds its more ancient namesake. Not a bad place itself really with generally friendly people and a nice central park that boasts the impressive visage of the towns basilica which serves the occasional religious pilgrims that visit the area. The historic town of Pompeii (Note two i’s rather than one!) lay only a short walk from that central square and can be entered via a pair of simple booths that stand guard, charging the relatively meager fee of 10 euros for entrance. It’s worth noting that by the looks of it those booths might not be standing there much longer as construction on a much more elaborate and grand entrance was in the works while I took my visit. It’s almost a pity and I can only hope that the city retains its extremely minimalistic tourism style which I found extremely appealing.

You see, Pompeii is quite literally a small town you are given free reign to wander almost anywhere you wish. Some sections are closed, most often for the archaeologists which still work to uncover and study the site or for preservation reasons, but for the most part everything is free to be seen and explored. So big is this small ruined town that street signs adorn the corners and many buildings have been given numbers and names, it is quite literally like wandering a ruined, abandoned town with little more than the ghosts of the past, some stray dogs,  and the occasional fellow tourist to keep you company. There are no fancy displays or gaudy exhibits, just ancient history left as it was found for you to see and experience.

Picture yourself walking along ancient stone roads or across worn dirt paths as you wander amidst the ancient crumbling ruins. Walking beneath arches that have lasted longer than many religions. Entire civilizations of men and women arising and falling while this city stood still in time. And now here you are walking along streets which until recently hadn’t been walked upon for thousands of years, formed of uneven large stones worn smooth and with deep ruts carved into the rock itself from centuries of horse-drawn karts being driven over them. It can make for difficult walking at times, but that’s all part of the experience. For the most part the buildings to either side are rubble, hollow walls that extend outward in strange labyrinth patterns. Crumbling murals still sometimes visible on the deteriorated walls and where floor once lay and roof sheltered now grows grass and weeds. It’s both touching and fascinating. You can tell sometimes which rooms were which; the ruins of what once was a sink in one area and another which could only have been a bedroom, adding a human touch to the mysteries around you.

Not all is ruin however. Some buildings have been rebuilt and strengthened with modern aid with new beams of wood supporting the ancient rooftop, the floors still sporting beautiful murals and paintings across the walls. And some few rare structures have survived all these years intact and can be walked within today, casting a glimpse into the unaltered state of how it once stood so long ago. Perhaps the most dramatic example of this being the Roman Bath House which still boasts some absolutely gorgeous murals and carvings across walls and roof alike as well as specially placed holes in the ceiling which cast down beams of light into places where once water would have been and people would have laughed and relaxed. Haunting. Then there’s the amphitheater and the small theater as well as various other fairly complete structures.

You may wander among the ancient grave site, down the residential avenue, along the vast green courtyard of the temple district and more! Yet for all its size there’s still more to be uncovered as another estimated third of the original Pompeii remains buried, you can see it as the ruins end with a stark wall of buildings seemingly emerging from the grassy dirt field beyond. Walls half uncovered half buried, streets that lead into nothing. There’s still so much left to be uncovered and for future archaeologists to discover (Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, the vast majority of money to the site is dedicated to preservation rather than continued excavation, so it’s unlikely much more of the city will be uncovered for a very long time to come, if ever.). Indeed it’s a vast and wondrous feeling, and can at moments casts a feel of adventure which most popular tourist sites fail to create. It can just feel so incredibly adventurous to be wandering amidst the rubble, regardless of the fact thousands have been there before. A glimpse into a time long gone.

Pompeii may not be for everyone; There was a group of American tourists, I’m guessing Texan or something of the like judging by their accents, who frankly I found disgusting. Every second word a swear, spitting, kicking walls, laughing like bloody idiots as they flaunted their ignorance “What the F#%k is this? I dunno! Stupid Italians! Huh huh!” all while wandering like idiots and talking as loudly as possible. Sadly such is the norm in any tourist location, although in a location such as Pompeii behavior like that I found particularly distasteful and disrespectful. Fortunately Pompeii is so large I only saw the group twice, and the other visitors to the site were much more appreciative. I can only hope such is the norm.

You wont find a beach or any stylish attractions in Pompeii, and if you just want to see ‘the bodies’ you’d be better off simply looking pictures up online (I only took one picture, which I wont post. It felt… wrong somehow to be snapping pictures of such things.) as they are not that numerous nor will they hold your attention for long unless you’re the particularly morbid type. No, the real star of Pompeii is the town itself, and for those with a love of history or even simply a sense of exploration and a respect for the past Pompeii is one of the most grand places you might ever visit. There simply is not another experience like it!

The modern town of Pompei is small but friendly and scenic, the historic site is wondrous beyond words, and honestly the entire experience does not cost nearly as much as most would think. Pompei is easy to reach via train by Naples, a large nearby city which itself I never got to see, and the view from the train is as wondrous as I’d come to expect from Italy.  That part of Italy is particularly gorgeous by any standards.

So why not? Go. Visit one of the worlds most amazing historical sites. Pompeii is a place to be remembered!

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2 Comments on “The Legendary Pompeii”

  1. briefhiatus Says:

    Fabulous post! I wasn’t sure if we would have time to make it to Pompeii during our upcoming trip, but you have me sold. I must prioritize it.

    • incipiency Says:

      It’s worth it. If you’re going to be traveling by train be prepared for some frustrations however as the Italian train system is probably the worst in western Europe, fortunately the view more than makes up for it and it’s pretty cheap. Plus there’s just something about going over the mountains in a creaky old two-car train; Makes for a good story at the least.

      Enjoy yourself!

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