Monday, July 25, 2011

Neapolis - (Pompeii, Mt. Vesuvius)


I apologize for taking so long to get this post up. When I think about my procrastination during the summer I laugh because I know I should be blogging more during this time. After all, I do not have to worry about school-work, studying, or anything like that -- especially with law school coming up soon. Our family has been occupied for the past few weeks, but I promise you that we will eventually get to Rome somehow!

I want to write this post and share with you our visit to Pompeii and Mt. Vesuvius via Naples. We were nearing the end of our trip and returned to Italy after narrowly passing through the short strait between Sicily (Messina) and the "heel of Italy". This time we traveled along her western coast on our way through the Tyrrhenian Sea and our first stop was in the port of Naples.

As always, our port guide and shore excursions helped accustom us to the area and give us most of the following information about this unique part of Italy. If we recall that Greek colonists spread out around the Mediterranean in ancient times, we will not be surprised that they found the sunny shores of southern Italy a suitable place to plant the seeds of Hellenistic civilization. The Greeks called one of these new settlements "Neapolis" or "New City", from where we get the modern name of Naples.

With the rise of Rome, further to the north, Neapolis and other Greek colonies in Italy were eventually conquered, with the former firmly under Roman rule by the 4th century. (Ironic isn't it? The descendants of Aeneas, after having fled Troy, conquer the descendants of their conquerors!). The Greeks were a stubborn bunch though and never were completed conquered by the Latins. They maintained their customs, language, and much of their culture for many centuries afterward -- arguably to the benefit of the Romans, who incorporated many of these elements into their own system in an example of old-world cross-cultural exchange.

The Romans, as the Greeks, treated southern Italy as the breadbasket of their fledgling republic and later empire. The region was also renowned for its natural beauty. Some of the most beautiful sights in all the Mediterranean can be seen along including the Amalfi Coast, island of Capri, and city of Sorrento. We had the option of taking of taking a variety of excursions, but I decided to go apart from my family and take the Pompeii and Mt. Vesuvius hike.

Then as it is now, this region of Italy was a popular location for rich Roman patrician families, politicians, and later, emperors, to visit. Pompeii was one of these resort towns. The city's end, of course, is inextricably tied to that of fateful eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 77 AD eruption which left most of it and the nearby town of Herculaneum buried underneath volcanic rock, ash, and dust.

It was not until 1748, when southern Italy was controlled by the Spanish (reunification would not come for over another century), that the excavations were initially made and the world became slowly reacquainted with Pompeii. Seeing it for the first time, I can only imagine what the first archaeologists thought of the discovery! It was as if 1st century Italy was preserved in time as the volcano trapped in a short instant all unlucky enough to not to have escaped in time.

And so, we got off the boat, took a short drive through Naples (saw a cameo "shell-art" workshop), and then headed to Mt. Vesuvius. The hike itself wasn't too bad. The slope was gently winding and there was an easy path for all of us to follow, although it took me a fair amount of time to walk my way up there. But it wasn't too bad as I had the chance to relax and take in the beautiful view of the surrounding countryside of Campagnia and the Gulf of Naples:

We also saw lots of the native wildlife, plants, and many beautiful flowers:

Eventually, I reached the topic and got a chance to look into the volcano crater. It was a bit surreal to be on top of an actual volcano. The last eruption of Mt. Vesuvius was in 1944, in the waning days of World War II. Who knows when it will erupt again? 

Some locals left an icon and wrote a prayer of intercession to the Blessed Virgin Mary and Jesus to protect the town:

This is a view from the topic of Mt. Vesuvius. Sorrento is shrouded in the mist to the left and the island of Capri is towards the back center:

After the hike up Mt. Vesuvius I walked the trail back down to where the buses were waiting. Rocks kept on getting in my sandals, which wasn't fun, but at least it was easier than going up! We drove next to the ancient ruins of Pompeii which were just a short distance away. The ancient city seemed surprisingly well preserved and it was easy to recognize the common elements that Pompeii shared with other cities of the period: stone-cobbled roads, houses, shops, gymnasiums, fountains, theaters and courtyards, temples, etc.

We walked through the ancient ruins and it was hard to think that only a few centuries ago most of this was buried underneath all the volcanic rubble. The lower right picture above is that of a pagan temple. It was fascinating to learn how some elements of Roman pagan worship were preserved and transformed by the early Christians in their liturgy. 

Our guide explained that a bull or other animal offerings were sacrificed here -- the Romans believed that blood sacrifice appeased the gods. They would ritually offer up the "Host" for the sacrifice on the altar on these steps, similar to what a Catholic priest when he celebrates the Eucharist and joins the church's sacrifice with that of the cross on Calvary.

The temple complex is back there, but before the Romans entered their temples they would ritually cleanse themselves from a water font. In Catholic churches today, similar fonts remain to recognize that we are entering a sacred place and a house of God (where the Host or Eucharist resides). The rest of the city was complete with whole neighborhoods with everything from street signs, water fountains, and shops.

You can see Mt. Vesuvius in the background. It's strange to think we were just up there looking down on the city.

The body here is preserved in plaster after the ash covered the humans, their forms were preserved. You can also see pottery and other items that archaeologists recovered.

We left the old city of Pompeii and spent the last bit of time in Naples shopping, having a taste at Neapolitan pizza, and sight-seeing. Pompeii and Mt. Vesuvius were fun for the day, but our next stop was Rome. As the old saying goes, "All roads lead to Rome." And in my case, this was going to be an extra-special homecoming.



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