Back in Time in Pompeii

The ruins of Pompeii are a stark reminder of that historical catastrophe that wiped out the city. It has been accorded a UNESCO World Heritage Site status.(Photo courtesy of Pixabay)


An ancient city, annihilated by the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 A.D., beckons travelers to take part in an archaeological journey and unlock its secrets. Gastroenterologist advocate-writer Dr. Jun Ruiz uncovers some of the secrets of this lost civilization as he fans his childhood dream of becoming a modern-day Indiana Jones, even just for a day

My interest and fascination with world history started as a young boy studying in a La Sallian school. This subject caught my imagination with its fabled stories, ancient civilizations, fascinating cultures, inspiring leaders, and incredible discoveries in the past. Then came archaeology, which offers a unique perspective in understanding ancient history. Archaeology became one of my favorite sciences when Dr. Indiana Jones as played by Harrison Ford in the movies grew into one of my childhood heroes. Dr. Henry Jones was as cholarly Ivy-League college professor who transformed into this rugged swashbuckling hero in his amazing adventures in exploring the secrets of the past. The impact of this character on popular culture is tremendous that it changed the stereotype of the archaeologist forever, and the film trilogy later influenced movies like “The Mummy”, “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider” and “King Solomon’s Mines”.

The archaeological site spreads over 66 hectares, 49 of which have already been excavated. This panoramic photo is courtesy of Pompeii Uffizio Stampa.

When I planned my 18-day grand tour of Italy two years ago, I wanted to appreciate the beauty and grandeur of this amazing country that was the center of ancient civilization thousands of years ago. For lovers of history, religion, the arts, and spectacular landscapes, Italy has so much diversity to offer. Channeling my childhood dream of an archaeologist wanna be into this journey, I made sure that we would be visiting the world’s most compelling archaeological site of Pompeii.

The end of Pompeii

Pompeii was a town located in the route between the Mediterranean Sea and the fertile valley of the hinterland of southern Italy. It was first founded in the 7th century B.C. and was later conquered by the Roman Republic. Pompeii rapidly became an important trading center, from a farming town to a prominent industrial town of 20,000 people. Due to its strategic location, it became an important seaport, as Rome controlled the entire Mediterranean Sea.

This is the Quadriporticus, also called the Gladiator Barracks. It stands next to the large theater.(Photo courtesy of Jun Ruiz)

On that unfortunate day of August 24 in 79 A.D., Pompeii met her total annihilation. Mount Vesuvius, once believed to be extinct for centuries, erupted with deadly consequences, sending an explosion of flames, steam, ash, dust and rocks into the sky. For three days, Vesuvius was unrelenting as volcanic ash, scoriae, and lapilli rained down on Pompeii. An avalanche of boiling lava descended down the slopes of Vesuvius, resulting in the killing of the inhabitants of Pompeii, and burying the city under 20 feet of ash. Furthermore, people who fled Pompeii into the surrounding areas also died due to the poisonous gases.

After Pompeii was buried by the wrath of Mt. Vesuvius, the area was abandoned and the location was eventually forgotten. It remained so for nearly seventeen hundred years. The initial discovery of the first ruins occurred in 1599 when the digging of an underground channel to divert a river ran into an ancient wall covered with paintings and inscriptions. It wasn’t until 1748 when formal and extensive excavations started. Fiorelli who began his work in 1860 was responsible for the exceptional state of preservation. Finally, Pompeii reawakened after a very long slumber.

Uncovering Pompeii

The objects and structures that laid beneath were preserved for almost two thousand years due to the lack of air and moisture—immortalized in pumice and ash. As the bodies decomposed, they left hollow spaces in the solidified lava. Centuries later when archaeologists conducted these excavations, they filled them with plaster, creating molds that captured their last moments in life.

This is the Great Palaestra (Gymnasium) that was used for sporting activities. (Photo courtesy of Pompeii Uffizio Stampa)

The works of restoration has advanced such that buildings can be preserved from roof to foundations. Because of these methods, Pompeii has become an outdoor museum where the unearthed artifacts and ruins were preserved in detail and frozen in time. The archaeological site offers an extraordinary detailed look into the life during the Roman times. This is stepping back in time when Rome was the center of the world’s civilization.

Pompeii has been a tourist destination for over 250 years, visited by approximately 2.5 million tourists every year. Pompeii is a popular day trip excursion from Rome, as it is less than three hours away. The ruins of Pompeii are a stark reminder of that historical catastrophe that wiped out a city. The archaeological site spreads over 66 hectares, 49 of which have already been excavated. It has been accorded a UNESCO World Heritage Site status.

We arrived in Pompeii from Perugia in the afternoon. After a quick lunch, we met our jolly and enthusiastic Italian local guide who grew up in the neighboring town. He is probably in his seventies, a guide for 50 years, and likely witnessed these excavations in his lifetime. He gave us very practical tips and an impressive introduction.

The excavation site is huge, but this is a walking only site. Expect two to three hours of hiking under the sun, and the heat can be intense during summer. Apply sunblock and, if possible, wear hats as there is very little shelter from the sun. Make sure to take plenty of water. Walking on these cobblestone roads and uneven surface can be exhausting, so wear good comfortable shoes.

This is the oldest surviving permanent amphitheater in Italy, and was used for gladiator battles. (Photo courtesy of Pompeii Uffizio Stampa)

The remains of a lost civilization

Our guide led us to the south gate of Porta Stabia to access the ruins. In true Roman style, the city was well organized with a grid street plan surrounded by its mighty high walls. We wandered along the stone-slabbed streets of Pompeii where villagers and aristocrats alike once walked two millenniums ago. There are elevated footpaths for people to cross the street, as water was present because there was no drainage.

The Great Palaestra (Gymnasium) is at the southeast-most corner of the ruins. The central area is a large open-air grass square used for sporting activities. It is surrounded by a wall of internal porticos supported by Ionic columns. It has been greatly restored and looks intact. Just beside the Palaestra is the huge amphitheater built from stone. It is the oldest surviving permanent amphitheater in Italy. It was used for gladiator battles, and spectacles involving wild animals. It could hold up to 20,000 spectators.

There are still many brightly-painted frescoes in the domuses, like the Houses of Vetti and Venus, that depict life and the arts in Pompeii. (Photo courtesy of Pixabay)

There were no posh neighborhoods back then. Luxurious villas existed side by side with simpler homes. We toured extensively two impressive domuses (residences of the elite). The most famous is the House of the Vetti, the most preserved dwelling due to precise excavation works. The main structure and its different rooms appeared to have frozen in time, providing us with many details on the architectural elements and many brightly-painted frescoes that depict life and the arts in Pompeii. The rooms are still adorned with pictorial decorations, including a portrait of the well-endowed Priapus (god of fertility), other mythological characters, and illustrations of erotic love.

The Grand Theater’s upper cavea and the lower orchestra seats have been finely restored. (Photo courtesy of Jun Ruiz)

The House of the Faun is the other house that captured our attention. This was named after a small bronze statue of a dancing faun (satyr) found in the impluvium of its atrium. This is not as well preserved as the House of Vetti, as some walls had been eroded. The wealth of the owner was clearly evident based on its huge size of 3000 square meters, the majestic door and other architectural elements, the multi-colored marble-tiled floors, the two atria, and beautiful mosaics.

The Basilica is found by the Forum and was the seat of law courts. What remains is the interior with three naves, the stumps of the 28 large brick-built Ionic columns, and the elevated tribunal. (Photo courtesy of Pixabay)

Theater provided entertainment to the citizens of Pompeii. The Grand Theater was built of stone and it exploited the natural slope of the hill for the construction of the auditorium. It had the capacity to seat 5,000 spectators. The upper cavea and the lower orchestra theater seats were finely restored. This open theater was the first large public building completely freed from the deposits of the eruption. The adjoining smaller theater Odeon once had a roof, and it was likely used for musical performances.

The House of the Faun is named after this small bronze statue of a dancing satyr. (Photo couresy of Pixabay)

We passed by several public baths, as these were popular during the Roman times. The Stabian Baths were the largest and most impressively preserved. It had separate bathing areas for men and women, three different baths based on water temperature, a large swimming pool, running track, and gymnasium equipment for athletic exercises. There were also around 30 bakeries as shown by the many millstones and ovens. There was an ancient brothel (lupanar) with erotic frescoes over the entrance to each room, presumably indicating the services being offered.

The most haunting portion of the Pompeii ruins is at Garden of the Fugitives. Thirteen casts representing the victims found inside the enclosure, seized by death by suffocation and high temperatures while trying to flee out of the gate, picture the horror they experienced at that point in time. At the Forum Granary, you see collections of artifacts like amphorae (storage jars) and plaster casts of people who perished. This was believed to be the public market.

The Forum

We eventually found our way to the Forum, which is located at the western end. Back in antiquity, the Forum was Pompeii’s main piazza and the center of the political, economic, and religious daily life. The square was paved with travertine (a variety of limestone), and colonnades with solid Doric columns were built and still line the Forum square. It was the focal point in the entire of Pompeii and surrounded by many important government buildings and temples.

The Basilica was the oldest and the most important public building of Pompeii. It was the seat of law courts for the administration of justice. What remains now of this building is the interior with three naves, the stumps of the 28 large brickbuilt Ionic columns, and the elevated tribunal. Much of the outer walls are missing.

Another important temple by the Forum was consecrated to Apollo’s worship. (Photo courtesy of Pixabay)

The axis of the square was the façade of the Temple of Jupiter that dominates the north side of the Forum, behind which scenically rises Mt. Vesuvius. This became Pompeii’s main temple when the Roman Republic took over. What remains are the Corinthian columns and tribute arches of the once magnificent temple. The other important temple by the Forum was consecrated to Apollo’s worship. Bronze sculptures of Apollo and his sister Diana are seen in front of the columns.

After three hours of touring the ruins of Pompeii, I discovered so much from this ancient town that gave us a glimpse of how life was two thousand years ago during the Roman times. Although I did not end up like Indiana Jones in my adult life, I was able to put myself in his shoes at least for a day. I commend all the hard work of the archaeologists in excavating, restoring, and unlocking the secrets of a lost civilization that was once a town full of life only to be wiped out on that fateful day. This was a fulfilling trip as I discovered more of ancient history and it inspired me to write this travelogue.

The author Dr. Jun Ruiz stands in the Forum, where he channeled his my childhood dream to be like Indiana Jones. (Photo courtesy of the author)

July 2018 Health and Lifestyle

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