February 19, 2010

Excavating the Ruins

"I've just learned that if you tell me you're going on a trip, there's got to be an abandoned town there somewhere." Maria knows me well.

I've spent most of the last two years exploring lost civilizations, both modern and ancient - following the trails of the fated pioneers lost to Death Valley, lured by gold, and living off the land in the vast wilderness of the very wild west. Whether they succumbed to the elements right there in their own home, or were driven out by floods and avian flu, or just slowly disappeared with little trace of their existence, the ghosts fascinate me.

Most of my poking around has been amidst the relics of modern culture, people who left behind mines and yacht clubs and grand estates, but that's because the United States is a pretty new country. And the original immigrants destroyed pretty much anything "ancient" that the Native American tribesmen would have built before them. Not so in the rest of the world.

One of the things that interested me about Tunisia - besides its predicted similarity to Morocco - was the promise of Roman and Phoenician ruins. Sure, I could have gone to Greece, or Pompeii, but the anachronism of the Roman empire in what we westerners think of as Africa was just too intriguing to pass up.

Carthage Carthage

Ground zero of the Roman empire in Tunisia is Carthage, the northernmost town on the shore of the Mediterranean Sea, outside of modern Tunis. Carthage was actually originally founded by the Phoenicians (naming it their "New City") and proved to be a battleground through the Third Punic War, eventually destroyed by the Romans. Little evidence exists from that first colony except a few gravestones and urns.

Cato the Elder's battlecry "Delenda est Carthago" ("Carthage must be destroyed") soon transformed into Julius Caesar's declarum, "Carthage must be rebuilt," and so began the evolution of Carthage into not just one city, but a series of cities, to be overtaken later by the Vandals, the Byzantines, and, finally, the Muslims in the 7th century, building modern Tunis partially on top of old Carthage.

Carthage, just across the Mediterranean from Sicily, wasn't the only city built by the Romans and later destroyed. Farther inland, you can find a magnificent ampitheatre in El Djem...

El Djem El Djem

...the town of Sbeitla whose excavations have not yet revealed the extent of the former Roman town, many of whose Sufetula ruins lie under private housing and commercial buildings...

Sbeitla Sbeitla

...and the archaelogical site of Dougga, tucked away in what looks like the English countryside, up on a hill, where you can walk onto the theatre stage, across the forum, into temples and baths and private homes and even a brothel.

Dougga Dougga

These towns are the casualties of war, in a country that was fought over by feuding empires over the centuries that led up to and began our modern era after the supposed birth of Christ, who happens to dictate our calendar.

Like in America, the native inhabitants of Tunisia - the Berbers - were driven out of their homes by these invading empires, farther inland towards the desert, sometimes into mountainside and underground caves to escape the heat and whatever other threats that lie on the earth's surface. But even the Berbers, who made homes out of brick and mud and whatever materials they could get their hands on, couldn't withstand nature's fury, and the villagers of the mountain oases of Tamerza and Chebika fled when their homes were washed away by floods as recently as the 1960s.

Tamerza Tamerza

Chebika Chebika

Now tourists like myself drink lemonade from the terrace of a fancy hotel in Tamerza and look out over the river bed which is now dry, only 40 years after that disastrous flood.

I can't help but thinking of the building and razing and rebuilding that's happened in my own life - the emotional fortresses I built to protect myself from my enraged and manipulating parents, the smiling front I put on my face to survive teasing and questioning classmates, the flirtation and aggression that emerged so that boyfriends, colleagues, and employers wouldn't catch a glimpse of my former self, hiding in the basement from my mother's fiery wrath, writing poems and dreams in my diary with hopes that someone or something would eventually wash me away.

My existential crisis of the last two years has stripped a lot of those layers away. My artifice was torn down by force in a work situation that proved to be manipulative and retaliative. Lovers betrayed me and abandoned me. Parents ceased to exist. And so I'm starting to become reacquainted with my own original self, the ruins of which are slowly being excavated out of years of overgrowth and, maybe like much of the modern architecture facing the threat of destruction in the U.S., inappropriate repairs and additions.

I remember how much I loved French. How much I loved writing in French. Why did I not spend more time in La Maison in college?

I was a mathematical genius. What happened to that?

I used to have hope. Where has it gone?

I used to believe that someone would love me someday for who I am. I think I've given up on that altogether.

But maybe there's something inside, something deep underground or just below the surface, that can be brought into light. I guess I just have to keep digging...

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