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Sunday, 5 July 2009
SUNDAY MATINEE & ROMAN HISTORY
“An adventure is only an inconvenience rightly considered. An inconvenience is only an adventure wrongly considered.” - G.K. Chesterton
I had a head cold over the weekend and it was a good excuse to stay in and get some work done. Dosing myself on medication so the symptoms abated, I was able to get most of the last work on my book finalised. It is quite a big project and the last part of it is related to illustrations, photographs and diagrams, graphs and charts, about 40 per chapter, at 24 chapters that’s close to about 1000 illustrations. Not a mean feat working through and ensuring that they are all exactly what is required, of adequate resolution, correctly labeled and relevantly placed within the text. Nevertheless, they’re all done and now the completed manuscript will go off to the publishers.
Despite the work, we had some time to relax also and see a movie or two. One of them was an old film, Henry Hathaway’s 1957 “Legend of the Lost” starring a famous trio: John Wayne, Sophia Loren and Rossano Brazzi. This was a real adventure story, a kind of toned down precursor of the Indiana Jones movies. The core of the movie, however, was more serious with a moral, and a love story thrown in for good measure. It was slightly reminiscent of Somerset Maugham’s short story “Rain” in its tale of sin and redemption.
The plot centres on three people and the relationships amongst them. Paul Bonnard (Rossano Brazzi) arrives in Timbuktu in search of a guide to escort him into the Sahara desert. American Joe January (John Wayne) reluctantly takes the job despite misgivings about Bonnard’s undisclosed plans. Dita (Sophia Loren), a prostitute who has been deeply moved by Bonnard’s spiritual nature after a long conversation she has with him, follows the two men into the desert. Once in the Sahara, Bonnard reveals his plans. He has a letter from his father who wrote to him about a lost city in the desert where there is hidden a fabulous treasure. After some days trekking through the sands, the trio arrives in the ruins of a Roman city, where Bonnard hopes to discover the legacy of his father. What Bonnard finds alters him in unexpected ways, with tragic results.
Once you get over the observation that there is almost no chemistry between the leads, John Wayne and Sophia Loren, the movie was fun and reminded me of the sort of movies I used to watch on TV as a child. There was quite a lot of colour and action, adventure and romance (in the sense of a feeling of mystery, excitement, and remoteness from everyday life) and the ruined city was fantastic. The ruined city is referred to as “Timgad” in the film. This is a Holywoodian geographical blooper as the distance from Timbuktu (in Mali) to Timgad (in Algeria) is about 3,500 km – definitely not possible given the time course of the trek depicted in the film.
Timgad was the ancient Roman city of Thamugadi on the high plateau north of the Aurès Mountains in northeastern Algeria, which offers the most thoroughly excavated and one of the most well-preserved Roman remains in North Africa. Thamugadi, founded by the emperor Trajan in AD 100, proved to be of strategic importance in the defence of Numidia. Its long prosperity was derived from the fertility of the surrounding territory. In the late 4th century it became the seat of the bishop Optatus, one of the most ardent supporters of Donatism, a heretical Christian movement, and the stronghold was sacked by Berbers in the early 6th century, toward the end of the Vandal supremacy in Africa.
The 10,000–15,000 inhabitants of Thamugadi lived in a classic Roman type of city, quasi-military in appearance, with all streets intersecting at right angles. That life there was comfortable is evidenced by the remains of a forum, a public library (4th century AD), a theatre capable of holding about 4,000 people, and an exceptionally large number of public baths.
This of course is at variance with the directions given to Bonnard by his father, as the city he described was Ophir, a lost city mentioned in the Bible. This was a mythical place, famous for its wealth. King Solomon is supposed to have received a cargo of gold, silver, sandalwood, precious stones, ivory, apes and peacocks from Ophir, every three years. Many Egyptian pharaohs reported sending naval expeditions to Punt (Somaliland) for monkeys, ivory, frankincense, and slaves lends credence to an East African site. On the other hand, the Jewish historian Josephus and St. Jerome evidently understood that India was the location of Ophir. The Hebrew words for the products of Ophir may be derived from Indian languages; furthermore, sandalwood and peacocks are commonly found in India, whereas, at least in modern times, they do not exist in East Africa.
The real location where the was shot film is neither Timgad, nor Ophir! It is Leptis Magna in Libya. This is a magnificent ancient site, the largest city of the ancient region of Tripolitania. It is located 100 km southeast of Tripoli on the Mediterranean coast of Libya. Lying 3 km east of what is now Al-Khums. Leptis Magna contains some of the world’s finest remains of Roman architecture. It was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1982. The city was founded as early as the 7th century BC by Phoenicians, it was later settled by Carthaginians, probably at the end of the 6th century BC. Its natural harbour at the mouth of the Wadi Labdah contributed to the city's growth as a major Mediterranean and trans-Saharan trade centre, and it also became a market for agricultural production in the fertile coastland region.
Near the conclusion of the Second Punic War, it passed in 202 BC to Masinissa's Numidian kingdom, from which it broke away in 111 BC to become an ally of Rome. Through the 1st century AD, however, it retained several of its Punic legal and cultural traditions, including its municipal constitution and the official use of the Punic language. The Roman emperor Trajan (reigned AD 98–117) designated Leptis a colonia (community with full rights of citizenship). The emperor Septimius Severus (AD 193–211), who was born at Leptis, conferred upon it the jus Italicum (legal freedom from property and land taxes) and became a great patron of the city. Under his direction an ambitious building program was initiated, and the harbour, which had been artificially enlarged in the 1st century AD, was improved again. Over the following centuries, however, Leptis began to decline because of the increasing insecurity of the frontiers, culminating in a disastrous incursion in 363, and the growing economic difficulties of the Roman Empire. After the Arab conquest of 642, the status of Leptis as an urban centre effectively ceased, and it fell into ruin.
So, there you go a B grade movie got me to review my ancient Roman history and to find out something more about Leptis Magna and Timgad. Enjoy your week!
I have been blogging daily on this platform for several years now. It is surprising that I have persisted as the world is changing and "microblogging" is now the norm. I blog to amuse myself, make comment on current affairs, externalise some of my creativity, keep notes on things that interest me, learn something new and to surprise myself with things that I discover about this wonderful, and sometimes crazy, world we live in.
I sometimes get the impression that I am on a soapbox delivering a monologue, so your comments are welcome.