Have you ever visited a place that gave you nightmares for months? That was Pompeii for me.
I was six years old, and we visited the historical site with my parents on our way from Hungary to Algeria.
I have no regrets, and it remains one of the most fascinating places I’ve seen. Nowhere else can you have such a glimpse into the past, where the life – in this case, the final moments – of people who lived thousands of years ago is captured in its most physical form. These are not the drawings in your high school history book.
When mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD, it covered Pompeii and Herculaneum in several meters of ash, effectively freezing the cities in time.
Centuries later, what archeologists found were well-preserved buildings, but also hollow spaces in the shape of human bodies. (When the ash covered the people, it became hard as a rock, while the bodies inside slowly turned into dust over the years.) They turned these spaces into casts and brought to life the final moments of the inhabitants of the doomed cities.
You can see a baker with dough in his hands, a child hugging his pet, a family huddling together. Having these human shapes in front of you lets you read their body language – their fear. Your mind doesn’t need much to imagine their terror and confusion – probably wondering which god they pissed off.
I was living in Sidi-Bel-Abbes, Algeria at the time, and one recurring nightmare I had was that the Vesuvius erupted again, and the lava would flow down into the sea, in Italy, cross the Mediterranean and then flow back up on the Algerian side. The lava flow would threaten our house, but somehow there was a row of small stones around our compound that would divert the flow. Clearly this was before I took any physics classes.
The nightmares continued in several variations for about 3 or 4 months.
Since it has been over 25 years since this visit, the archeologists have unearthed many new areas. I can’t wait to revisit this place that captured my imagination – for better or worse.