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Twilight Cities: Lost Capitals of the Mediterranean

by Katherine Pangonis

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History meets travel writing is on trend. At its best an archaeologist pulls on their wellies and strides off to trace a lost Roman road or march the route of Boudicca, illuminating the past and present often while including personal reactions and evocative descriptions of nature. Katherine Pangonis has added an original spin to this trend, a clockwise trip round the Mediterranean, visiting five cities that were once powerful political centres, but are now relatively provincial.

The cities chosen cover history from the Bronze Age to the present and are the settings for a myriad of exciting stories. Among many other tales, Tyre in Lebanon hosted Phoenician seafarers and Alexander the Great, Carthage in Tunisia was the site of child sacrifice and the Punic Wars, Syracuse in Sicily used to be a classical Greek democracy and was the place of the ill-fated Athenian expedition, and Ravenna in Italy was home to poets (Dante, Lord Byron and Oscar Wilde), the Roman empress Galla Placidia and the famous mosaic of the Byzantine emperor Justinian. Finally, Antioch in Turkey has the story of early Christianity and the great siege during the First Crusade.

There are many pungent anecdotes. Some are well known. Offered as much land as covered by an ox hide, Queen Dido cut it into a thin ribbon, encircled the hill of Byrsa, and so founded Carthage. Others are less remembered. A wolf ran off with the writing block of young Gelon, the future tyrant of Syracuse. Giving chase, Gelon escaped the earthquake that flattened his school, killing his teacher and all his classmates.

A lot of these tales, like Gelon's, are charming and horrific by turn. Having taken a second wife, Seleucus I Nicator, the 4th-century BC founder of Antioch, was alarmed when his beloved son from his first marriage fell gravely ill. Discovering the cause was lovesickness for his new stepmother, Seleucus urbanely stepped aside and let the young man wed her instead. Pangonis also tells a story from the other end of the spectrum of family harmony. When Carthage was burning, Hasdrubal, the Carthaginian commander, surrendered to the Romans. His wife cursed him as the 'most effeminate of men', cut the throats of their children and threw their corpses into the flames before immolating herself.

At the start of the book Pangonis states that “the histories and identities of these cities are being kept alive by their living residents, as much as by history books. Of course, this is true in the sense that contemporary understanding of the past is an important part of modern history. Pangonis is at her best here. It is interesting to discover that many Christians in Tyre still identify as Phoenicians while the Muslim majority does not, and that experimental artists in Ravenna think that the city is being held back by Dante and the past, although they are unlikely to be representative of most inhabitants.

These 'twilight cities' were once strong independent polities. Geography is given as part of the reason. For example, Syracuse's great harbour combined with the defendable island of Ortygia and its freshwater spring of Arethusa ensured the city's rise. The turning points, when the places started to become relative backwaters, are also identified. Three of these are sackings: the Arabs of the Umayyad Caliphate razed Carthage in AD698, and the Mamluks took Tyre in 1291 and Antioch in 1268. The decline of Syracuse began when the Arabs made Palermo the administrative capital of Sicily; that of Ravenna appears to have been more gradual.

The five are contrasted with Rome, Istanbul and Jerusalem, which were at times powerful capitals in the ancient world and retain that status. Yet ravaging armies repeatedly stormed Rome, Istanbul and Jerusalem. Why did they bounce back and Tyre and the others did not? It would have been insightful to have some thoughts on shared or differing reasons behind resurgence and decline to see if any patterns emerge.

Such a vast range of history, stretching over millennia, would be too much for any historian. The text is peppered with mistakes. Rome was not founded in 625BC (the Romans believed it was 753BC while archaeologists go for c 1000BC). The Athenian expedition in 415BC did not have two leaders but three. Julius Caesar conquered Gaul with ten legions, not one, and crossed the Rubicon in the last century BC, not the first AD. Septimius Severus marched on Rome from Pannonia, not Paponia. Many of these may be just typos, but they should have been caught by editors. Similarly, in the final chapter a paragraph on the Mamluks is almost the same as one in the first, with sentences repeated verbatim. Again, you wonder what the copy editor was doing.

Pangonis writes in a lively style, although sometimes tips over into cliche _ the 'greatest empire the world had ever seen' gets more than one outing. But despite these infelicities, she is an amiable literary travelling companion. In Tyre she swims with turtles and drinks orange juice with elderly nuns. On her first evening in Carthage she sneaks into the closed Tophet, the child burial ground. She peers at goldfish in the flooded crypt of San Francesco in Ravenna.

In Antioch things take a much darker turn. On returning to the city after the earthquakes of February, she finds that many of the buildings she had visited are reduced to ruins. Some of the people she had spoken to have fled, while others are dead. Twilight Cities offers a pleasant, although not authoritative, tour of the Mediterranean past and present. You always feel its heart is in the right place.

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