Johann Goethe said about Herculaneum,
“Humanity survived many disasters, but no one of them brought so much pleasure to descendants.”
I walk along the street which has been uninhabited for two thousand years and enter the next house. Some frescos are preserved on the walls, and Doric columns stand in the patio. People used to bake bread in the kitchen and make love in the bedrooms on the second floor. We are in the abandoned city that was hidden from view for an unimaginable two thousand years—in Herculaneum, Italy.
A thirty-meter thickness of mudflow (lava, dirt, and water), which covered the city after the Vesuvius eruption, killed much fewer people here than in neighboring Pompeii. Most of the citizens managed to escape, but their city was preserved for many long years. Today, the empty Herculaneum lies in a huge funnel very similar to a volcano crater.
Have you ever played computer games in the fantasy genre, Lineage, for example? The ultramodern graphic sometimes gives you the very real impression that you are wandering in unknown worlds. I remember when we had just met, Victor was a very rich orc in the Lineage game. He promised to present me with a real dragonet whom I must feed and raise, and which would be able to protect me when it would be big and strong.
Just for the moment imagine yourself as a young wizard or elf, or maybe a skillful warrior. Your path runs through the unknown and sometimes even dangerous worlds, where you can meet weird strangers. Once in an unknown forest, the branches will suddenly spread apart and you will see an ancient city. It was abandoned a long time ago. What happened there and where are its citizens?
You walk along the unfamiliar paved streets looking into the empty houses with gardens surprisingly full of blooming apple trees.
Here is a good two-story house. It seems inhabited. You climb up the stony stairs and open the door. Inside, you see a small well-preserved pool, a marble table, something like a kitchen in the adjoining room, and a mosaic altar in the atrium. From above, a cupid looks at you slyly with narrowed eyes and smiles.
The next house. A wooden staircase to the second floor does not seem secure, but this house also has its own altar and remnants of wall paintings.
One more house. Very rich floor mosaic at the entry, pools like new, benches—all made of white marble. Definitely, it reminds you of thermae.
You go further. Beyond any doubt, this villa belonged to some aristocrat. Just look at the height of the ceilings. A big hall, columns decorated with fretwork, floors with mosaic, and walls with colorful paintings. Still, there is not a living soul around.
If you look closely at the decayed wall paintings, you may distinguish the delicately drawn animals, gods, and ornamental fragments. The house is very big. It is bordered by a patio with a small garden. The garden is overgrown with bushes, but a small fountain is preserved with its mosaic on a hunting topic.
The fountains could be found at any big building and simply in the streets. It might have been a rich city.
What do you want from this place? Is there a magic artifact hidden somewhere? Or are you awaiting a priest in a temple hoping he’ll impart some secret knowledge? Maybe you have to decode some writings carved on a secret marble plate?
You don’t need to be an elf or a wizard to get into the city I described. You just need to pry yourself away from the computer, buy an airline ticket to Naples, and come to Herculaneum, an ancient Italian city buried under a deep layer of tuff during the eruption of Mount Vesuvius on August 24th, 79 AD.
As it often happens, Herculaneum was discovered by chance when workers were digging a well. It happened in the 18th century, and then the city was excavated and investigated during the next two hundred years.
Some years ago we visited the museum-house of the great poet Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin in Russian Saint Petersburg. We were standing in a small room with intentionally low light and looked at the small leather settee where the short life of the poet ended.I could not overcome my inner desire and touched the wooden, blackened-by-time table of the owner. One heartbeat—I heard a whisper and seemingly a rustle of a long silk dress; the second beat—a sorrowful sigh and a click as if a fan was opened. The next beat was the strongest one and I heard a polite, but strict remark from the museum attendant, “Nothing must be touched here. It is from the 18th century!”
Be sure, as long as you’re not a vandal, you won’t be stopped in Herculaneum. You are allowed to touch the first century, just as the preceding ones. Free your imagination. Touch the stonework of any house. My Lord, there are two thousand years between the citizens of the Italian Herculaneum and us!
The city is almost real. We walked through the streets, acceptable for living nowadays. The undamaged condition of some houses after 2000 years is amazing: the roofs, the stairs, the window grates, and the wooden (!) stairs and balconies.
Unfortunately, just like in Pompeii, not everything is open for excursions in Herculaneum, but curiosity and excitement won: I climbed a low fence and peeped into the inner garden.
I definitely heard the chirp of a bird, then some sounds from the kitchen and murmur of the fountain. I heard as a jar crashed on the stones, children’s laughter, and voice of the house owner. It is his house and his world. We are just the strangers who come and go, looking into someone’s window.
The catastrophe started with a strong earthquake. The quiet and peaceful life of a small maritime city ended when the eruption of the Mount Vesuvius buried Pompeii under a six-meter layer of volcanic ash and then Herculaneum under a thick layer of lava and dirt.
Vesuvius, silent for almost 800 years, awakened in the afternoon. It was around 1 p.m. when its huge funnel spewed out volcanic ash. This cloud of poison gas and ash, quickly driven by the wind, covered Pompeii. The city and all its citizens died in a matter of hours.
Herculaneum is located westward of Pompei, and the first phase of the eruption did not level it to dust. The majority of the citizens, frightened by the occurring event, managed to leave the city. Only a few stayed. For many years, it was thought that everybody escaped, but thirty years ago during the excavations at the shoreline, more than 200 human remains were found. Probably, the ancient Herculanians were hoping to escape by sea, but the storm was too strong and they failed.
At nightfall, the flows of lava and dirt streamed into Herculaneum at a great rate, 100 km/h. When the fiery avalanche reached the city, it killed those few people who stayed there, hermetically filled the streets and inner premises of the houses, having left Herculaneum under a solid 25-meter layer which preserved the city for future centuries.
1700 years passed before people managed to walk the streets of those seemingly forever dead cities again. Nowadays, everyone is able to see two main archeological findings in the south of Italy: Pompeii and Herculaneum.
The Villa of the Papyri preserved the only library of antique times. It contained more than 1800 almost intact philosophical manuscripts in Greek and has become the most incredible find of the scientists. But like us, you won’t be able to get into the villa—only 10% of its territory has been cleared of the dust. Further excavations have been stopped a long time ago due to increased risk and high cost. Now, all the priceless findings are stored at the Naples National Archaeological Museum (we visited it later).
However, there is one place on Earth where you can see the Villa of the Papyri in all its glory today. Lucky Americans, they do not need to fly anywhere. In 1974, Paul Getty, the American businessman, created a copy of the villa in Malibu, USA.
I think that the most part of Herculaneum will stay under the thick layer of tuff forever. The excavations are stopped because the borders of ancient Herculaneum overlapping with the city blocks of modern Ercolano. Every day the modern citizens of Ercolano drink burning hot coffee, talk loudly with their neighbors, and traditionally hang their linen out to dry on their terraces overlooking the Bay of Naples and empty Herculaneum.
How does it feel living near the ghost city? I am not sure this is for me. After all, Vesuvius has not disappeared; it is near all the time. Even after living in Pompeii just for five days, I noticed a newly formed habit: wake up, step out onto the balcony and check the crater—to see if it is smoking. 🙂