Friday, January 17, 2014

Roman treasures and much more in visit to Arles

Since the weather forecast for Monday included some rain, we decided to visit the city of Arles, where we could do some indoor things.

Arles has a long history going back as far as 800 BC when it was populated by the Ligurians. The Phoenicians ruled before the Romans, who arrived in 123 AD. The Romans took the town in 123 BC and expanded it into an important city, with a canal link to the Mediterranean Sea being constructed in 104 BC. However, it struggled to escape the shadow of Marseilles -- or Massalia, as it was known then -- further along the coast.

Its chance came when it sided with Julius Caesar in his war against Pompey. Massalia backed Pompey, but when Caesar emerged victorious, Massalia was stripped of its possessions, which were transferred to Arelate or Arles as a reward. The town was formally established as a colony for veterans of a Roman legion, which had its base there. Its full title as a colony was Colonia Iulia Paterna Arelatensium Sextanorum, "the ancestral Julian colony of Arles of the soldiers of the Sixth."

We walked through the Place du Forum. Just as social, political and religious life revolved around the forum in Roman Arles, so this busy plane-tree-shaded square buzzes with cafe life today. We even spotted the remains of a second century temple in the facade of a hotel.

Our first stop was the Theatre antique, which is still regularly used for alfresco concerts and plays. It dates from the end of the 1st century BC. For hundreds of years it was a source of construction materials, with workers chipping away at the 102-metre-diameter structure. It is an impressive site and I'm sure would be a wonderful spot to watch a play.

We continued on our Roman tour reaching Les Arenes, where slaves, criminals and wild animals (including giraffes) met their dramatic demise before a jubilant 20,000-strong crowd during Roman gladiatorial displays. Les Arènes was built around the late 1st or early 2nd century AD. During the early medieval Arab invasions the arch-laced circular structure, which is 136 metres long, 107 metres wide and 21 metres tall, was topped with four defensive towers to become a fortress. Indeed, by the 1820s, when the amphitheatre was returned to its original use, there were 212 houses and two churches that had to be razed on the site. Today the arena is used for concerts and Camargue bullfights, which involve the toreador removing a ribbons from the bull's horns. No bulls are killed in these fights.

After a lovely lunch of moussaka in a little bistro, we looked through railings at the ancient Constantine baths, which were closed unfortunately. Now we headed off to the Cryptoporticus underneath the Forum. Dating from the 1st century BC the Cryptoporticus was built as foundation for the Forum, which has since been replaced by the the City Hall. Three double, parallel tunnels arranged in the form of a U are supported by fifty piers. Masons' marks on the stonework indicate that it was built by Greeks, probably from Marseille. Similar structures were used as granaries. As we walked around it started raining and there were puddles forming in the cryptoporticus probably making it too damp for prolonged storage. Apparently it may have served as a barracks for public slaves.

Our final destination of the day was the Musee Département Arles Antique, a museum devoted to archeological research. The part of the museum that I found the most interesting was the 31-metre-long Roman barge dating back to 50 AD that had been discovered almost completely intact in 2005 with its cargo of quarried stones. It is thought that the barge had sunk during a flood. This is the first time a Roman-era boat has been presented to the public with nearly all of its equipment on board.

We watched a fascinating movie about the lifting of the barge and how the wood was preserved by using preservatives and radiation techniques. When you see the actual barge, you understand just what an undertaking this was. The barge was accompanied by three themed exhibits: the port and its activities, the trade between Arles and the rest of the world, and navigation. The trading was far and wide with even spices from India coming into the port.

We felt very fortunate to see the barge and it's supporting exhibits, since this display had opened only a few months before.

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