Needles and Pins

I can’t recall whether it was on University Challenge or some less august programme, but I recently heard the following question asked:

Where in the world will you find the most Egyptian obelisks outside of Egypt?

The answer came to me immediately (and not entirely because I’ve been playing Assassin’s Creed Origins of late), but because I’ve seen so many.  London has a Cleopatra’s Needle (as do Paris and New York), Catania has its famous lava elephant bearing an example, the Boboli Gardens in Florence, and even Durham University possesses one.  By that count alone I’d have seen almost as many ancient Egyptian tekhenu (the original name, obelisk being a Greek word) outside of the country as Egypt herself possesses.  (Eight remain there).

Cultural imperialism at work.  Absolutely, but starting with the Roman Empire, for Egypt was a province of Rome for six centuries, and as supplier of much of the empire’s grain, arguably the most important.  Invariably Egyptian influences found their way into Rome and continued to do so.  Rome’s Piazza del Popolo features one of the city’s obelisks, but lion fountains rest on pyramidal structures, and sphinx topped walls are also present.

The antique shops feature the products of classicism and Catholicism flanked by more modest stele, and in this case a nice framed print comparing all of Rome’s pointed acquisitions.

All of which raises the argument which in this country gravitates most frequently to The Elgin Marbles; should these artefacts be returned to the country of their origin?  I’m a firm believer that the answer is an emphatic “No”, and for much the same reason that I voted against leaving the European Union.

Conflicts and prejudices are very often driven by a lack of understanding, or beliefs that have distorted truths at their hearts.  The more we know and understand one another the better in my view, and the art and history of different cultures is an important element of this.  Yes you can learn a lot by visiting another country (and I thoroughly enjoy doing so) but my cultural appetite for this was whetted in my teenage years by the British Museum, and though I first visited it to see a temporary exhibit, the permanent collections have had just as much impact on me over the years.  (That exhibit was another Egyptian marvel by the way; the mask and grave goods of Tutankhamen).

So for me Rome should keep her obelisks.  If they make people more curious to learn about Egypt so much the better.  Besides which, the Vatican, the Pantheon and several other sites in the city wouldn’t be the same without them.

And if you think I’ve forgotten the crowning glory of Bernini’s Fountain of the Four Rivers in Piazza Navona, it was a deliberate exclusion.  The wealthier citizens of Rome commissioned a few of their own to be made in Egypt so this, the example atop the Spanish Steps, and the one outside Santa Maria Maggiore aren’t quite the genuine article.  Reproductions have a long history too.



Putting Down New Roots

Thank Marco Polo for bringing noodles back from China and inspiring all those wonderful pasta variations.

Asian traders in the shadow of Palazzo San Giorgio, where Marco Polo was held prisoner.
Asian traders in the shadow of Palazzo San Giorgio, where Marco Polo was held prisoner.

Or maybe not.

In a recent programme for the BBC, ancient historian Michael Scott suggested that Arabs brought strips of semolina similar to tagliatelle to Sicily a century earlier.

With only a 100 miles or so of the Mediterranean separating Sicily from North Africa it’s not surprising that Italy becomes the route of choice for many wanting to migrate to Europe, and as far back as the 11th century BCE there were Phoenician settlements on the island.  Centuries later, another Phoenician colony, Carthage, was to become the greatest enemy of Ancient Rome.  Cue Hannibal and elephants.  With the fall of the Roman Empire, Germanic tribes moved in from the north, but they were resisted in the south by Islamic armies drawn from southern and eastern Mediterranean states.  In the same decade that England feel to William of Normandy, another Norman invasion took Sicily.  It’s hardly surprising that Italy didn’t really unite as a country until Garibaldi.  Too many historic differences and interests in the mix.

Ghandi was inspired by leaders of the Unification movement and is commemorated in Porto Antico
Ghandi was inspired by leaders of the Unification movement and is commemorated in Porto Antico

For many that eventual unification was a disaster.  (Remember that line in my last post about how Southern Italians distrust their Northern compatriots?)  In the early years of the new nation, resources were allocated to industrial rather than agricultural areas, industry being seen as the key to future prosperity.  Unfortunately this policy favoured the northern cities, and attempts at greater agricultural productivity were thwarted by damage to the soil.  Soon the threat of poverty forced many to see abandoning their new country as a means of survival, and so began what became the largest voluntary migration the world had witnessed.

Genoa of course, being in the prosperous north, wasn’t so badly affected by the social and political unrest, but as Italy’s largest port it had a vital part to play in that mass migration.  Naples and Palermo were the ports of choice, being based in the south, but with 13 million Italians leaving over a 35 year period between 1880 and 1915 it was a case of any port in a storm, and vessels such as Ferruccio, Konig Albert, and St Michele loaded up with passengers in Genoa.  Some went further afield and sailed from France.  Roughly one in three of those who left were headed for America.

Conditions on the transportation ships varied according to the wealth of the passenger, but considering most of this migration was driven by poverty, most faced very cramped accommodation – if you’ve seen the film Titanic you have a reasonable idea.

For most of those leaving it was the right decision – Italians have done well in many of the countries that received them, including the UK.  Given our current phase of xenophobic politics I wonder if we’d be so welcoming now, and now is important because migration is once again a hot topic for Italians.

In Maddalena young African men beg with caps
In Maddalena young African men beg with caps

That narrow gap between Africa and Italy is still there, and the tiny island of Lampedusa, once a popular holiday destination, has seen itself transformed into a holding destination for those seeking a better life in Europe as Italians actively rescue thousands trying to make the crossing in all manner of unsuitable craft.  Sadly many don’t make it to this new Ellis Island.

As European politicians argue over how to handle the challenge (and Britain chooses to close her eyes and ears while shouting “Brexit” above all else) it was gratifying to hear the Mayor of Palermo, who having seen 400,000 migrants arrive in Sicily (which includes Lampedusa) over 2 years, go on to say:

Welcome, is the best guarantee for safety