The Eternal City - My Family Travels

The calendar date is July 17th, 2005, but for all I see around me it may be over nineteen hundred years earlier. That’s because Pompeii is a city lost to time, oblivious to or defiant of the continuous clockwork of the world around it.  Millions of modern-day tourists explore the wonders of Pompeii each year and I am but one of the awestruck travelers. It is swelteringly hot, with a dim haze around the great Mount Vesuvius — the eternal monument to whom Pompeii owes its acclaim, and the terrible reminder of its destruction. I can’t avoid feelings of complete helplessness, looking up at the still active volcano. It was thousands of times hotter than this on that fateful August day, when Vesuvius exploded and rained down fire and ash on the city of Pompeii.

Until that point, Pompeii was a trading post much like Rome.  Its now vacant streets were once filled with the horse-drawn carts indicated by grooves in the uneven cobblestone. The shell-like structures that survived that doomsday are beautiful but eerily so, as though they are spirits of the past. This reddish-brown building was a bakery — I can still see the grinding mills. And this was a residence, resplendent in its glory days, the walls still bearing signs of the brilliant frescoes once painted there. And then I descend into the bathhouse, where a giant concave pedestal served as a public bath. Through the orange light filtering in through the single window, I can see the long-gone wispy tendrils of steam rising into the room.

But the most haunting image is yet to come. From there I’m taken to another half-ruined dwelling, exactly like all the others except for the glass cases decorating its exterior. I step closer, through the small crowd milling around the area, and my jaw drops. Staring back at me are the inhabitants of Pompeii, white as chalk and lifeless. Their final moments were preserved by molten lava, cooled around their terror-stricken forms like a grotesque form of mummification. One man is lying on his back, his arms and fingers stretched out before him in a desperate attempt for protection and his mouth open in a silent scream. It’s not hard to see the panic that was written across his chillingly real face almost two thousand years ago. Pompeii’s very air is stained with that same panic, and I find myself glancing back at Mount Vesuvius throughout the day, just to make sure it hasn’t started smoking.

And there, some distance away, is a smaller cast of a woman, whose round stomach suggests that she was pregnant at the time of her death. And there is a young man sitting with his knees drawn in to him, his face buried despairingly in his hands. And a dog in whose open mouth I can see the rows of perfectly preserved fangs. And a tiny toddler who might have been sleeping for the peaceful way his arm is tucked beneath his head.

It’s a startling discovery to connect an ancient disaster with human faces — humans that existed just like we do today, who were trapped in nature’s relentless fury and immortalized. And it’s humbling, too, to experience firsthand the frail and fleeting nature of life. Somehow, looking into the inert plaster remains of a person’s last breath puts my own life into perspective.

I feel that, despite the catastrophic and heartbreaking story of Pompeii, it happened for a reason. Pompeii may have been decimated thousands of years ago, but it imparted an eternal message to the world — one of truths, pain, life, and death; one that may be different for every person that steps back in time or gazes down at the frozen faces of the victims — but a message that will, like the very city of Pompeii, never be forgotten.


Angela D’Alonzo of Ashton, Pennsylvania won Honorable Mention for this essay.

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