Sunday, October 5, 2008

Bella Ostia

Today's New York Times features a terrific article about the unveiling of newly restored buildings in Ostia Antica, ancient Rome's port town and an archaeological site open to visitors. It took nine years to complete the restoration project -- the buildings contain fragile frescoes, and conservation takes money that needed to be raised. The results are amazing.

I visited Ostia Antica back in 2004 for the first time, and I recommend it as an easy daytrip from Rome. You take a suburban train, then it's a short walk to the site. It's a splendid alternative to Pompeii if your plans don't include the Bay of Naples. The ruins of Ostia Antica include public buildings like theaters and temples, as well as buildings that reveal the everyday life of citizens: apartment buildings, bakeries, laundries, and even fast-food joints (thermopolia). There are wonderful mosaics and paintings to see, most in their original homes. I was particularly interested in the various religious structures of the town; as is typical in Roman cities, all manner of cults and deities are represented. In addition to temples dedicated to the Olympian gods (Jupiter, Ceres, etc), you can find sanctuaries devoted to foreign gods, including Isis and Serapis, Attis, Cybele, and Sabazios. There's a Jewish synagogue, as well as one of the earliest preserved Christian basilicas. The most evocative experience for me was visiting the so-called Mithraeum of the Baths (pictured, courtesy Wikimedia Commons). I had the site virtually to myself that day (aside from an Italian school-group or two), and descending into this underground, cave-like sanctuary of Mithras was like walking back in time. It was very easy to imagine a gathering of Mithraic worshipers in that space.

It's possible to spend at least half a day, or even a whole day, at Ostia Antica. There's a nice archaeological museum with many of the sculptural finds, and a cafeteria for lunch or a snack. I suggest buying the guidebook to the site (available at most museum bookshops in Rome) to better enjoy your experience, as there is much to see. The site tends to be under-touristed in general, but I found a weekday made for a peaceful visit. Not much shade, so wear your sunscreen!

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