Past Lives

North London: it is early morning, Autumn — the sun is rising, the air is crisp, the leaves on the trees are turning golden-brown. I am sitting at my desk in the bow window of the raised ground floor of a friend’s house, on Regent’s Park Road, drinking a cup of freshly percolated coffee. It is quiet — a few people in dark clothes, vaguely outlined, are to be seen walking up Primrose Hill to take in the view. The city is waking up. I am reading a recently published translation of the Greek Historian Polybius’ Histories. Last night, friends visiting from Paris, in an exhilarating and wide-ranging conversation that included, semi-seriously, the recent death of Wilkie Collins, frivolously, the opening of the Moulin Rouge and, of course, ecstatically, the ‘Exposition Universelle’, with the spectacular Eiffel Tower, the astonishing Galerie des Machines, and the extravagant display of a collection of four hundred indigenous people from around the world, that would close in a couple of weeks, had been discussing recent archeological work on the site of the Roman colonial town of Timgad in Algeria, in French Colonial North Africa. Discovered just over 8 years ago, buried under the sand, this town is now regarded as exemplary, and subject to a massive operation of discovery and recuperation.

It is 1889. In August the British Forces in Sudan defeated the Mahdi, redeemer of the Islamic World, Muhammed Ahmad’s army at the Battle of Toski. The Mahdi has called for Jihad against the Turks. In a month the first purpose built Mosque in England, the Shah Jahan Mosque founded by Professor Gottfried Wilhelm Leitner, whose adopted Muslim name is Abdur Rasheed Sayyah, will open in Woking.

Today could be a remarkable day.

I love mornings, particularly the almost eternal slow-time between dawn and breakfast. I am captivated by Polybius’ eye-witness accounts of the Punic Wars, the clashes of Hannibal and Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus , and in particular the Siege of Carthage. He lived from around 200–118 BC, and the ‘Histories’ cover the period from 264–146 BC in detail. The translation that I am reading is based on an earlier version by one F. Hultsch and is by Evelyn Shuckburgh; it has been published by Macmillan, here in London and simultaneously in New York, a sign of the times. There has been a lot of interest in my circles, not least because in Book VI Polybius describes how a ‘Camp’, ‘Castrorum Metatio’, is set up. He is also particularly clear about how the Camp plan relates to a Town plan. I am fascinated by this. I was born near Noviomagus Reginorum, a Roman walled town that was renamed Chichester, a ‘Chester’ by the Saxons; a ‘Castrum’ with major streets, north to south and east to west intersecting at a Medieval Market Cross, the remains of the East Gate marking the terminus of a Roman Road leading directly to London. Roman oyster-beds could be found in the estuaries of Chichester Harbour and the surrounding landscape was known to have been a Roman Army supply base during the Claudian invasion in 43 AD. I learnt the structure of a Roman Town at school, and walked the Cardo and Decumanus daily, tracing ancient history with my footsteps. In the classroom we made rather naive drawings imaginatively recalling the ‘occupation’. Yesterday’s discussion about the dig at Timgad resonated.

Part One of a three part essay.

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