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Some of the ashes of the Roman Empire have been recovered. The Mediterranean is once more a European lake. The Turk indeed still holds its eastern shores; the amazing Sultanate of Morocco yet persists in the west; strong, after the manner of Barbary for centuries, in the jealousies of Europe. Yet the Turk, while maintaining his assertion of the Unity of the Godhead, which divides him from Christendom, is, nevertheless, in other ways almost to be accounted a member of the European family; and even in the vigorous days of the Empire the wild tribes of the Greater Atlas recked little of the might and majesty of Rome. These are the limitations; our concern is with the achievement, and especially with the fertile country, once Rome’s granary, now after a thousand years of neglect and abasement restored to the orderly uses of civilized man. We are to visit a land unsurpassed in the variety of its historical vicissitudes, and strewn with the stones of many empires; a land where to-day a European nation, cherishing, perhaps more than any other, Roman traditions in its law and polity, controls by force of arms and of character a vast and heterogeneous population, previously united only in its submission to the brooding blight of Islam.

“The grand object of travelling,” said Dr. Johnson, “is to see the shores of the Mediterranean; on those shores were the four great empires of the world; the Assyrian, the Persian, the Grecian, and the Roman. All our religion, almost all our law, almost all our arts, almost all that sets us above savages has come to us from the shores of the Mediterranean.”The Doctor’s aspirations were doubtless confined to its northern shore. If he had indiscreetly placed himself within the jurisdiction of the Dey of Algiers or the Bey of Tunis he might have found his value appraised on a basis different from that which prevailed at The Club, and in default of ransom have been set to uncongenial tasks. We are more fortunate in our generation.

To men trained in the traditional scholarship of English schools and universities certain places of the earth are holy places. The Acropolis of Athens, the heights and harbour of Syracuse, the Roman forum; perhaps in a scarcely less degree, Constantinople seen from the Bosphorus;—these stir to life sentiments born of youthful struggles and enthusiasms, but buried beneath a load of years crowded with other interests. Such sentiments may even prevail over those which attach to more recent history and national predilections. The approach by sea from the Atlantic to the Straits of Gibraltar is an experience to move the most indifferent; to an Englishman a very moving experience. He has passed Cape St. Vincent, with its undying fame, and the Rock is ahead, with its triumphant symbolism of his country’s world-power. Across the straits lies the rocky coast between Tangiers and Ceuta, a rampart of that vast continent, the last home of mystery, which has played so great a part in the lives of the present generation of Englishmen. And the Rock itself, detached, impregnable, is rich in English memories from Blake to our own day.

Yet to him who has preserved some shreds of his classical learning, the passage from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean has a still deeper significance. It marks the separation of the old and the new worlds. At the Pillars of Hercules the old world ended; they guarded the threshold of the unknown. On the inland sea within were cradled the civilizations on which our own is mainly based—Hebrew, Hellenic, Roman. Perhaps we may wonder at their limitations, especially at the comparative inefficiency of Rome in maritime affairs. If Rome with her vast resources had owned a spark of the naval enterprise of ancient Phœnicia or modern Britain; if she had spent on the sea a tithe of the energy she exercised on land—exhibited nowhere more completely than in that Northern Africa to which we are bound—the history of the world might, indeed, have taken a different course. But it was reserved for the great awakening of the fifteenth century to probe the secrets of the mysterious Atlantic, and to throw open vast fields for conquest and colonization to the European races. And when through the gathering darkness we look back to the twin peaks, we recall the legend of the two dragons guarding the entrance to the Garden of the Hesperides, and wonder if it was invented by ancient mariners to cover their lack of enterprise.

Many Mediterranean cities present a fair prospect to him who comes by sea, especially in the pearly radiance of the Mediterranean dawn. Algiers surpasses all. The steepness of the hill-side which it fills and its own white brilliancy give to it a special distinction. Many writers, following a leader as sheep that have gone astray, have compared it to the tiers of seats rising one above another in a Greek theatre—a fanciful and baseless comparison. There is no such ordered arrangement. The straight lines of modern houses enclose a central mass of strange irregularity, so confused that from a distance it has the semblance of a heap of ruins. This is the remnant of the Arab city, a swarming ant-heap of native life, filled with strange and savage memories of the astonishing pirates who were through centuries, and even until living memory, the scourge of Christendom. The sea front has entirely lost its ancient aspect; its long line of symmetrical houses, with its Boulevard de la République, and its Boulevard Carnot, recalls Palermo or Messina. And stretching south and east along the hills which encircle the bay the city’s suburbs seem to have no end; white houses gleam amid dark foliage and splendid villas crown the heights.

octubre 18
Library of Alexandria
The Library of Alexandria