«Prehistory teaches us that we can face any challenge»
The meeting with Yilmaz Orkan, president of the Kurdistan Information Office in Italy, allowed us to shift our gaze to territories with an enormous historical, cultural and human heritage. Those areas, known today for their ferocious attempts to erase physically and culturally the identities, were once the scene of the Neolithic revolution and the consequent transition from nomadism to sedentary lifestyle. Those men and women who lived twelve thousand years ago, creating inhabited centers, ruling the landscape, building sanctuaries like Göbekli Tepe or building a seemingly banal brick, laid the foundations for the future civilization.
If we went back to zero point, that moment in our history when it all began, what could we discover about our identity? Can our ancestors help us understand who we are today and who we will be in the future? I wanted to hear the opinion of one of the highest scholars in the field of Levantine and Mediterranean archeology. A man who knows that zero point well: Lorenzo Nigro, Director of the Archaeological Expeditions of the La Sapienza University in Palestine, Jordan, Mozia (Sicily) and Associate Professor of Punic Archeology of the Near East and Phoenicia at the Department of Oriental Studies of the University La Sapienza of Rome. Besides being a great connoisseur of history, Lorenzo Nigro has undertaken several literary enterprises, all characterized by a great humanity. Thanks to his books, anyone, passionate about archeology or not, can embark on a journey to discover a common past that we will discover to be very modern. A journey that I hope to be able to make you live through this interview.
Lorenzo Nigro, MA, PhD, is an archaeologist with 25 years of field experience in the Near East (starting with Ebla in Syria, 1989-1997) and in the Mediterranean. Since 2002 he has been Director of the Expedition of the La Sapienza University in Mozia, a Phoenician colony in western Sicily, where he excavated the Sacred Area of Kothon, the Acropolis, the Tofet and the city walls (2002-2017). He is also director of the Archaeological Expedition of the Sapienza University in Palestine and Jordan (2004-2017) carrying out projects in the sites of Tell es-Sultan (ancient Jericho), Tell Abu Zarad (ancient Tappuah) and Bethlehem in Palestine; Khirbet al-Batrawy, one of the first cities of the 3rd millennium BC, in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. He is the coordinator of the rescue program "Oasis of Jericho" (JOAP-Jericho Oasis Archaeological Park) carried out by Sapienza with the Palestinian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities and UNESCO funded by the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, which has 103 archaeological sites in the Jericho Oasis. He initiated the catalog of all archaeological and cultural sites in the West Bank, including the highly threatened areas of Bethlehem and Salfeet. He has participated in numerous events and initiatives aimed at protecting and safeguarding the archaeological heritage of the Near East in close collaboration with local authorities in Jordan, Palestine and Lebanon (he also collaborates with the EAMENA Project in Oxford). Since 2013 he has been Director of the Museum of the Ancient Near East, Egypt and the Mediterranean at the La Sapienza University of Rome, where a renewed exhibition was set up in 2015. He is also scientific editor of the magazine Near East.
Professor Nigro, I would like to start this conversation by telling a story. "Once upon a time there was a child who lived on the outskirts of Rome. One day, during the construction of a palace, he saw that the bulldozers were affecting the remains of a Roman villa. Without thinking twice, the boy ran home to get a shovel and bucket and went down to the construction site to be useful. Since then that was his sin: digging." That child armed with shovel and amazement were you, professor. What is left of that child? What emotion does it feel to touch with hands, eyes and heart something that has remained guarded by the earth for millennia?
We were in the glorious 70s. It's always me. With the same curiosity and the same unexpected discoveries. At that time there was a militant superintendence, which did the excavations and saved the monuments. Today everything is more intricate. This is why it is nice to stay a little bit like a child. Then, at the age of nine, my mother gave me an essay by Paolo Matthiae: Ebla. A rediscovered empire. It was 1977. I was struck by that cuneiform tablet on the cover, so well engraved. I did not know that twelve years later I would be there, together with my master Matthiae to dig, with many other enthusiasts of the civilizations of the ancient Near East.
In your first archaeological novel Jericho - the revolution of prehistory, winner of the prize Silvia dell’Orso 2019, you wrote: ‘’the past belongs to everyone; it lives in each of us or is lost forever’’. This statement opens thousand reflections. Do you believe that the study of ancient history can help our awareness of being 'social animals'?
I didn't say that. It is the ancients themselves who teach us. The Egyptian harpist Antef reminds us, with the inscription in his tomb, that poetry is more immortal than architecture - as Foscolo would have done - that the transmission of a people's thought, knowledge, art and beliefs make it immortal.
Speaking of ancient history, it is inevitable to think of the territories of the Fertile Crescent and of our Mediterranean. Can the past and the study of history be useful in awakening a sense of belonging that goes beyond modern geopolitical boundaries?
They must serve to awaken respect between different cultures and political entities. Enough with the oppression, with the logic of force. Respect - which does not mean the cancellation of one's own identity - and the perception of diversity as a wealth, are great values that the ancients taught us. The desire to know and transmit the past is linked to the understanding that the places we live in - our landscapes - are alive and are at the same time archaeological. They are themselves our history. We cannot deny them, nor ruin them, it would be to hurt ourselves. In the Levant and the Near East live young, enterprising populations, deserving of peace and freedom. The history of their countries is the shared history of humanity. Ensuring that the conditions exist for those who live in those territories to study and preserve it is still a possible objective. The Oriental Archeology that Paolo Matthiae taught us leads to this.
"It lives in each of us." History is therefore alive and not dead. Yet there are regimes that want (would like) to literally assassinate historical identity through cultural genocide. Palmira or the Buddhas of Bamiyan are just some of the best-known examples. I believe that this desire for destruction of the past is synonymous with fear, among other things. What power do history and the past have? Why are they scary? It lives in each of us ... can the past be killed?
Yes. The past is a fire to feed every moment, through study, reading, excavation, discovery, protection, enhancement ... in one word, listening to what those who are older than us tell us. I would still like to be a child whose grandmother tells the story of her family. We are the ones who have to listen and tell more.
"It is lost forever." The time. How do you live, as an archaeologist, the relationship with a finite entity? What threats and what opportunities does time present?
Time is relative. It is circular. In the novel I am writing, The Past in Hand, set between Egypt and Jericho at the time of the Old Kingdom, the discovery of a dagger takes us back in time. Every archaeological find has this power: time lives again today, but it lived then. Its presence in our hands throws us into space-time and we see it in the hands of a man of five thousand years ago who is shearing a sheep. We are there with it. Our heart calms down. Where are we running? We are also men. We are in the time of today and then. What we can see, understand, touch is unexpected. We don't think we know it before. If we have this disposition to listen, to discover, then the past will teach us a lot...
In your latest literary venture, The Genes of Mozia, you offer us a trip to a ''paradise on earth on the nose of Sicily'': the island of Mozia, an ancient Phoenician center and a very important hub for understanding the history of our Mediterranean. Among the thousand mysteries that surround the treasure confiscated by Garibaldi and hidden by the aristocratic family of the Whitakers in Mozia, you find yourself having visions that will lead you to investigate the veracity of this legend...
Of all my archaeological sins this is the most reckless. But it wasn't me who wanted it, but the geniuses of Mozia, that is, the ghosts who asked me to help them reconstruct the adventurous story of the treasure that is at the beginning of the history of Italy. And the facts are true: the rich and cosmopolitan Whitaker family was responsible for the landing of the Thousand in Marsala ... what we are still experiencing depends on the actions of a handful of brave (and not) women and men...
In Arabic and Persian literature, the jinns, supernatural entities born of fire, are omnipresent characters. It is a novelty to find them in an archaeological novel. Why did you feel the need to write novels? What is the relationship between archeology and fantasy?
In a highly commented passage from Jericho. The revolution of prehistory, my interlocutor asks me: "So you invented things?" "Yes! In a sense, yes!". It is important to always indicate what has really been found and what we have imagined and on which knowledge we base our reconstructions. On the other hand, the imagination is the greatest human force. The archaeologist mends the gaps in the canvas. He tries to reconstruct using intuition and imagination, in addition to the scientific method ... it is a topic of debate.
In your novels, in addition to providing precious archaeological information, you also reveal the practical and human side of the life of the mudir and his collaborators. How important are interpersonal relationships for the success of archaeological missions? How do you live relations with the local population and culture?
Differences of opinion are essential, as in any human enterprise, but they are also necessary and inevitable. The important thing is that everyone accepts the hierarchy in the research team. We have always tried to respect the cultures that generously host us. First of all, by listening and letting ourselves be guided by those who know places, traditions and sensibilities different from ours. Sometimes even with a healthy exchange of points of view.
Do you believe that travel, especially cultural tourism, can be a means to understand that history is not a matter buried in obscure books? Can ancient history restore dignity to countries that often mistakenly appear to us as foreigners and enemies?
Cultural tourism enriches the soul, the psyche, of those who travel and those who are visited. It is a human experience that makes us better. It should not be considered according to economic categories, but arises from the innate need in the sapiens to know, understand, see, explore, to go down even more inside ourselves and find the smiles, efforts, failures and achievements of our entire species - across lands and millennia… it is a challenge that we launch ourselves and our group. Will we be able to see beyond preconceptions, beyond what has already been said? Will we be able to listen to the different who live in a way that is very distant from ours? Why does their life always seem purer than ours? These are questions that lead us to act better on our return, that's it!
Finally, what should we learn from our ancestors?
That only together we can live well and that choosing the right leaders can mark the destiny of a human community ...
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I thank Prof. Nigro for his precious contribution. I learned a lot from him. Not only archaeological notions, but also the profound humanity that lives inside an apparently unattainable name. If you want to follow the future adventures of prof. Nigro, you can follow #digging_is_my_sin on Instagram and Facebook.
In the next interview we will leave for a ''Yeni Dunya'', a new world, together with the international band Light in Babylon. Prepare your bags!