Let's go sunbathe by the ruins of what once were Roman baths.


Today the peninsula of San Giovanni del Sinis that hangs off the mid-western coast of Sardinia is not a practical place to live. There is a single road that leads from the charming town of Cabras to the peninsula, a twenty minute drive through farmland and marshes. At a certain point the road is blocked off into two large parking lots and from there, the strip of land narrows until the road becomes dirt and the travelers are on two legs rather than four wheels.

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But for many years this peninsula harbored the most prosperous town on the island, and one of the most important ports in the Mediterranean. Tharros is a temporal cross-section, with remnants of life spanning millennia. Starting from a Spanish tower from the early 17th century, the layers of history go back through the Middle Ages (when Tharros served as the capital city of its region) to Nuragic times. Even during the period in which Tharros was abandoned (around 1070 AD), it was never forgotten. A well known saying, e sa cittad'e Tharros, portant sa perda a carros, translates directly to "from the city of Tharros, they bring stones on carts" and refers to the fact that the site was used for years to bring building materials from the abandoned town to create the safer city of Oristano. In fact, the glorious Basilica of Santa Giusta was built with Roman columns taken from Tharros.

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A couple of centuries later, the Carthaginians (originally Phoenicians themselves, who had founded the city of Carthage in modern-day Tunisia) arrived and, with force and determination, eventually conquered the island for themselves. Their ferocious opposition to Rome accounts for the lack of Punic sites in Sardinia today: after their victory in the First Punic War, the Romans fairly annihilated the Carthaginian culture on the island, rebuilding directly on top of the rubble.

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“Behind every beginning there’s always another ‘Once upon a time." — E. H. Gombrich

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The Romans weren't the first to disregard earlier cultures, however. The Phoenicians, Carthaginians and Romans each appear to have removed and reused the gigantic stones that formed the prehistoric nuraghes near Tharros, in order to build their own homes and roads. This constant overlapping then poses a question: when did humans start to care about history? When did we begin to see ruins as something to preserve rather than something to loot and reuse? And when did the fascination of a story from long ago begin to intermingle with the conviction that these histories could provide some sort of existential answer to our contemporary anguishes? Are we vain romantics with too much time on our hands? Or is the quest to discover what happened before us a newly awakened human conscience? Will it continue for future generations? And what will our beach chairs and coolers say about us?

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