Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Catacombs of Ptolemais

A note on The Picture in the House (Decemebr 1920) per ST Joshi in his Penguin edition states in note 1: "catacombs of Ptolemais: Ptolemais was a coastal city in Cyrenaica (now Libya) and was given its name by Ptolemy III (Euergetes) of Egypt (r. 247-222 ВСЕ), who united Cyrenaica with Egypt. There do not appear to be any catacombs there; but a modern traveler makes note of "the huge Hellenistic tower-tomb, placed high on a cube of solid rock jutting up in isolation above the city's largest ancient quarry, the building stone has been hacked away to leave it free on its pinnacle. The tomb stands over forty feet high, a pink monolith, and was constructed for multiple burial; but no one is clear for whom." Anthony Thwaite, The Deserts of Hesperides: An Experience of Libya (London: Seeker & Warburg, 1969), p. 73."

The text in question states (in the opening paragraph)

“Searchers after horror haunt strange, far places. For them are the catacombs of Ptolemais, and the carven mausolea of the nightmare countries. They climb to the moonlit towers of ruined Rhine castles, and falter down black cobwebbed steps beneath the scattered stones of forgotten cities in Asia. The haunted wood and the desolate mountain are their shrines, and they linger around the sinister monoliths on uninhabited islands. But the true epicure in the terrible, to whom a new thrill of unutterable ghastliness is the chief end and justification of existence, esteems most of all the ancient, lonely farmhouses of backwoods New England; for there the dark elements of strength, solitude, grotesqueness, and ignorance combine to form the perfection of the hideous.”

I believe the indomitable scholar has omitted an obvious Poe allusion. Here are a few select portions of SHADOW –A PARABLE by Edgar Allan Poe, 1850 (elsewhere referenced as 1835).

"Over some flasks of the red Chian wine, within the walls of a noble hall, in a dim city called Ptolemais, we sat, at night, a company of seven. And to our chamber there was no entrance save by a lofty door of brass: and the door was fashioned by the artisan Corinnos, and, being of rare workmanship, was fastened from within. Black draperies, likewise, in the gloomy room, shut out from our view the moon, the lurid stars, and the peopleless streets–but the boding and the memory of Evil they would not be so excluded. There were things around us and about of which I can render no distinct account–things material and spiritual–heaviness in the atmosphere–a sense of suffocation–anxiety–and, above all, that terrible state of existence which the nervous experience when the senses are keenly living and awake, and meanwhile the powers of thought lie dormant. A dead weight hung upon us. It hung upon our limbs–upon the household furniture–upon the goblets from which we drank; and all things were depressed, and borne down thereby–all things save only the flames of the seven lamps which illumined our revel. Uprearing themselves in tall slender lines of light, they thus remained burning all pallid and motionless; and in the mirror which their lustre formed upon the round table of ebony at which we sat, each of us there assembled beheld the pallor of his own countenance, and the unquiet glare in the downcast eyes of his companions. Yet we laughed and were merry in our proper way–which was hysterical; and sang the songs of Anacreon–which are madness; and drank deeply–although the purple wine reminded us of blood.

And at length I, Oinos, {oinos means "wine" in Greek - CP} speaking some low words, demanded of the shadow its dwelling and its appellation. And the shadow answered, "I am SHADOW, and my dwelling is near to the Catacombs of Ptolemais, and hard by those dim plains of Helusion which border upon the foul Charonian canal."


Michelle said...

Bravo! *applause*

John Rowlands said...

A lot of work was done in this area. See: Report of the Cambridge Expedition to Cyrenaica 1959

The Jebel el Akhdar or "Green Mountain" is a limestone plateau which rises to a height of over 850 metres and extends for some 250 kilometres east of Benghazi parallel to the coast of Cyrenaica. A narrow coastal plain or "Sahel" lies between the sea and a steep escarpment which reaches a height of 500 metres. A few kilometres to the south a second, less well defined scarp rises to the plateau level, the area between the scarps being severely dissected by numerous steep sided wadis. The Jebel is composed in the main of flat lying Tertiary limestones which are soft and contain few impermeable horizons. Although the Jebel receives a comparatively high rainfall during the winter months, due to the porosity of the limestone, most of the water is lost by absorption into the underground drainage system and resurges either where it is of little use or below sea level.

During 1951-2 a British Army party, known as the "Deep Reconnaissance Unit", explored a large number of the caves and potholes that are developed on the Jebel and were responsible for finding the cave of Am Dubbussia, from which water is now being extracted to supply the new capital of el Beida. The chief aim of the Cambridge Expedition to Cyrenaica 1959 was to continue the search for water by spelaeological techniques. It was also hoped to carry out geomorphological studies, to make a collection of cave fauna and to make a study of the way of life of the local population. The Base Camp was set up at Dubbussia and exploration carried out chiefly in the coastal area between Labrach and Derna, although several excursions were made outside these limits.


Chris Perridas said...

Outstanding background, John. Is this one you've been to yourself?

{John is a skilled Speleologist - and a darned good Mythos & horror writer.)

See www.horrorlibrray.net


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