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Monday, March 28, 2011

On the Road in Libya: The Arch of the Fileni

Here at the multi-story headquarters of Rome the Second Time, we once again feel compelled to temporarily suspend our regular programming to bring you a timely special report.  It replaces another timely special report. 

According to this morning's paper, rebel troops are on the move in Libya, freed from the trap at Ajdabiya, pursuing the retreating Libyan army around the Gulf of Sirte and through the Sirte desert through Brega, Uqaylah, and Ras Lanuf, heading toward Qaddafi's home town of Surt. 

Arch of the Fileni, c. 1940
 This act in the Libyan drama has been played out on a highway that follows the coast line.  And what an historic highway it is.  The equivalent of Eisenhower's interstate highway system, the road unites eastern Libya (Cyrenaica) with western Libya (Tripolitania).  It was built and paved only in the 1930s, a truly monumental accomplishment, by mostly Libyan crews working under the occupying colonial power, Italy, which had invaded the country in 1911.

For a time (and perhaps still) it was known as the via Balbia, or the via Balbo, after Italo Balbo, the larger-than-life figure who became governor of Libya in 1934 and under whose watch the highway was completed three years later.  The formal name for the 822 kilometer highway was the Litoranea-Libica. 

What the rebel army didn't see as they approached Ras Lanuf from the east was an enormous arch, built over the new highway in 1937 as a sign of the road-building, unifying achievement, as well as Italian might and hegemony.  The Qaddafi regime demolished  the arch in 1970--blew it up with dynamite--just a year after the whacky dictator took power, no doubt because the new government didn't savor a prominent reminder of 3 decades of European colonial rule.  He had a point. 

The flamboyant Balbo stood for what
the Italians wanted to be. 
The Arch of the Fileni, as the Italians called it, was of enormous symbolic value, perhaps especially for Balbo.  In 1933, the energetic Fascist--and a skilled pilot--had led an expedition of 25 Italian aircraft on a 19,000 mile journey from the airfield at Orbetello (in Tuscany) to Chicago and back, becoming a national hero on his return.  (It was only 6 years after Lindbergh's historic crossing of the Atlantic, and the Italians were aviation fanatics).  Balbo and his fellow aviators were rewarded with the ultimate demonstration of Mussolini's admiration: a trumphal march under the Arch of Constantine.  "The Duce has conceded to us," Balbo explained, "the culminating moment of the triumph of Rome."  Together, Balbo and the Arch of Constantine symbolized Italy's return to the glory and dominance that the Fascists identified with imperial Rome. 

March 1937.  Mussolini at the dedication. 
Balbo must have been pleased, then, when Mussolini announced he was coming to Libya in March to celebrate the completion of the highway, and that the ceremony would reprise the triumphal proceedings of 1933.  For the evening dedication, Balbo had surrounded the isolated arch with flaming tripods and illuminated the upper reaches of the structure with searchlights.  Airplanes buzzed overhead.  Positioned around the arch was a representative assortment of Libyan soldiers, Italian and Libyan work crews, and native honor guards aboard camels.  Ugo Ojetti, Balbo's art critic and friend, was there, describing Mussolini's arrival, the power of the moment, and the Duce's remarks to those assembled.  "He speaks to them in syllabes," wrote Ojetti:  "Be proud to have left this symbol of fascist power in the desert."  "Workers and natives begin to strike the air in two tempos: 'Duce du ce...Do ce do ce.'"  Later, as Mussolini observed the glorious arch from his tent, "the Arabs begin to shout joyfully, to strike tambourines, to twist and jump, to dance and to whirl...."  The Arabs wouldn't always feel that way. 

Bronzes of the Fileni brothers, originally in the
slot (see photo at top)  just above the curve of the arch.
The arch was generally known to Libyans, and not surprisingly, as El Gaus (The Arch).  In the desert campaigns of World War II, the allied armies referred to it as The Marble Arch.  It was commissioned as the Arch of the Litoranea.  It was more commonly known, at least to Italians, as the Arch of the Fileni, for an event that took place long before, on the very spot that Balbo had chosen to erect his monument.  

Many centuries ago, when the country was divided between the Carthaginians on the West and the Greek Cyraneans on the East, the two peoples had agreed to settle their disputed border by an unusual method.  At the same hour of the same day, ambassadors of the Carthaginians were to leave Carthage and march east, while ambassadors of the Cyreneans were to leave their capitol and travel west.  The border between the nations was to be located at the place of their meeting.  The team from Carthage, two brothers named Philaeni (Fileni in the Italian spelling), pressed hard and made good time, while the representatives of Cyranea failed to move with the same haste.  When the groups met, the Cyraneans, assuming that the Carthaginians had jumped the gun, refused to agree to the original terms of the compact.  Instead, they offered the Fileni brothers a difficult choice: either they could be buried alive then and there, and mark the border with their graves, or they could agree to allow the Cyraneans to advance westward as far as they wanted--but under the same penalty.  "Without hesitation, according to a 1940 retelling of the story, "the brothers accepted the first alternative."  In gratitude, the Carthaginians built two altars over the tomb.  Erected adjacent to the altars of the Fileni, Balbo's arch commemorated this act of selfless courage, inspired by the nation.  Above the arch, an inscription paid homage, on the one hand, to the power of the city of Rome ("Oh, kind Sun, may you never look upon a city greater than Rome"); on the other hand, to the Fileni brothers, for "their sacrifice for the greatness of the Patria."  

Fragments of the bas-reliefs.  On the left, salutes to
Today, all that remains of the Arch of the Fileni are two bronze statues (photo above left) of the Fileni brothers, and fragments of bas-reliefs, all "stored" in a field at Madinat Sultan, in case anyone should care to visit.  Until recently the remnants were behind a fence but accessible--if you could wake up the guard. 


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