Beneath a warm, mid-morning sun, I drove into the city of Arles in southern France. I passed dark stone houses several centuries old, contrasting with modern apartments. To my right was the Rivière Rhône, which flowed from Switzerland in the north through the wine country of France, to la Camargue and the Mediterranean Sea. Down narrow streets past cafés and patisseries, boutiques, specialty jewelers, and souvenir shops. Suddenly, the massive amphitheater of Arles came into view, covering several city blocks. The main entrance was imposing at the top of a series of broad stone steps. The sight was overwhelming. The pictures in a souvenir booklet I had brought with me were completely inadequate by comparison.
Before visiting I sat at a café opposite, lost in the view of les Arènes. The more I gazed at it, the more I realized that the size of the buildings and the monuments was almost unreal.
The splendor of the Arles Amphitheatre
The detailed pictures I saw back home showed the place to look much like a modern sports stadium. It isn’t at all. The splendor of the sandstone walls contrasted wonderfully against the blue sky peppered with puffs of cumulus clouds. I walked to the top of the wide, circular steps, to the second-tier exterior wall. More than ten-feet-wide, the original wall is mostly intact, a tribute to the skills of the Roman builders and the endurance of stone. Yet, the limestone is gradually crumbling. Extensive renovations are underway with scaffolding rising across the floor. The wall is an incredible platform from which to see Arles, with its red tiled roofs and pale stucco buildings. The sun was strong, casting deep shadows and washing the land in a penetrating light. No wonder van Gogh loved it here I thought.
I saw the Rhône River in the distance, understanding some of why Arles was historically important, as a military, shipping, communications and arts center from pre-Roman times to the modern era. I also saw the Théâtre Antique, la Place de la République and St. Trophime. I sat on a renovated section of seats built of bluish-gray granite. Despite the reconstruction that is ongoing in the amphitheater, it has enormous presence. The monument has survived two millennia but with the increase in air pollution and a rise in the number of tourists, it is a delicate balance.
The floor of the amphitheatre is an impressive and humbling experience as you stand facing seats where 20,000 spectators once sat, cheering on gladiators, applauding actors, or laughing at the antics of clowns and jugglers. I picked up a small piece of sandstone from the floor, rolled it in my hand for a few moments, and attempted to reconcile the possibility that Jesus was preaching in Galilee merely sixty years before the amphitheatre was being built. I dropped the piece of sandstone, knowing it would soon disintegrate into history.
By John Pekich producer, director, actor and writer, especially of original Sherlock Holmes and Victorian Mysteries in Cape May, New Jersey, USA