Heading back home to Israel from the US a few days ago, I stopped off in Rome for a short visit. I’d planned ahead and made reservations to visit Emperor Hadrian’s estate – Villa Hadrian, the vast 2nd-century complex outside the city. I’d recently finished reading Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar and really wanted to see the retreat Hadrian had built for himself.
I was collected at my hotel, as arranged, by a tour bus with a local guide, and we set off to pick up a group of 25 more tourists who were joining us from another hotel.
When the group emerged, they all looked vaguely familiar. Definitely people from my region, I thought. People I’ve seen on TV. Wait a minute: Yes, they are Iranians!
They were a mixed bunch of teens, seniors, and many in-between. Most of the women were in Western clothing but a few had their heads covered with scarves. They had a tour leader/translator with them, Muhammad, who quickly introduced himself and asked where was I from.
Israel, I said, Jerusalem...
“I hope I don’t make you uncomfortable,” I said.
“Oh no, welcome,” he replied. “We happy you with us.”
So off we went.
The Italian tour guide was not good. He would say things like, “This building we just passed was the barracks of the Praetorian Guard.” Period. “We are leaving Rome and driving east.” That’s it.
No context. No color.
When we got to the villa, the first stop was at a reconstructed model of the estate. The guide had just started explaining which building was what, when suddenly two police officers appeared and asked him for his guide’s license. When it turned out that he did not have it on him, they took him away.
So there I was with the Teheran 25, without a guide. (He did tell us, as he was being led
off by the carabinieri, to wait, that they would send some one else...)
What would a good Jew do in such a situation? I suggested to the group that we walk around the estate and that I would tell them what I knew about Hadrian. And they agreed.
I explained why Hadrian was perhaps the most important Roman emperor, under whose rule Rome reached its zenith. I told them about Hadrian’s travels around the empire (he was the only emperor who actually visited every province, twice), about his passion for Greek culture, about his passion for hunting, and about his passion for Antinous.
Hadrian was married and had kids, but the love of his life was a young Greek boy, Antinous, whom he met in Greece. They were inseparable for a decade. Antinous died in mysterious circumstances in Egypt – drowning in the Nile – and it was never clear whether he had gone for a swim and got into difficulties or was drowned by other jealous lovers.
Hadrian never recovered. And he made Antinous into a god. The cult of Antinous became one of the most widespread throughout the empire; many hundreds of Antinous statues survive to this day.
What’s most fascinating about this cult is that it superseded, for a few years, a newly developing religion that was just beginning to take root – the one that venerates the holy man on the cross.
My fellow Iranian tourists were intrigued by all this. The bit they loved most was when I told them of the speculation that, had Hadrian lived for another 10 years, we might not have Christianity today.
Another thing I told them, which they found fascinating, was that the Romans changed the name of Judea to Palestina, after the Philistines, and that’s where the term comes from.
After about 45 minutes of my guiding, we were getting on really well. I’d go so far as to say we were friends.
Then a new official guide arrived, who was also quite boring, and off we went to Tivoli, to see the Renaissance gardens.
Soon it was time for lunch, and for the journey back to Rome. When we
parted company, they invited me to come visit them in Teheran – having
asked if I had another, non-Israeli passport – and gave me their e-mail
They asked for my e-mail, and I said I could give them my card, with
its Jerusalem details, but was afraid they could get into trouble. They
said that was no problem. I hope they’re right.The writer, who is using a pseudonym, is a veteran immigrant from the US.