by Barry Edelson


Decline Is in the Eye of the Beholder

Sardinia and the pleasures of living


In the "heroic" model of history, the tide of human progress depends upon the inventiveness and conquest of great men leading, or at least living in, great civilizations. One of the consequences of such thinking is that when notable civilizations decline or even disappear altogether, we ascribe subjective judgments to the societies that succeed them. For example, we write off whole centuries of European history as the "dark ages" because they happen to fall in between the end of the Roman Empire and the rise of more "advanced" cultures at some arbitrary time in the later "middle ages". These distinctions lead us to suppose that the people who continued to inhabit the affected regions simply didn't exist because they happened to disappear from the history pages. They lived, loved, reproduced themselves, worked the land, built things, drew pictures, told stories, went places and waged war, just as people do everywhere in all times. But because they had the misfortune to live outside the chronological and geographical bounds of a civilization designated by historians as "important", they are invisible to us.

A question came to mind while visiting the island of Sardinia in the western Mediterranean Sea this spring: how much of a misfortune is it really to be born in one of these "dark" times in one of these forsaken places?

For Sardinia, it was not always thus. Between 1,600 and 1,200 BC, a mighty civilization flourished on the island, the most notable feature of which is that it is largely forgotten — except by modern Sardinians who keep its artifacts and achievements alive for
The nuraghe at Barrumini
the sake of both national pride and tourism. These achievements were not inconsiderable. The nuragic people, as they are known, built remarkably sophisticated fortifications using the ancient volcanic rock that is common on the island. The structures, in the form of high towers with circular foundations, are called nuraghi in Italian (or nuraxi — pronounced nuraji — in Sardinian) hence the name by which the people who made them are generally known to archaeologists and historians. Virtually nothing is known about where these people came from or what language they spoke, or from where, in their relative isolation, they learned to build these fantastic round structures with multiple levels, secret passages, arch-like ceilings and spiral staircases.

All the more extraordinary is that there are 7,000 nuraghi in Sardinia, each of them at one time the fortress of a distinct settlement. Archaeologists reckon there are at least that many more again yet to be unearthed. This means that the Bronze Age inhabitants of the island had a very prosperous, highly advanced and well-defended society, one that was well known to other sea-faring nations of the time, notably the Phoenicians and Egyptians, in whose hieroglyphics various "sea peoples" are depicted. Among these foreigners immortalized on Egyptian tablets are some whose boats and clothing look astonishingly like those of the nuragic people of Sardinia. (The island's modern name probably derives from shardana, the name of one of the ancient trading and/or marauding sea peoples of the second millennium BC, whose relationship with ancient Egypt varied through the centuries from that of trading partners to enemies to mercenaries.) Their wonderfully imaginative artifacts, from bronze trunk handles to elegant statues, fill the island's archaeological museums.

Eventually the ancient Sardinians' civilization declined. By about 1,000 BC the island was dominated by the Phoenicians, a Semitic people whose main city was Tyre in what is now Lebanon (and who were unique in their seamanship among the Canaanites from whom they descended). Several hundred years later, the increasingly powerful Phoenician colony at Carthage, a relatively short trip across the sea in what is now Tunisia, took over at least the southern part of the island. After the Punic Wars, the Romans dominated the region largely unchallenged and occupied Sardinia as a matter of course. Layers of archaeological ruins at sites such as Nora on the south coast attest to the construction that each successive power laid upon the foundations of the one that came before. After centuries of Roman control, Sardinia, like Sicily and its closest neighbor Corsica, were subject to invasion by one medieval power after another. The ones that left the deepest mark on modern Sardinia were the city-states of Genoa and, to a lesser extent, Pisa, and later the kingdom of Aragon, which ruled over all of the islands in the region for several hundred years beginning in the 14th century.

A land worth defending

Why did they all want Sardinia? One would like to believe that its exceptional beauty was always a major attraction, with its stunning pink-granite mountains and breathtaking coastlines. But the fertile southern plains and raw materials like copper and lead were more likely the reasons why the island was so desirable. Of course, it was also on several major Mediterranean trade routes, making its harbors highly sought after by conquerers, traders and pirates. In modern times, it was from the Maddalena Islands, close by Sardinia's northeast coast, that Garibaldi directed the military campaign for the unification of Italy during the 19th century — while he was supposedly under house arrest. Even the Americans had a naval base in the Maddalenas until just a few years ago. Some will argue that domination by a powerful conqueror brought with it a degree of protection from "uncivilized" predators, but most of the subject peoples who were forced to live under the so-called Pax Romana no doubt felt that it came with an awful lot of Romana but precious little pax.

Better Off Alone

Now, Sardinians feel largely neglected by Italy and the wider world. Both of our guides expressed this view, though from different perspectives. Paola was born in the island's main city, Cagliari, 48 years ago and is a city girl through and through, though she had a grandmother in the country and has a deep knowledge of the island's topography and its profusion of wild herbs. (She habitually grabbed a handful of some plant along the side of road and thrust it to our noses, saying, "Smell this – wild rosemary!") She said that Sardinia feels like an Italian colony, about which the government in Rome knows or cares little. While everyone is fluent in Italian, Sardinian is still most people's first and main language. It is said to be more closely related to Latin than any of the other Romance languages, and bears some resemblance to the languages of the Pyrenees like Catalan and Basque, reflecting a shared history of domination by Spain. In the lovely seaside city of Alghero, for instance, the street signs mostly denote places in Spain, particularly in Catalonia, many of whose sailors settled on Sardinia's west coast.

Piero, who is more than a decade older than Paola, comes from Olbia in the northeastern region of Gallura, where a different dialect is spoken. He is frankly disdainful of Italian misgovernment and is outspoken about how the island is misunderstood and neglected. He is dismissive of what passes for Italian "democracy". While there is no apparent desire for independence, the locals do not strongly identify with Italy. As we toured Maddalena Island, Piero pointed out that those who live there consider themselves a distinct people, different even from the Sardinians a few miles across the strait. Indeed, when they take the short ferry ride to the 'mainland', they say that they are "going to Sardinia". Though nowadays it is a short flight from Rome to Cagliari or Olbia, it is not difficult to imagine how distant the Italian mainland, hundreds of miles away by ferry, must still seem to many in the local population.

If one takes the Sardinians at their word, it is easy to get the impression that Sardinia has settled into a kind of underdeveloped backwater. Cagliari (the accent, inexplicably, is on the first syllable) initially gives that impression, too, as it is in some ways lovely but noticeably run down. Many facades are dirty and crumbling, even in the nicer sections of the city. There seems to be a lack of capital for improvements. In addition, quite a few scruffy types hang out on the corners and in the cafes along the waterfront on the Via Roma, where our hotel was situated, lending an air of dishevelment. But the city felt perfectly safe, as families with small children and single women could be seen strolling the quiet, narrow streets of the old city late into the evening. One of the consequences of being ruled by the Italian city-states during medieval times is that Sardinia was not a feudal society (at least not until the Spaniards arrived) and it developed a relatively independent and civic-minded culture. For example, Sardinia was among the strongest supporters of the struggle for Italian unification, not out of love for Italians, but as a means of throwing off centuries of autocratic rule. And it is said to be largely free of organized crime, whose powerful influence is felt widely in the Italian south and in French-ruled Corsica immediately to the north. The mafia tends to arise and thrive in "vertically" integrated societies, where the strongest social and political relationships are between master and servant, as opposed to "horizontal" societies, as in the northern city-states, in which associations among people with common trades and interests are widespread, and where the rule of law matters at least as much as who one's patron is. In contrast to Sicily and rest of southern Italy, Sardinia's history suggests it is much more inclined to the latter form of social organization.

The views from atop Cagliari's seven hills are strikingly lovely. Spanish-built fortifications ring the Castello district in one direction, and open vistas to the nearby wetlands and thousands of nesting flamingos are clearly visible in another. And while the city doesn't exactly feel poor, it does seem oddly untouched by modernity. There are mobile phones at everyone's ear, like everywhere else in the world today — we noticed that coverage extends even into remote mountain areas — but many other widely shared traits of the modern world seem to be absent. Apart from one Italian department store, for example, there isn't an upscale shopping district to be found anywhere in Cagliari. Name brand Italian retailers like Gucci and Bulgari, whose stores one sees not only in every Italian city but throughout the fashionable boulevards of the world, are strangely missing. There isn't one major international hotel chain in the city, except for a forlorn Holiday Inn at the airport. One can understand why the Sardinians feel forgotten.

Easter at Oliena: Modern life
intrudes, but not too much

On the other hand, Sardinia is almost entirely self-sufficient in food, which helps to explain the prosperity of its earlier civilizations. (There are many stone monuments, including a large tomb, dating a full 2,000 years even before the appearance of the mysterious nuragic people.) Even among Italians, who have one of the highest life expectancies in the world, Sardinians stand out, as they live longer than almost anyone on the planet. The island has a population of only 1.6 million, less than a third of Sicily's, so there is relatively little traffic and many still unspoiled places. Though the summers are very hot there are few extremes of weather. Unlike Sicily and the Italian mainland, the volcanos that deposited the basalt from which the nuraghi were built went extinct millions of years ago. There are no earthquakes, either. Cagliari, with about 400,000 inhabitants in its metropolitan area, is just large enough to have a lively cultural life. Eating out is a major pastime, and there seem to be more restaurants than people. The cuisine is outstanding, with most ingredients coming directly from farm to table. The gelato is delectable.

Like all other Italian citizens, Sardinians enjoy free health care and education. The roads are very well maintained (better than in America by far). While the Sardinians gripe about how they get short-changed by Rome, and scoff that their semi-autonomous status within the Italian republic counts for little, their quality of life doesn't seem to suffer much. They may be relatively poor by European standards, but are actually wealthier than any other region in southern Italy, as measured by GDP per capita. It is militarily very secure, because without the strategic importance of prior eras, it is hard to imagine why any foreign power would bother to invade Sardinia ever again.

If it sounds like paradise, that is of course only from the perspective of a visitor. As George Clooney's character in The Descendants says about living in Hawaii, people have mostly the same personal problems no matter where they live. Living in what looks like a tropical garden is not a guarantee of happiness, but it certainly does have its compensations. Sardinians enjoy most of the conveniences of modern living, but without many of the problems of pollution, overcrowding and commercialization that plague the most developed regions of the world. It is surely not perfect, but Sardinians seem to have achieved a balance between progress and excess that would be the envy of many contemporary societies.

From a purely historical and geopolitical perspective, Sardinia just doesn't matter any more. For the Sardinians, this is a source of frustration and wounded pride. But from the outside, it looks for all the world as if they've gotten the better of the deal.


May 11, 2014


Go to top of page

Return to home pageSend an e-mail

All writings on this site are copyrighted by Barry Edelson. Reprinting by permission only.