Marseille has a record as an ancient city without monuments. The oldest city in France baffles visitors with a glaring lack of remnants from its twenty-six-hundred-year-old history, adding to its bad reputation as uncultured, poverty-stricken, and dangerous. For the longest time, centralist France seemed to have all but abandoned its greatest harbor, once a lifeline supplying the entire Hexagon with colonial riches. And until recently, the age-old trading hub has been unable to sell itself as a heritage sight in the marketplace of global tourism.
Focusing its life forces on commerce, debauch, and corruption instead, Marseille appeared to have forgotten its own history. Its sleeping beauty slumber was interrupted in the 1960s when the city decided to build a shopping mall right at its heart. The excavations for the foundation brought to light what in Greek and Roman times used to be a glorious port, hidden underneath a parking lot behind Palais de la Bourse. Constructions went forward nevertheless, leaving only a third of the excavation site intact. What’s left is a place worth seeing, but not to be amazed by what can be viewed in this so-called “Garden of Vestiges,” but rather to marvel at how little is left of the erstwhile glorious ancient port.
Marseille’s history is full of paradoxes. The city was founded around 600 BC as a colony named “Massalia” by the Greek merchants of Phocaea. Half a century later, it became the sanctuary to the very people who had founded it. The Phocaeans were expelled by the Persians from their native land in Asia Minor–so they embarked on their ships and took refuge in their colonies further west.
2500 years later, in the twentieth century, history had come full circle. Marseille became a sanctuary again, this time for intellectuals taking refuge from a Europe that was turning against itself. Today, about a century further down the stream of history, there are few traces left in this city of a time when the Old Port was brimming with some of the greatest writers of the age penning their latest works.
In a series of vignettes, I will dust off some of the vestiges of that intellectual bustle, before they will be buried and lost under the commercial centers of the future.