I would have thought that the world’s oldest street, in continuous use for over 3,500 years, would have been easy to find, a major tourist destination, but all I received when I asked were blank stares and shakes of the head. They would look at the entry in the guidebook and shrug. There was no recognition. The general consensus was, “No, that’s not here.”
I’ve always been mesmerized by the fleeting whiffs I would get of life at the edge of history. From the circles and henges of Britain to the ancient ways of Aleppo, which I wandered before the civil war, I always get a feeling of belonging when I visit these places. The tour hit many lesser known sites, but this was special. “The world’s oldest street in continuous use”. I ached to see it, to walk on it, to step on the same stones people sued thousands of years ago.
I was beginning to panic. We were given only three free hours in this small city, which was ancient millennia before Rome was founded, and I knew the bus wouldn’t wait for me. It had to be around. Sure, my guidebook was an antique, but it had proven more accurate in these little towns that survived at the fringes of history than any of the modern name books or Internet sites. I was sure this had to be correct.
I was about to give up when a man approached me. He looked both ways before he spoke.
“I have been told that you seek the ancient street,” he said.
“I should not do this, but… I will show it to you.”
“How much do I…”
He cut me off. “I do not seek payment. Follow me.”
Although I feared a trap, perhaps some hidden figures who would kill me for the little change I carried, I did follow the man.
We entered a narrow, winding, dead-end street that I had passed a dozen times before. There was a door leading into the wall at the end. The wall was otherwise blank, which wasn’t unusual since all of the buildings were inward facing, having an inner courtyard and only a single door to the street.
The man unlocked the door, but held it shut.
“This is very dangerous. Once the road flattens at the bottom, go no farther than five or six steps. If you can’t see your own shadow, you have gone too far. Turn back and leave immediately. Do you promise?”
“Is it in danger of caving in or…?”
“Do you promise?”
I had been waiting for a long time for this moment, so I promised.
The wall was very thick, but once through I found myself outside once again. I discovered that the dead-end street had continued into the building, but dove steeply down, so that it passed under the far wall of the courtyard.
The way flatten out just after it entered the tunnel that was formed when it dipped below the far wall. At the bottom the flagstone changed, became glassy smooth. The lower half of the plastered walls were black and greasy from millennia of hands being brushed down them. In places, there were holes in the plaster which showed the ancient sun-baked mud brick. Age seeped out of every pore.
I talk a few steps, soaking in the feeling. I knew it was real. It was old. It was far more than 3500 years old. Perhaps it was only paved at that time, but people had been passing this way since grain cultivation was discovered in this corner of the world. I could feel the shadows of those people.
I went in deeper, rubbing my hand on that same plaster that people have been touching since time out of mind. There was a connection, as I knew that my hand was touching the same place that people who had lived and died over a thousand years before Jesus had touched. My feet were following their footsteps and my hands touching were theirs had been.
I wasn’t paying attention to myself, only the surroundings. I went more than six steps. I don’t know how far I went before I realized that it was dark. There could be no shadow. I had gone farther, much farther, than promised.
But I noticed a light ahead of me. Although it was a bit ethereal, I could tell that it was sunlight. The narrow street must resurface. I decided it would be easier to just go ahead and come up in this new location.
Why didn’t I think? I had spent the day exploring the small city. Where could this other entrance be hidden? It was nowhere. It couldn’t run straight and see daylight.
As I neared this new entrance, I saw that there was a ring of sunlight around the entrance. It formed a type of portal that must be passed before one could exit. I stopped and studied it. I could see holes in the walls and ceiling that let in the light. And yet, I could not figure out how the light was so evenly spread. In fact, it seemed as if the very rock were glowing.
What fascinating people, the ancients, to be able to create such an optical illusion!
I went through this glowing portal to the street on the other side.
There were crowds of people in the middle of their daily business, giving me little more than a quick glance.
Yet all was strange. Something was wrong.
I began to notice that all aspects of modern life had been removed. Nobody had a mobile phone or even a watch. There were no cars or buses. No blue jeans or other wear from the Western world. No electric lines. Nothing.
A man dressed in a very silly and threadbare late 18th century costume walked over to me.
“Bonjour, Monsieur,” he said.
In a strangely accented French he said, “Welcome. I know how surprised you must be to find yourself here, but it will be fine. We’ll make sure that you fit in.”
“What in the world are you talking about?” My French wasn’t great, but I am sure he knew what I said.
He smiled. “You don’t know when you are, huh? Turn. Try to go home. Do it.”
The street I had followed was there, but it was in the day light, not a tunnel. And the street had people on it. People going about their daily business, doing the same things they had for thousands of years.
“They had closed it off long before my time,” the Frenchman said. “I was an explorer, making discoveries about antiquities, trying to find places no European had been. I found this street. I bribed someone. As far as I know, I was the last one through. Until you. Which means they kept it blocked for…, what year was it when you left?”
He smiled at me, waiting for an answer. What year was it when I left? What did he mean?
I turned around, looking for some hint of my portal.
It wasn’t there.
I still had the guide and opened it up, ignoring my surroundings. I had only skimmed the brief description before.
“This town is said to be the home to the oldest continuously used street in the world, which is more than 3500 years old. Several people have described the ancient mudbrick and plaster work at the entrance, as well as the well-worn paving stones. Famed French explorer Nicolas Lelande was last seen following it in 1763. When asked about his disappearance, the locals called it a one-way street. It has not been verified.”
A one-way street. Nicolas Lelande. 1763. But he was almost a contemporary in comparison, wasn’t he?
I turned back to the Frenchman.
He smiled, knowing that I must realize the truth.
“Welcome to your new home,” Nicolas said.
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