On a rare visit to London not long ago, I followed a short path I used to walk as a schoolboy: from the ruins of the old Roman wall near Tower Hill Tube station to the Merchant Navy memorial. The remains of Londinium contain the fine red “sandwich” bricks which reinforced so many Roman houses, temples and fortifications across the empire.
I studied classics for my first degree and roamed Hadrian’s Wall and the ancient villas of England long before I copied down the Latin inscriptions on the Via Appia outside Rome.
On my very first visit to the memorial, I noticed that the commemorative plaques to the 35,800 merchant seamen of Britain’s two world wars, whose bodies were lost to the sea, contained Arab Muslim names. Many came from Yemen (Arabia Felix to the Romans) – and lived in South Shields – and most worked on the great Atlantic convoys.
And it still comes as a shock to think that the last desperate words uttered by some of those trapped in the engine rooms after the first U-boat torpedoes struck their ships were uttered in Arabic and must have been directed to Allah.
When I returned to Beirut a few days later, I took coffee with friends, quite by chance, beside the ruins of the old Roman city; and I noticed, of course, those familiar red sandwich stones behind the columns of the Via Maximus of ancient Berytus. The building blocks of empire, like the straight stone-slabbed roads, stretched across thousands of miles.