A Visit to the Isola Sacra
one of Ostia's ancient graveyards
n.b. always check the OFFICIAL SITE to make sure the site is open
(as of August 2009, the Isola Sacra necropolis has been closed to the public, apart from certain days)
Isola Sacra or the 'Sacred Island' was the wedge of land on the other side of the Tiber between Ostia and Portus, (the new harbour built by the emperor Claudius). There was probably a ferry across the river mouth, then a road led up to the new harbour. This flat marshy land outside the town walls was the site of industries and also of tombs which lined the road. Some of the tombs are poor, perhaps just an amphora containing ashes half sunk in the ground. Others are richer. There are even some walk-in tombs, with niches for jars containing the ashes of the dead from one family. Most of the tombs date from the second century AD. There is a useful guide to the tombs HERE.
above right: relief of a ship from a tomb in Isola Sacra
The region with the ancient tombs is still called Isola Sacra and is now a suburb of Fiumicino Airport. Some pilots and air stewards live here. The word fiumicino means 'little brook'. This probably refers to the channel cut by Trajan from his hexagonal harbour (built after the Flavian period) to the Tiber. The big grain ships from Egypt probably docked here in Portus. Then the grain could be pulled on barges up to Rome. Some barges might have been pulled my mules, but some were almost certainly pulled by slaves. Archaeologists found a graveyard here with skeletons of men aged 30 and under. All had terrible back problems, probably from pulling the ropes attached to barges.
above: the bridge over the Tiber River travelling from Ostia to Isola Sacra
If you drive from Ostia Antica, follow signs to the airport. If you take a bus, it should be marked Ostia - Isola Sacra - Fiumicino. (It is possible to walk from the ruins of Ostia to the necropolis of Isola Sacra but you should take out a good insurance policy first. It is very dangerous and will take you at least an hour.) When you cross the Tiber, you will be on the Via dell'Aeroporto di Fiumicino. There are lots of billboards and advertisements on both sides of the road. Once you have crossed the Tiber, start looking for the tall white water tower on the right hand side of the road. You will see it after one or two sets of traffic lights.
right: the white water tower seen in the distance to the right of the sign
If you are on the bus, ring the bell for the bus stop just before the bus passes the water tower. There is a traffic light here. Just beyon the water tower, you will see a road leading right (west). It is called Via Cima Cristallo. Walk (or drive) up this road.
left: the traffic lights and crossing
Walk along the Via Cima Cristallo leaving the water tower behind you on your right and with fields on your left until you come to an intersection about 200 meters from the Via dell'Aeroporto behind you. This is Via Pal Piccolo. Turn left (north) here. It will take you straight up to the entrance to Isola Sacra (another 200 meters).
Admission to the site is currently free, but after you walk through the gate, turn right and sign the guest book in the gatehouse.
left: See the two men? That's where you sign the guestbook!
The guard will give you a map of the tombs and there are also useful signs. The guards are usually friendly as they don't get many visitors.
There are bathrooms and water at this site, but there is no food or any place to eat nearby, so make sure you bring a snack, or better yet, a picnic lunch. The Isola Sacra cemetery is also called the Necropoli di Porto and - like the ruins of nearby Ostia Antica - it is closed on Mondays.
The official address is:
Necropoli di Porto
Via di Monte Spinoncia, 52
Tel. 06-6583888 email: ostia [at] arti [dot] beniculturali [dot] it
Check opening times HERE.
Here is a passage from Roman Mystery I, The Thieves of Ostia, which you can read sitting under an umbrella pine:
It was a beautiful blue afternoon, and as the day cooled, the port was coming to life. Venus's Breath had whipped up the sea beyond the river mouth and it was a deep sapphire colour. The sails of ships moving to and fro on the water made triangles of white and yellow against the blue. The air was so clear that almost every brick of the distant lighthouse was visible against the afternoon sky. It was as if Lupus was seeing the structure for the first time.
The tower looked like three huge red dice piled one on the other, each smaller than the one below, with a great plume of smoke furling away from the cylindrical platform at the very top.
Perhaps Avitus was also seeing the lighthouse as if for the first time, for presently he set off straight towards the ferry which would take him across the Tiber to the new harbour. Somehow, Lupus knew the little girl's father was heading for the lighthouse. And somehow, he thought he knew why.
from The Thieves of Ostia page 128
below: tomb 43 with a Greek mosaic inscription: Odos Pausilipos - the road to peace
This passage from The Thieves of Ostia describes the lighthouse, which would have been visible from this site:
Lupus ... glanced quickly up at the lighthouse. There must be slaves at the top to feed the fire, but he couldn't see anyone. A great plume of black smoke was being fanned towards the town by the stiffening offshore breeze. From this close, the top seemed an immense height above him. At that moment, Lupus saw Avitus appear on the second level. He seemed very high up.
There is also a funeral scene at the end of Roman Mystery XIII The Slave-girl from Jerusalem set on the Isola Sacra and a scene from Roman Mystery XIV The Beggar of Volubilis set there on a foggy day.
After you have visited the tombs of Isola Sacra, if you drive on to the airport, look out for a large grassy field after a bridge. This was the Claudian harbour at Portus. Right before you pass the sign announcing the airport entrance you can see remains which look like a low thick wall on either side of the road in the field that marked the harbour. These remains mark the site of the northern mole of the Claudian harbour. The modern airport is almost exactly on top of the ancient sea port! If you are interested in seeing more, check out this INTERACTIVE MAP of the area to the west of the tombs.