Lampedusa harbour.

Flying south of Agrigento, the blue begins, even on All Saints’ Day. An Ionian light, it is the ravishing glory of the Middle Sea. I went to Lampedusa in the footsteps of Pope Francis and political grandees, conscious that this minuscule Italian outpost had borne a heavy burden as it grappled with the lives and accursed deaths of thousands of migrants. Here, over the last 30 years, tragedy has mixed with mass tourism to give Lampedusa a peculiar notoriety in Italy and abroad.

I came to offer the help of our students. Could they contribute to writing for grants, preparing programmes, and even running projects, shouldering a little of the island’s burden? Speaking English, Italian, and in some cases Arabic, might our students make a small contribution as Europe, for the first time in two generations, is challenged by a migration of biblical proportions? For our students, being embedded in the philanthropic front-line might provide them with experience to engage in still greater challenges, because this migration is not set to cease soon.

As the propeller plane settled towards the airfield, the shadowy outline of Tunisia about 100km to the south became clear. Then bump, we were down, next to the kind of south Italian urban sprawl given free rein over the past 20 years. Being siesta time, the streets were empty, but the mayor was in her office. Giusi Nicolini has become a national figure, an articulate advocate for support for her people facing waves of impoverished, bewildered migrants from Libya.

A self-confident woman who eagerly listens, she is not a natural politician, and is all the more fascinating for it. She is curious to hear how our university might help, but is not instinctively enthusiastic about promoting herself or her island’s circumstances. Her primary problem is to combat the kind of corruption that has been endemic in Italy, and to improve the infrastructure on the island.

But then I mentioned the name of Thomas Ashby, my distant (legendary) forebear as Director of the British School at Rome – the first person to survey the archaeological remains on the Pel·gie lslands (Lampedusa, Linosa, and the uninhabited islet of Lampione). The mayor’s eyes beamed with delight. We debated which year he landed from HMS Banshee with the support of Rear Admiral Sir Assheton Curzon-Howe to make his survey – was it 1908 or 1910? it was June 1909 – and then began to share stories based on his report, published a year later in the most obscure and arcane of annals. Now I must admit that anyone who admires Ashby wins my vote!

Upwardly mobile

Lampedusa has grown its tourism since the first airfield was constructed in the 1960s. Perversely, after Colonel Gaddafi fired two Scud missiles at the island’s American base in 1986, tourism rocketed. Exact numbers of visitors to Lampedusa and its sister-island, the extinct volcano of Linosa, appear to be vague. But there are roughly 70,000 beds offered by the island’s 6,000 inhabitants, and as a result the community is upwardly mobile, which, in Italy, means they have children. There are about 1,000 young Lampedusans. All of this is to the good. But much of the construction has been unregulated, and managed with the kind of speculative eye that characterises Andrea Camilleri’s sardonic stories of the Sicilian Inspector Montalbano.

The mayor succeeded in obtaining piped water only two years ago, and many apartments are still not on the network. Her goal is to upgrade the island’s facilities, and in a moment I will explain the benchmark in her mind. Confronting her is the island’s reputation – largely derived from an incident in 2010 when 800 migrants were stranded for three winter months on Lampedusa’s main street, the Via Roma.

Such incidents, it became clear, no longer occur. The flotilla of coastguard vessels backed up by a legion of police on land and a discreet, state-of-the-art reception centre just outside the town have all but airbrushed the migrants out of Lampedusan daily life. Forewarned by radar, the coastguard intercept the boats offshore and take their occupants to the reception centre – over 200 were brought ashore three days earlier – and swiftly, unlike absolutely anything else in Italy, these poor people are transferred to centres elsewhere in Italy. The efficiency is dazzling. But perhaps because it is dazzling in comparison to the norms of Italy, no one much wants to own up to the Lampedusa story.

The path leading to Rabbit Island.

Rabbit Island

So the mayor has another objective: to raise the bar on the island by adding archaeology to the magic of its beaches. And in her mind, when it comes to archaeology, her greatest achievement can be summed up in two words: Rabbit Island.

Surveyed first by William Henry Smith in 1814-1816 for the British Admiralty, this tiny offshore stack, beside an arcing sandy beach where turtles nest, was home to rabbits, hence its name. Anywhere else in Italy and rampant construction would have consumed this piece of paradise. Championed by Legambiente (a not-for-profit environmental organisation) and led by Giusi Nicolini, it is a swathe of coastline worthy of the most majestic in Europe, often topping lists of best beaches. It is sublime. More than this, it is an enduring index of how a champion can make a place, and so contribute to its economic sustainability.

Now add archaeology to the mix of the island’s resources, and Lampedusa can increase the tourist season, and with it the island’s wider standing. The Soprintendenza at Agrigento are sympathetic, masterminding a new museum on the main street, the Via Roma, overlooking the new harbour. The talk is of the alarms, electrics, and the winding staircase, and then, with less assurance, of Lampedusa’s treasures: Greek coins minted here with obverses depicting tuna, a statue dredged from the sea, ‘Maltese’ Bronze Age farms, a late Roman cemetery, and endless treasures secreted underwater. But, like Rabbit Island, there needs to be a vision. Hence the appeal of Thomas Ashby.

Ashby, an inveterate walker, surveyed the island over two days in 1909. He found the remains of Bronze Age huts like those he had helped excavate on Malta (today, the University of Malta are actually digging one of these on Lampedusa), and he reviewed the other remains belonging to a place that has attracted every quintessential Mediterranean interest – Punic, Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Arabic, and, from more recent times, the Bourbons. Then, of course, it featured in the run-up to the Allied landings on Sicily when, codenamed Operation Corkscrew, British forces were landed here in June 1943.

Sweet water wells

Two monuments are musts on any visit. Beside the coast road, 3km west of Lampedusa town, is a sanctuary, a grotto with an elegantly whitewashed baroque faÁade. Dedicated to the Madonna of Porto Salvo, it is all that remains of a collection of cave dwellings occupying this south-facing canyon. The pivotal facility here is a decorated well head. Given Lampedusa’s struggle with water supplies in recent times, it is important to note that Greek, Roman, and later ships apparently berthed in the waters offshore to take on sweet water from a network of Lampedusan wells like this.

The sanctuary has an important contemporary resonance: a 16th-century Italian slave, Andrea Anfosso, captured by Ottoman privateers and shipwrecked hereabouts, found salvation, so the story goes, thanks to the benign spirit of this place. The subject of a local pilgrimage each September, it is also believed to have had an Arabic history, co-existing for a time with the Christian deity, as was thenorm on neighbouring Sicily from the 10th century onwards.

Further west, beyond the track leading to Rabbit Island, just off the road, the EU has supported the conservation of a traditional dry-stone farmhouse, the Casa Teresa. A longhouse in all but name, as Ashby pointed out in 1909, its broad walls and flat roof belong to an Arab vernacular. In its ensemble of walled gardens is a reconstructed threshing floor, beyond which, occupying the far horizon, is the old American radar station, menaced by Libyan missiles in 1986. The restoration of this farmstead was only finished recently, but already bears the distressing hallmark of inattention: when we arrived, the only other visitors were two knaves in military drill illegally trapping finches.

A prehistoric amphora dredged up in the harbour, now in the Archivio Storico.

So should the museum in Lampedusa’s main street simply house the odds and ends so far found on the island? Here is the challenge. Rabbit Island is breathtakingly simple in its minimal but well-constructed paths, shaded spots, and signage. Designed for visitors with a penetrating awareness of the importance of the views, the crystalline blue sea, and the fragility of the sands for nesting turtles, it is a tribute to 21st-century thinking. Should the new archaeological museum not be as bold and forward-thinking? The walls of the present Archivio Storico in the Via Roma – run by a charismatic enthusiast, Antonino Taranto, on behalf of an energetic local society – are covered with photographs, including Ashby’s. This little treasure-house holds the endlessstories that in combination make up the priceless history of this improbable place. That is, all except one story: the one that has lent Lampedusa its notoriety, and drew Pope Francis and politicians here – the migrants.

Modern Italy has learnt and has coped with this ghastly humanitarian crisis. All involved deserve our admiration, as they are learning and acting – perhaps for specific political expedience in some cases – to implement humane best practice. Now, surely, the museum should be a portal not only to visiting places on these islands and finding pleasure in authentic treasures from the past, but also an opportunity to explain how the community has been shaped over time, confronting pirates, invasions, and, of course, migrations.

I did not meet or see one migrant, but I encountered an exceptional mayor in a place that is indelibly imprinted on my mind. As the plane thrust upwards and weaved around the massing storm clouds to pass over verdant volcanic Linosa, I could not get the sacred beauty of Rabbit Island out of my mind – and I harboured a secret and improper pleasure from my connection to Ashby, a trulygreat scholar who never wavered from faithfully recording the visceral conditions of people in places.

All images:  © Richard Hodges