Towns / Cities Visited: 154
Countries Visited: 26
Steps Taken Today: 9,335
Steps Taken Around the World: 3,904,199
After a little research the night before, we had decided to shake up our original order of sightseeing over the following days for strategic reasons. Before we could go anywhere though, we had to make our way downstairs to the pharmacy as my poor mum had come down with a cold. Growing up, she had always instilled in us the idea that one must try and soldier on through sickness where possible. Practicing what she preached, we left with the necessary medicine to get her through the day and headed off to brave the trials and tribulations of the Italian public transport system yet again. With the bus website for Rome looking like it was fresh out of the 90’s, and about as functional, we took our chances on Google directions having more of a clue. All went well for the first bus into the heart of the city, it was on time and arrived at our desired destination hassle free. The only negative being the fact we were crammed in with everyone else like it was a can of sardines. Catching our connecting bus was a little more troublesome, as it seems that every bus in Rome comes to a juncture at one of the main squares: reminiscent of the bus situation in Belfast. As we reached the correct stop just in time to watch our bus trundle away, we realised that Google nailed it on the location of the bus stop but was less than accurate on the timetable. Still, we only had to wait twenty minutes for the next one, and settling into seats once aboard, we were soon on our way. We didn’t realise how much of a blessing sitting was until we began to near our destination and the cobbled roads made the bus shudder incessantly.
Jittering off at our stop, we alighted into the warm morning sun, wandering down the roadside (due to the complete non-existence of footpath), until we ducked through a gate in the tall stone wall to our right. Within the walls embrace we found ourselves atop lush green lawns dotted with sprawling trees and bright pops of colour from the landscaped garden beds.
Despite the above-ground beauty of this place, it was actually what lay below which had lured us out to suburban Rome: Catacombe di San Callisto. The catacombs here date all the way back to between the 2nd and 4th Century, and hold the remains of early Christians, including the tombs of a whopping sixteen Popes, including nine which lay in the Crypt of the Popes, and seven others who were interred in unknown tombs in other parts of the complex. Despite Christianity being in its youth during the use of the catacombs, it became the resting place for around half a million people, including the deacon who initiated its construction, Callistus. This deacon would later go on to become Pope, and after his death at the hands of the Romans would be canonised to sainthood.
Hurrying along to meet up with the English tour, we met our guide, who took some time to explain a little history of the site. It was during this introduction that we learnt why the catacombs are so far from the heart of Rome. In the 2nd century, when the catacombs were started, practicing Christianity was still illegal and Christian burials within the walls of the city was equally so. The catacombs served as a secret place in which to lay to rest Christian brothers and sisters according to their beliefs. Under the rule of Emperor Constantine the Great, in 313, the ban on Christianity was lifted, but burial here on the outskirts of the city continued. Over time the tunnels, which sprawl around twenty kilometres, grew to span some fifteen hectares and delve down five levels, before they were eventually abandoned and sealed up, after their important relics were moved to the city’s churches first, of course. They were only rediscovered by an Italian archaeologist in 1854, and a small portion of them are now open for visitation.
As informative as the talk was, I must say the tone of it all was a little preachy for my taste: less ‘Let me teach you about this fascinating place,’ and more ‘Here lies many hard done by Christians and this is why you should count yourself lucky that you have the opportunity to make this important pilgrimage to such a magical place’. I’m all for being proud of your religion and educating guests about the religious background of the site, but when presenting places like this to visitors from the world over, many of whom have different beliefs, it is important to be respectful of that. We, for one, were here to admire the historical elements and beauty of this place, not to be preached to.
Anyway, water off a ducks back, we followed the guide down into the cool, dark tunnels under our feet. Although photography here is forbidden, that fact actually makes the place more memorable, as you are not distracted by the constant click and flash of cameras. The majority of the tombs here are loculi, those being singular niche tombs carved into the volcanic sandstone walls of the tunnels, which were then covered with a capstone of ceramic or marble, depending on the wealth of the individual. There are also separate rooms adjoining the tunnels which house wealthier families, with the head of the family buried in the far wall in an arcosolium: a tomb much like a loculi but with an ornamental arch above it, which was often decorated with art.
As occurred often throughout history, despite being sealed up, grave diggers broke into the complex to disturb the eternal slumber of those who rested here and loot them of valuables, resulting in damage to many of the tombs and the destruction of the majority of the capstones which have since been removed completely. In more recent years, all the bodies from the section open to the public have been moved to the lower levels for safekeeping as, beyond all sense, visitors were stealing bones as keepsakes. Despite the lack of bodies though, there is still much to see, from millennia old Christian artwork, to a breath-taking replica of a marble sculpture of Saint Cecilia. Cecilia, who is now the patron saint of musicians, was a member of a noble Roman family in the 3rd century who was martyred and later canonised. Although her remains were originally buried in the crypt which now holds the sculpture, they were moved to a church built in her honour in Trastevere. Even as an atheist, it’s hard not to be impressed by the beauty of the sculpture which depicts the saint in the position she is said to have been in when her incorrupt body was found under the altar of the aforementioned church in 1600. The figure is lying down, with her head covered gently with a piece of cloth and twisted at an unnatural angle, and arms crossed in prayer with three fingers extended on her right hand and one on her left. We learnt from our guide that it is believed that this is the position in which she died. Given that it is said she died from three strikes to the neck with a sword, which she apparently survived for three days after, it makes sense why her head is angled so strangely. The position of her fingers is also said to represent her unwavering faith, with the three fingers representing the Holy Trinity, and the singular finger representing the one God.
Our tour concluded in one of the family crypts where the guide rounded off the tour with another uncomfortable talk which erred on the side of sermon. At this point my mum had to excuse herself as she had a coughing fit, but if I’m honest I’m glad she didn’t have to stand through the guide’s plea that we all embrace the holy spirit and follow Christianity. If I’m honest, I zoned out about halfway through the spiel and instead marvelled at the peaceful resting place we stood within. Hearing my mum suffering broke my heart, and as I pondered the family who once found their eternal peace here, I was yet again thankful for having this opportunity to make memories with my family, even if it wasn’t all perfect.
Resurfacing, for now at least, we went for a short wander before our second tour for the day, popping into a little café and grabbing what can loosely be descried as a calzone before scampering off to join the English tour to the other catacombs which lay in this little corner of Rome: Catacombe di San Sebastiano. Much to our pleasure, our second guide was far less preachy and far more informative than the first. Unfortunately, photography is also forbidden here, but we still dove in with eyes wide open to drink in all we could. These catacombs are very similar to their cousin just down the road, in that they date from between the 3rd-5th centuries, were used to house the remains of Christians, and have had the bodies from the open section relocated to prevent thieves from snaffling loose bones. Also, much like the previous location, the corridors here have a strange mix of both peacefulness and eerie emptiness. Whereas San Callisto played host to the remains of past popes, San Sebastiano previously held the remains of three martyrs, including Saint Sebastian himself, although his body now lays in the chapel above the catacombs. Also, for a short time, the catacombs were home to relics of the Apostles Peter and Paul.
As we made our way through, our guide paused beside the singular cordoned-off tomb which remains undisturbed after more than 1500 years. Beneath the unbroken capstone lays the remains of a young girl, and as pleased as I am that she managed to stay undisturbed in her eternal sleep, it is sad to think that any family or friends who may once have been laid to rest near her are now far away, and she is left all alone. Although there is much of a sameness here, there is still plenty of ancient art adorning the walls to remind you of the religious significance of this place, and this reminder continued with us to our next pause at the tomb which once held Saint Sebastian’s remains, but now stands as a small, peaceful chapel.
Before we were to climb back topside, we were led to the final, and arguably most fascinating, site within the catacombs, some nine metres underground. Here lies the oldest remnant of times gone by, a collection of 2nd century pagan tombs including three monumental mausoleums set into what was the edge of the opencast pozzolan mine which once stood here. Despite the fact that the catacombs were begun from this site, the mausoleums and the mine were eventually backfilled in order to create an embankment up to the next level. Protected by their covering of dirt, they remained preserved until they were eventually uncovered in the 19th century. The decorations in and around the mausoleums are starkly different to the Christian imagery of the catacombs, with flowers and birds to remind you of the pagan connection with nature. There are also a few swastikas pictured here, but don’t panic though, they are not Nazi graffiti; rather, they date from a far earlier time when swastikas were a symbol of prosperity and good luck. There are a few typically Christian symbols here too, including anchors and fish, which suggests Christians repurposed these tombs for their own use in later years, in an unsurprising act of Pre-Christian erasure. In all honesty, I wished more than anything that we could have ventured down into the heart of the mausoleums, but alas they can only be viewed from a distance.
Finally, we made our way back up to ground level, being deposited into the San Sebastiano ad Catacumbus basilica. Although it is not the grandest church, it is historically significant, and made up one of the seven pilgrim churches of Rome up until 2000. Despite its lacklustre exterior, the interior is home to a number of beautiful pieces of art, not least of which is the stunning ceiling. Whereas many churches simply opt for a plain or painted ceiling, this church includes a rather stunning use of carved and painted wood to present the martyrdom of Saint Sebastian. For those who don’t know, Sebastian’s life was ended by way of a number for arrows, and a replica of the one which pierced his abdomen points down from the ceiling, giving a fascinating three-dimensional feel to the piece.
Below the altar sits the remains of Saint Sebastian, topped with an intricate sculpture of him lit with an almost holy light. That isn’t the only show stopping sculpture in the building either. Off to one side sits a bust of Jesus with such perfectly executed movement and flawless hand gesture that you almost expect him to open his mouth and begin urging us to love thy neighbour.
With the sites here exhausted, it was time to trundle back into Rome, but with a little sunlight left in the day, we decided to have a brief look around before heading home. That being said, we didn’t venture too far from Piazza del Campidoglio where the bus hub resides simply because we had a separate day set aside for all of Rome’s main attractions. Even just around this piazza though, and Piazza Venezia, there are some beautiful buildings and stunning statues. Finishing off the visit, we paused to admire the Il Vittoriano Monument, which was built in the early 20th century to celebrate the uniting of Italy as a country. After WWI it also became the home of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, and thus serves as a war monument as well. Despite its architectural beauty, it is not surprising to learn that most locals actually despise the building because it is not in keeping with the historic feel of the city; it is too gaudy, too blindingly white, and in some ways too patriotic.
By this time, the sun was hanging low, and we tottled across the road to a gelateria for an end of day treat. Despite a miscommunication leading to a slight argument with the staff about the price of our two scoop cones, we walked away with our frozen fancies in hand. That being said, we were left with a bit of a sour taste in our mouth from yet another experience of seeming disregard for customer service when it comes to tourists.
Heading home for the evening, we settled in for the daily debrief of our respective adventures with my brother and his travel companion, Leighann. After making a quick dinner, we took some time to get set up for tomorrow’s ravioli making food adventure we had planned all those months ago in Romania. With everyone gathered around the large dining table, I ran an impromptu pasta dough making lesson for everyone, including Leighann’s friend who happened to be visiting Rome at the same time as us and had swung by to join in. After making some of the fillings and sauces, we packed it all away and settled in for a well-earned nights rest.
As I lay in bed, easing my way into sleeps arms, I couldn’t help but linger on my annoyance at the necessity for the caretakers of the catacombs to have to move the remains of those buried there away from sleight hands. It is beyond my comprehension how anyone could, in good conscience, see the finger bones of a 1500 year old skeleton and think, ‘yeah, that will make a great souvenir.’ I can’t help but wonder how disassociated you must be from reality to reach into a tomb and take part of another person, tuck it in your pocket and walk out with it, like it’s a keyring or a novelty magnet. Like, what purpose does it serve? Is your memory so faulted that you couldn’t possibly remember the visit without a physical reminder? Are you so untrustworthy to your friends and family that they couldn’t possibly believe you visited without you being able to hand them a disembodied phalange? Are you going to add it to your shelf of other sadistic souvenirs? Just as I believe you shouldn’t be able to eat fish if you can’t deal with eating a whole fish with the head on the plate, and you shouldn’t be able to wear leather if you can’t bear to watch images of abattoirs in action; if you wouldn’t rip the finger off a fresh cadaver, you sure as hell shouldn’t be at ease nicking knuckles from historic hands.