Having a great significance among the devotees of Hindu, Chardham Yatra is a famous Hindu pilgrimage tour in Uttarakhand. It is believed that the yatra washes away all the wrong doings and sins of the devotee and opens the door to salvation. It is certainly a must-visit destination for all the travelers who are spiritual at heart.
Large numbers of devotees frequent this holy and auspicious yatra and pay homage to these shrines every year from all round the globe. There is a belief among the devotees that visiting these shrines removes all the sins a person has committed, including even those of the past life as well. The Yatra renders the tourists a sense of belongingness, purity of heart, and act of self-realization in life.
Chardham Yatra in Uttarakhand comprises visiting four sacred pilgrimage sites including Yamunotri, Gangotri, Kedarnath and Badrinath. This yatra is highly popular and can be covered in 10-11 days. Let us give you the details and explain the importance these pilgrim sites commonly known as the Char Dham.
Yamunotri Yamunotri is the originating point of the river Yamuna, which sanctifies scores of pilgrims and travelers who take a dip in its holy waters. It is positioned in Uttarkashi at an altitude of 3164 meters. Yamunotri is the place where a traveler can experience both hot and cold environment. The environment of Himalaya is purified and gets frozen because of the cold tides of the glaciers in the Yamuna River. The bordering sides of the region are kept warm by the thermal springs that are also known as Kunds of Goddess Shakti.
It takes a complete one-day tour from the major towns of Uttarakhand to reach Yamunotri. These major towns include Rishikesh, Dehradun and Haridwar. It is a 13km trek from the town of Hanuman Chatti to Yamunotri. Moreover, there is also a 6km walk from Janki Chatti. The months of September to November and then May to June are best for exploring this sacrosanct shrine.
Importance of Yamunotri It is the originating point of the sacred Yamuna River. Moreover, the temple of Goddess Yamuna is also situated in Yamunotri.
Gangotri Gangotri is the originating point of the holy River Ganga. It is believed that King Bagirath performed prayer to make Ganga come down to earth and bless humanity. Gangotri lies at an elevation of 3200 meters above sea level in the district of Uttarkashi. Hordes of Hindu devotees visit this place to wash their sins and acquire moksha. The sacred Gangotri Temple was built in the 18th century. This 20-feet long structure is made of white granite. The devotees can visit this pilgrimage during the months of September to October and May to June.
Importance of Gangotri The Ganges is said to be the source of purity and thus, prior to visiting the shrine, devotees take a consecrated plunge in this great river.
Kedarnath Kedarnath Temple is positioned in the Rudraprayag district of Uttarakhand. It lies at an elevation of 3584 meters above sea level. The region is bordered by the Mandakini River. Kedarnath is said to be the most sacred abode of Lord Shiva. It is also among the 12 Jyotirlingas of Lord Shiva. This Jyotirlinga were dropped at the Mandar Hills where the temple is perched.
The temple was built by Adi Shankaracharya and was named after King Kedar, who was the emperor in Satya Yug. The area experiences heavy rainfall during the winters and thus, the shrine is open only between the April-end and Kartik Purnima. The idols of Kedarnath Shrine are brought to Ukhimath during winters and these idols are worshipped in Ukhimonth for the next six months.
Importance of Kedarnath The well-known Jyotirlinga shrines are must-visit places where Lord Shiva emerged as a blazing column of light. For this reason, scores of pilgrims visit this sacred place to look for blessings of Lord Shiva. This shrine of Lord Shiva is among the Panch Kedar shrines as well.
Badrinath Badrinath Temple is certainly an ideal insignia of devotion of humankind and humanity. It is positioned at an elevation of 3415 meters in the Garhwal Hills on the shores of the river Alaknanda. This famous shrine of Char Dham is devoted to Lord Vishnu. As per mythology, Lord Vishnu meditated at this spot for thousands of years under the Badri tree. Thus, the place is given the name Badrinath.
The idol in this shrine is made of Shaligram Statue and is shown in a thoughtful pose. This pilgrimage destination is an ideal place for Vaishnavites. It is supposed that Adi Shankaracharya built this sacrosanct shrine in the 9th Century. The devotees can easily access this place from Rishikesh, Kotdwar and Haridwar.
Importance of Badrinath The temple of Lord Vishnu, also known as Badri Vishal, is located in the region. The great saint Adi Shankaracharya attained moksha in this region. Thus, Badrinath holds great significance among the Hindu devotees.
An important pilgrimage circuit in Uttarakhand, Chardham holds a significant place among the Hindus. A trip to these shrines renders tourists a spiritual and tranquil experience and leads them to emancipation.
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IT’S stupid-o-clock. It’s some time between 2am and 2.30am and I can’t sleep.
I probably would have been able to sleep had I not incorrectly set the air conditioning/thermostat thing to ‘ludicrous’ heat before settling into bed.
My dreams began peaceful and placid and slowly progressed to being infinitely weird and hell-like.
You know those dreams where you’re parched and desperately trying to find something to drink? You got it, times infinity.
Air conditioning is admittedly something I’ve never been able to get my head around.
I mean, hailing from England how or why the hell would I know how to operate an air conditioning unit?
All I’ve ever done is light gas fires to combat the freezing winters.
Air conditioning? Pfah.
Where I come from ‘air conditioning’ is opening or closing a window. Or asking your flatulent friend to leave the room.
Holidays in Egypt… that’s what air conditioning is designed for for us Brits.
So yes, I can’t sleep. My bedroom, and in fact my entire apartment, is currently a blazing furnace.
I’m in a state of undress with sweat dripping from my brow onto the keyboard. Ewww…
It’s warmer in here than it is in the desert on a summer’s day.
I hear you… ‘open the windows’ and ‘stop whingeing’!
They’re open. And it’s really warm outside. Even at stupid-o-clock.
San Diego, it seems, doesn’t do ‘chilly’.
It’s actually so warm here throughout each and every day, that the city’s parks and recreational spaces boast an unbelievable amount of tramps – or ‘bums’ as they’re called here.
They’re largely harmless. They just sit around sleeping, acting weird occasionally if anyone offers them a glance.
It’s like a year-round bum summer camp. And we’re their entertainment.
Honesty deserves charity
Anyhow I digress.
As I write this I’m also Googling the bloody air-con unit instruction manual in the hope that I can rest easy tonight without the sleep/sauna detox.
I might talk the talk and walk the walk but there is no doubt, here in the U.S. I am a still a stranger in a foreign land – just as much as I was in next-door Tijuana.
I’m daily misunderstood, and often confused.
In the nine weeks that I’ve been here in San Diego I can tell you that Americans are a fascinating bunch.
Oh and in case you didn’t know, they are crazily open and honest about health and religion.
These are two things that people here love to talk about openly.
These are two things that we Brits never really talk about when we’re in the UK.
We have a funny way of avoiding discussions concerning our illnesses, ailments, and of course religious leanings.
Personally I’m not really comfortable talking about either – especially with someone I’ve just met.
“What do you take?” I was asked recently.
“Now? Nothing, I feel fine”.
Again: “Seriously... what do you take?”
Me: “Uh… aspirin or ibuprofen for a headache… a ‘Lemsip’ if I’ve got a cold…?”
*cue long lingering stare*
“And… nothing… I don’t take anything. Nothing to get me through the day, nothing to help me sleep, nothing.”
“Isn’t that weird?” I was then asked.
It’s only when you go to a supermarket (otherwise known here as a ‘grocery store’) that you begin to appreciate the national obsession with remedies.
Drugs - 'aisle' buy that for a dollar!
Shelves and aisles of pills and potions to cure everything from headaches and sports injuries, to sleep deprivation and toothaches. There are pills for things I’ve never heard of.
And natural remedies featuring seemingly unnatural-sounding ingredients.
'D3 5000 I.U.'....? Isn't that a brand of motor oil?
Sure, we have pharmacies in England but wow.
I’m sure there’s actually medication for medication here.
When you’re seen to be new to town religion is the other big talking point.
Within seconds of meeting some people they’ll ask you if you go to church and if you want to go to their church.
I always consider that I must have sinned during the conversation leading up to that point and that they’re trying to cleanse my soul as a result.
I immediately feel uncomfortable and I try to joke my way out of it.
So forgive me.
The actual process of greeting someone here in California (or indeed the U.S.) also confuses me on a daily occurrence.
Rather than simply offering a hardy handshake or a pat on the back, people here seem obsessed with a greeting known as ‘fist-bumping’ – or variations of it.
How the pros do it
It’s basically the action of putting out your fist for someone else to ‘bump’ with their own fist.
I’ve observed plenty of Californians doing it here and I must admit, they look cool.
I however, do not.
There are simply too many variations for me to get my head around.
There’s the actual fist bump. Then there’s the high-five. And there’s some of other part-handshake part-grip thing.
And these are just three of the more popular types of greetings.
And for me, who is new to town and the whole fist-bump thing, I panic when someone puts out their fist or hand because I don’t know which greeting they’re planning on using.
It’s always an awkward moment and, despite the fact that the whole thing is supposed to look and feel ‘cool’, I don’t. I can almost feel my coolness dripping away as and when someone puts out their hand for the bump , or slap, or whatever.
I always hesitate.
Once or twice I admit, I’ve pretty much just thought ‘bollocks to it’ and shaken the outstretched bump fist.
I actually freak out that one day I’m going to face-palm someone by accident.
So I’ve taken to YouTube to try and teach myself some basic rules…
Anyhow. People are strange when you’re a stranger right?
Hey, I noticed my last blog post was popular in Latvia.
Bizarre, but very cool. Welcome Latvians!
At the bottom of this blog is a ‘translate’ icon if anyone wants to read it in a different language.
I can’t promise my ramblings will make any more sense but hey.
Thanks for lending me your eyes.
Want daily updates on this bizarre life I live in…?
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According to Catholicism, Santiago de Compostela is the place where the remains of the Apostle Saint James are buried. According to legend, the burial place was found by a shepherd in the 9th Century and since then Santiago became, together with Rome and Jerusalem, a popular destination for pilgrims. The building of the Cathedral, where the remains were eventually re-buried, began in 1075 but was not wholly completed until 1211.
Nowadays, people make the pilgrimage to Santiago for different reasons. There are those that do it out of faith, and why not say it, maybe a bit of self-interest, since if they walk a minimum of 100 kilometres they receive full or partial remission of the punishment for their sins. Others make the pilgrimage as a challenge, to get away from it all or as a cultural trip. The different routes are known as The Way of Saint James, which pilgrims, or at least those that wish to obtain indulgence, have to do on foot. Along the way, you can stay at special hostels reserved for pilgrims for which there is a nominal charge of 5 Euros per night.
When you arrive to Santiago it may well be raining, but this is to be expected and many people would be disappointed if it were not. The Plaza del Obradoiro is the heart of the city and in this square you will find the Cathedral and the office that attends the pilgrims arriving to the city. Here you can also find the Parador of Santiago, housed in what used to be a hospital for pilgrims founded in 1499.
Santiago and the whole region of Galicia have a well earned reputation for good food. Amongst the local specialties, there is a wide variety of seafood, including the typical pulpo a la gallega (octopus), empanada (a large filled pastry) or caldo gallego (stew). All of which taste much better if accompanied by the local wines, Albariño or Ribeiro. For dessert, the tarta de Santiago (almond cake) and filloas (pancakes). At the end of the meal you may be offered an orujo, but careful this is liquor with high alcohol content.
In my first article in this series I covered the generalities and historic background of the Vatican Necropolis. (Go back and read itif you haven't, I'll wait.) In this second post I'll cover the mausoleums in the underground tour under Saint Peter's Basilica, one by one with the its highlights. I hope this compendium will bring us closer to the people who built these tombs, the care they poured into these family spaces commissioning the decoration and the architecture, the dedication and the sentiment in making these the best place possible for their dead.
And ultimately, let us go back in time in a walk up the Vatican Hill, to finally reach the tomb of Saint Peter, Jesus' right hand man.
According to the Open University’s course about ancient Roman funerary monuments family was important for the ancient Romans. One way to preserve the name of the family was to build a family tomb. Though most Romans could not afford one, many built them for their nuclear family of husband, wife and children. Poor Romans would be buried in mass graves or small tombs marked on the ground with modest markers o amphorae.
The size, extent of decoration and inclusion of architectural elements had a direct relation to the social status of the family. During the first century AD the deceased were cremated and their remains put into containers or urns that were placed in small niches (columbarium) inside the family tomb I will be using a Vatican Necropolis floorplan along the way, so that you know exactly where you are. Here we go!
This is where the tour starts. The mausoleum of Caius Polilius Heracla contains a tablet in which the existence of the nearby arena (Nero’s circus) is mentioned. Tablet from Mausoleum A. From 'The Tomb of St. Peter' by Margherita Guarducci, Hawthorn. 1960
It belonged to Fannia Redempta, the wife of Aurelius Hermes, a freeman of the Augusti family who highlights his wife as "incomparable." The walls have niches where the ashes were stored in urns, which indicate a pagan (different from the main religions of the world) burial. The painting on the vault is of a "Sun Chariot" accompanied by figures of the seasons. The rest of the tomb is decorated with paintings of flowers and animals.
This is the tomb of L. Tullius Zethus. The L preceding the name implies he was a freed slave or his father had been. He must’ve done pretty well for himself since this tomb is one of the most ornate with wall decorations and mosaic floor. Two marble urns were added at a later period. The tomb has niches for urns and two arcosolia (a recess on the wall in the form of an arc, used as grave).
We don’t know who it belonged to. It’s called Mausoleum of the opus reticulatum, named after the pattern in which the bricks have been placed.
This is the tomb of T. Aelius Tyrannus, a freedman who worked in public office. The most notable elements of this tomb are two alabaster containers, one with a Medusa carving and the stucco paintings on the walls.
As with other tombs there are niches and arcosolia… but observe also the staircase that was used to go up to and down from the upper room which was used for the “refrigerio” a rite in which family accompanied the deceased in a sort of feast. The family go down to the inner burial room to pour libations (offerings of food and wine) through holes on the floor, to feed the deceased.
Interior of Mausoleum E with alabaster containers. Photo: Blanca & Ian's Travels
The first to be discovered in 1939, this is the tomb of the Tulli and the Caetenni as it is stated on the altar that stands in the middle of the mausoleum. This is a pagan tomb with some Christian symbolism. The woman mentioned in the altar is Emilia Gorgonia, and her husband mentions her beauty and goodness. The holes for the libations are visible on the right side of the floor. Romans held funeral banquets in which wine and food were poured inside these holes, for the deceased to be fed.
The Tomb of the Teacher is named after the painting in the back wall depicting an old man with a scroll, in front of a younger man. It is most likely an administrator and a servant, though the first people who saw the tomb interpreted the painting as a teaching and his student. The ceiling depicts beautiful paintings of animals, garlands and geometric figures. Can you imagine the artist painting these figures with so much care and attention?
The Tomb of the Valerii is the most luxurious of all the tombs. It belonged to Valerius Philumenus and Valeria Galatia who gave permission to several members of their family and some friends, to use this mausoleum. Several marble portraits (including some children) were found in it. See a couple of them on the bottom-right corner of this picture?
The Tomb of the Chariot from the quadriga figre in the mosaic floor that depicts the rape of Persephone by Pluto on a chariot driven by Mercury. The fresco paintings depict birds, a peacock (a symbol of afterlife), ducks, doves and floral designs.
The tomb of the Julii or "Cristo Sole", Christ the Sun or the Christan Mausoleum. This tomb was built by the parents of Julius Tarpeianus. Even though the shape and some elements of the tomb are pagan, the mosaics are Christians depicting a scene of Jonah being eaten by the whale and a scene of a fisherman.
The tomb of Aebutius also bears the name of "Clodius Romanus". His mother calls him her "most gentle son" on the epitaph of the urn.
A reduced tomb, you can only see a small detail of a painted “light-bearer”.
The Tomb of Trebellena Flaccilla is decorated with delicate painting of birds and flowers. There’s also a detail of a dolphin.
This tomb has been largely occupied by the foundations to Bernini’s Baldaquino (the canopy above). Mausoleum S is very important because it’s located on the south of Field P and beyond it, there’s a small corridor called the “Clivus” that runs from south to north meeting the “Red Wall” at the northeast side. You need to remember these three terms for the next post, because here, we are entering the Tomb of Saint Peter itself. But for that, we need an even more thorough explanation.
By now we have walked up the slope of the Vatican Hill, south to north, going through the remains of a cemetery for wealthy Romans. We have imagined how they remembered their dead and how they celebrated life with their rituals and the ornate decorations that cemented their family tomb. Have you ever visited other Roman cemeteries? What was the experience like? How do they relate to the way we see death now and our own rituals?
So here's my final post of this three-part series about the Vatican Necropolis under Saint Peter's Basilica and the Tomb of Saint Peter. In the first article we covered some generalities and the historical background for Saint Peter's Basilica. In the second article we went one by one through the mausoleums in the Vatican Necropolis tour, explaining each major highlight. Today we finally reach St Peter's Tomb!
Peter was one of Twelve Apostles who accompanied Jesus. After Jesus' death, Peter led the founding the Christian church and became the first pope. 30 years after Jesus' death Peter was killed during the persecution of Christians by emperor Nero (as I discussed in the first article).
Here's an elevation view of the mausoleums we visited in the last article. We started from right to left of this diagram (east to west) going up the slope of the Vatican Hill. (Illustration by Father José Antonio Iñiguez)
You also need to understand the following drawing: Three levels of St Peter's Basilica. (Illustration by Fabbrica of Saint Peter's)
Saint Peter's Basilica has three levels. Level 1: The present Basilica in black. Level 2: The Papal Grottoes in magenta. Level 3: The Vatican Necropolis in blue. The floorplan we used in the second article is the blue portion of this cross-section drawing. The drawing in the previous paragraph is also the blue portion. Can you see it?
Watch this 4-minute video about how the Tomb of St Peter went from a simple burial on the ground, to a revered shrine just before emperor Constantine I decided to build his huge basilica around it. It's very important that you watch this video before moving on, because it explains what we will be seeing and the terminology.
I will be using different views of the same place to explain what we are actually seeing. Last time we were in Mausoleum S and I'd told it was mostly filled by the foundations for Bernini's Baldaquino At this point in the tour you're in a corridor outside of Mausoleum S on its south side, not actually in it:
Here's what you see: Composite view of the corridor next to Mausoleum S from the 3D virtual tour of the Vatican Necropolis at www.vatican.va
Here's a closer look at the remains of original Tomb of St Peter. (Photo by Blanca & Ian's Travels, http://members.rennlist.com/imcarthur/roma.htm)
You are seeing the underground tomb as it looks today, from the south side. This area is under the Trophy of Gaius. Here's another view: Side view of the original Tomb of St Peter. (Photo via saintpetersbasilica.org)
Then you go through the door on your left and encounter the Clivus!
This is what you'll see: Composite view of the Clivus (Red Wall on the right) from the 3D virtual tour of the Vatican Necropolis at www.vatican.va
Here's a reconstruction drawing of the Clivus (Photo via saintpetersbasilica.org)
Next, you go up a flight of stairs. You are now on the second level, the Papal Grottoes level.
Number 20 is the Clivus, see Mausoleum S on its right? Where we are now is not visible because we're on the south side just above the Clivus, just outside of the Clementine Chapel (number 6) which I've highlighted in red here.
We need a floorplan of the second level, the Papal Grottoes level:
But before going any further, let's see another little bit of history...
In the last part of the video above, we saw that Gaius Trophy was protected by two adjacent walls perpendicular to the Red Wall, walls S and G, with wall G being the thickest. In this model we can see wall G on the right side of the Trophy. The transparent structures above represent the bases of Bernini's Baldaquino. (Photo by Fabbrica of Saint Peter)
Constantine encased the Trophy of Gaius in a marble enclosure to protect it, discarding the top part of the monument. The marble box had porphyry vertical decorations, with white and blue marble as the main body, like we see in this model of the marble box of Constantine for the Tomb of St Peter. (Photo via http://mcsmith.blogs.com)
Model of the marble box (back) of Constantine for the Tomb of St Peter. (Photo via mcsmith.blogs.com)
This monument from Constantine was covered by its own canopy called the Memoria. After Constantine, three different Popes made changes to the altar, the first being Gregory I (590–604) who wanted to perform mass on top of Constantine's monument and the tomb itself and for that, he raised the floor. Model of Gregory I's altar on top of the Tomb of St Peter. (Photo via mcsmith.blogs.com)
He also made it possible to visit Saint Peter's tomb from behind and so he made a small altar behind it. Later on Pope Callixtus II (1123) had another altar covering the one from Pope Gregory. And finally Pope Clement VIII (1594) had the present altar built on top of the others. Here's an image from the Virtual 360° tour of the Vatican Necropolis that shows us the different altars and an excavation image that shows us Gregory's small altar still in place on what is now the Clementine Chapel. Papal Altars Tomb of St Peter. (Photo via vatican.va)
Here is the same image, with a montage of the Trophy as it's positioned from this point of view. Can you see the small marble column? That's the left column of the Trophy of Gaius. (Composite view of the south side of the Trophy with montage with image from the Rai video Secrets of a Basilica - Part 2 - The Grave and the Virtual 360° tour of the Vatican Necropolis)
The marble portion on top of it is part of Constantine's Memoria, the marble box in which the Trophy was encased. Here's another view:
This is what you'll see: (Photo via mcsmith.blogs.com)
See what's behind the circles lattice? It's the back of Constantine's Memoria (which has been reconstructed) with its central vertical porphyry stripe. Here's another look:
Next you'll be asked to go across the Chapel through another door on the west side. Remember wall G? Here's a rotation of the model:
What you are looking at now is wall G, the Graffiti Wall, which is named after all the graffiti that people throughout the centuries carved on its surface to let others know that they were there. Here's what you see: North side wall G, Graffiti Wall, Tomb of St Peter. (Composite from Virtual 360° tour of the Vatican Necropolis)
But there's more... At the time of Constantine a niche was carved inside wall G and some bones were preserved there in royal purple and gold fabric wrappings. They remained inside the niche until the excavations in 1941 when they were taken to a nearby location up to 1953. At that time Professor Margherita Guarducci had the bones examined. The studies revealed that they belonged to a robust man, approximately 60 to 70 years of age. Earth incrusted in the bones confirmed that they were previously buried in the ground. These facts and the expensive wrappings are another indication that these are likely to be the bones of Saint Peter. In 1968 Pope Paul VI announced that the bones of Saint Peter had been discovered. The bones were placed in 19 plexiglass containers, ten of which are inside the niche in wall G, as you can see in the image above.
Another indication that archaeologists believe points to this being the real tomb of the Apostle Peter is an inscription in a tiny piece of stone that fell from the Red Wall which is believed to have said “Petros eni” which means “Peter is here”
Once you've seen the graffiti wall and the bones, you'll go back to the Clementine Chapel, and this is the tricky part: If you've done your homework beforehand you'll recognize that behind the altar inside the Clementine Chapel is actually Gaius Trophy partially covered by the monument of Constantine I. I appreciated that our guide was pretty honest about the certainty with which the church affirms that these are Saint Peter's bones. She never said they were. She said, "archaeological and circumstantial evidence point to this fact and Christians choose to believe that they are real."
Back inside the Clementine Chapel you'll exit from the back through an iron gate. The guide will close the gate behind you and you can't go back. Then you will be escorted towards the Grottoes and you'll pass in front of the Confessio on the level of Constantine's Basilica. This is what you see through glass doors:
People are not allowed access to the Confessio. The small doors on the front are closed. Notice the columns of Bernini's Baldaquino on the upper part of the picture. Here's a closer view:
The center piece, with the mosaic is the Niche of the Pallia, "Pallia" being the white stoles priests wear around their necks. Notice how the niche is a bit off-center? If you look closely to the two following diagrams (though dimensions do not match between them), you'll see the Niche of the Pallia is actually part of Gaius Trophy. (Photo via saintpetersbasilica.org)
That's right, Gaius Trophy is right behind the mosaic veneer and marble covering. When you look down to the Confessio from the Basilica, you are actually seeing the ancient monument that stood on top of the Apostle's grave. Here's a final video explaining this in a very easy way:
I am not proud to say that I used to assume that Saint Peter's Basilica was just the biggest church in Christendom, the pilgrimage and gathering place of all Catholics in the world. What I didn’t know is that not only it is actually one of the most incredible examples of Late Renaissance architecture and Baroque art anywhere, but it is also a place that holds an unexpected secret... Underneath it you can find the Vatican Necropolis, a first century necropolis (city of the dead) -- basically a roman cemetery where the actual Tomb of Saint Peter is believed to remain, still today.
Can you imagine stepping on actual Roman soil this is 2000 years old? Knowing that along these corridors (antique streets) the first Christians walked and worshiped in a complete act of faith on what would become one of the most important religions of the planet is an overwhelming feeling.
As Rick Steves recommends when visiting the Vatican: “Leave your —religion here— hat at the door and enter the magnificence of one of the most impressive and significant holy places in the world”. You don't need to be a catholic to appreciate this fabulous site.
When thinking about the Vatican Necropolis under Saint Peter's Basilica it became clear that the topic was so amazingly interesting, it's going to need three posts to cover it. There are three key aspects which I will convey:
In any case, after thorough research I can honestly tell you not to go anywhere else, these three posts are your best resource online to understand the site from a visitor point of view! Why do you need them? Because when I went and ended my visit to the Vatican Necropolis (also known as the "Scavi") and I left Saint Peter’s Basilica for the first time, I was kind of confused about what I actually had been shown. My feeling is that some of you may have experienced the same. I hadn't done my homework. But fret no more, I'm here to do your homework for you and make it all clear! Let's start with...
During the year 64 AD when crazy maniac Nero was emperor of Rome a great fire occurred that destroyed a large area of the city. Many blamed the fire on Nero himself (who later built his Golden House over the destroyed area, hmmm, kind of suspicious, right?) who in turn blamed it on the Christians. According to ancient historians, Nero started persecuting Christians to diffuse attention off him. The Apostles Peter and Paul who were in Rome at the time, were executed in the circus building (a very long race track with bleachers that could accommodate thousands of spectators, originally built by Calligula and used for horse races and shows) on the Vatican Hill. The obelisk brought from Egypt that we see today in the middle of Piazza San Pietro used to be at the center of the circus. It was moved to its current location in 1586 and remains here as a "witness" to Peter's martyrdom.
Peter famously requested to be crucified upside down, since he thought he didn't deserve dying in the same manner as Jesus. Traditionally, it is believed that his body was buried just outside the circus, where a Roman cemetery stood. His grave is said to have been marked by a red stone, symbolic only to Christians. After Peter's death, Christians began to gather at this place to venerate the Apostle. Some years later, a temple-entrance-shaped shrine (known as the “trophy”) was built
A letter sent in 120 AD by a priest by the name of Gaius is the first written record that states that Peter’s remains were indeed in the Necropolis next to the circus. In 319 AD, after converting to Christianism, emperor Constantine I erected the first Saint Peter's Basilica, on top of Saint Peter's original burial site, considering the holiness of this place.
In the 16th century Old Saint Peter's Basilica was dismantled to make way for the construction of the current church. In 1939 Pope Pius XI sponsored the archaeological excavations allegedly because he wanted to be buried as close as possible to Peter the Apostle. This is how the Vatican Necropolis was revealed.
The Vatican Necropolis is very much like other necropolis in Rome such as the ones in Ostia Antica and >Isola Sacra, though smaller. In this diagram you can see the plan of the current Basilica, the plan of the old basilica, Nero's circus, and adjacent to it the Necropolis, right under the center of the current Basilica.
The circus ran next to a road called Via Cornelia. The Vatican Necropolis was on the other side of the road. When Constantine started to build Old Saint Peter's, he recognized the holy place of the Apostle’s tomb and decided to build the high altar on top of it, filling the rest of the Necropolis with dirt. Old Saint Peter's had a courtyard in front of it, and even though it was massive, as you can see in the diagram, it was smaller than Current Saint Peter's Basilica. Here's a more detailed plan of the Necropolis in relation to the basilicas, see the Vatican Necropolis plan in red, the current grottoes (tombs of Popes) in green, the plan of current Saint Peter's Basilica in purple and Old Saint Peter's in blue
Here's a 25-second video showing the depiction of an artist of how this site might have looked during the first and second centuries AD. Though it's not very precise, it does provide an idea of how big these monuments were.
You get assigned a guide that will give you a tour first of the Necropolis itself, going through all the Roman tombs and finishing with a kind of confusing look at the Tomb of Saint Peter. You cannot actually enter the mausoleums, you see each through thick glass at the door. The tour goes through nearly fifteen mausoleums making its way up the hill before finally reaching the site of Saint Peter's burial. The Vatican Necropolis (remember that it's also called the "Scavi") is completely underground, the space is small and confined, dimly lit and a bit humid so one needs to remember that the ceiling of the Necropolis would actually have been open to the sky. Also, I wouldn't recommend this tour for people who suffer from claustrophobia, though I can assure you, the place has proper ventilation. You need to play close attention to what the guide is telling you, since this is a sacred place, they won't raise their voice too much and you are expected to maintain the appropriate reverence as well. The guide will generally advise you to hold questions until the end of the tour, which is a pain because as I've said, if you haven't researched beforehand you are going to miss out on a lot of this great experience. Here's a fantastic 10-minute video that explains further the generalities of the Basilicas and the Necropolis.
In the next post I'm going to let you know about each of the mausoleums, how they're laid out and what you'll see, the touching decorations and the very interesting early Christian mausoleum, halfway between a pagan burial and a fully Christian tomb. I will also share the practicalities for your visit. In the final post, we'll uncover the confusing passageways surrounding the Tomb of Saint Peter and I'll show you exactly where and what to look for in order to recognize just where Peter is buried. Look forward to those during the week! Have you visited the Vatican Necropolis? What was your experience? What did you feel? Could you relate to these people from ancient time and their remembrance of their dead?