The highlight was the special tour I had booked a few few weeks about with the Ufficio Scavi at the Vatican of the excavations beneath St Peter's Basilica. These excavations were to find the tomb of St Peter – the first Pope of the Catholic Church and were begun in the 1930s. They were actually kept a secret from the public by Pius XII due to the political climate in Europe and Hitler in particular was very interested in arechaeological finds. I hate to think what would have happened if Mussolini and Hitler had found out about the excavations. But in 1950 when the tomb of ST Peter was discovered, the Pope made the announcement on Christmas Day.
Nowadays they run tours deep underground of the tomb and the Neecropolis that surrounds it. When St Peter was buried after his crucifixion in 64 AD, it was a very humble tomb as Christians were a persecuted minority. The area that he was buried in later became a Necropolis (city of tombs) for the wealthy Roman pagans so his tomb was surrounded by the far more elaborated ones of consuls and wealthy Romans. To make sure that St Peter's tomb was not lost, the Christians erected a small canopy above the tomb, with thin marble pillars.
Then, in the 4th century AD when Emperor Constantine degreed that the Roman Empire become Christian and stop the persection of Christians, he built the first Basilica in the area of St Peter's tomb. Because that area now had many pagan tombs, he did not destroy them but removed the roofs of the tombs and filled them with soil and levelled it off and built on top of them. It is this soil that kept the various tombs in the Necropolis so well preserved today.
So today we went down into the old Necropolis. I simply cannot explain how amazing this was – we literally were walking through streets with the original floors and buildings around us that are over 1500 years old. And they were so well preserved. It was very humid down there (it reminded me of being in the Pyramids in Egypt!) and very cramped. If you have claustrophobia then it would be a real challenge down there I think.
We looked at some rich pagan tombs and then there were the far more simple Christian ones. There is one small tomb where children and babies were buried that has mosaic frescoes all around it – these were just beautiful. Of course, when the Christians made their tombs, they had to be careful about the depiction of Christ as it was still illegal to be a Christian (this is obviously before Constantine) so Christ actually looks a lot like the Greek and Roman god Apollo, but there are symbols that distinguish it as being a Christian tomb.
And at the end we came to the tomb of St Peter. This was very special for me. I have never had any serious doubts about the truth of the Christian faith, but seeing this tomb and the other tombs around it and learning about their history has reaffirmed my faith tenfold. You can see where one of the marble pillars of the canopy that was built over his tomb is and there is also a slab of marble with lots of different people's writing on it. A small piece of stone was found inside this slab with the words - “Peter is here” written on it. And behind this piece of stone bones were found. They have been analysed and belong to a man in his seventies and have dirt on them that comes from the place where Peter's original tomb was. Obviously we can't do a DNA analysis on the bones but all the evidence points to them being St Peter's. They were placed in 19 boxes and placed back inside the tomb. When we got to St Peter's tomb we said an Our Father and I prayed for Christian unity and an end to the persecution of all Christians.
This undoubtedly has been the highlight of my trip. I liked the tour guide straight away when at the beginning of the tour he said that no Roman Emperor, with all their riches and glory in life, have nearly as many people come to visit their tombs and honour them every day as does one Jewish fisherman called Simon Peter. I find ancient Roman history fascinating and there are a lot of impressive things about this society, but being in the Vatican and especially on this tour has really cemented the reality of how brutal to his society was towards the early Christians. History would have turned out very differently had Constantine not converted to Christianity.
So that was the highlight.
The lowlight came this evening when I had to call my bank back in Australia. I noticed that my credit card (that I've been using all this trip to book things) was not working and there was a message from the bank to call them. I did, figuring they were probably wondering why there were so many overseas transactions, even though I had notified them I would be in Europe.
It was a long and painful experience getting through to the bank and I don't want to go into details as I will probably cry but essentially I've been told a company in the US has hacked my credit card and racked up hundreds of dollars of transactions. My card has to be cancelled, so now I have to call all the Australian companies who debit me to let them know I have no current credit card and won't be getting another one for another 2 weeks. This has serious repercussions on my trip as travel agencies need to be paid and I don't know what to do. Plus trying to get in touch with the Australian companies from overseas is going to be a nightmare. And I may end up losing all that money from the company that has debited my card.
Oh yeah, and this evening's call to the bank has cost me over 100 euros. So as you can imagine, I am feeling quite frustrated and upset. I admit that for the first time this trip a few tears were shed. This is the time that travelling with someone would be most comforting, but I have to find a way of dealing with alone. I'll let you know how I go.