Finally, the day of the tour that brought me to Rome had arrived. The Scavi Tour!
After this hectic and panicky race, I calmly walked towards the Swiss Guards for my admission. If you don’t have your confirmation letter, they won’t let you by. I bet the regular guards were wondering how I got there so quick and without a sweat…that is if they noticed me at all.
OK, history lesson time.
Ancient Romans buried their dead outside city walls. The Vatican is on a hill by the Tiber River and was built on a necropolis – city of the dead. This particular necropolis was built by wealthy pagan families to entomb dead loved ones in houses laid out in city-format where they could continue their lives in death so to speak. It was long believed that St. Peter was buried here as well. He was crucified sometime in the first century and his first resting place was next to St. Paul along the Appian Way, in what was to become the catacombs of St. Sebastian. Then sometime in the second century, to escape desecration, early Christians brought his remains here.
In the 4th century when Emperor Constantine I became Christian, he ordered a church to be built here over the rumoured burial-place of St. Peter. The church, St Peter’s Basilica, underwent major revisions through the centuries to its present form – which was built in the 16th century. Over time, the necropolis was forgotten though everyone still believed the rumour that this was the burial place of St. Peter.
So do you imagine like I did for a fleeting moment, that when the workers came across St. Peter’s tomb, there were flashing lights all around and a huge placard blinking HERE LIES ST. PETER? Then pray tell how they knew or why we have come to believe that this is St. Peter’s tomb? That’s what the tour is all about.
Our group consisted of 10 English-speaking tourists – mostly American. The guide was an Italian archaeologist who had made it her mission to present all the evidence supporting the belief that what we were about to see was the tomb and bones of St. Peter so we could make our own conclusion. I appreciated her detail and candor. I do know that there is a whole other camp of Christians including Catholics and historians and archaeologists who have proof that St. Peter (Simon Bar-Jona) was buried in Jerusalem and that’s where his bones are to this day.
Underneath St. Peter’s Basilica the temperature is warm, the air humid and somewhat musty, and the light dim. This is not a tour for claustrophobic people. Oh, yeah, a word of caution for the obese and large – the pathways are narrow and the ceilings low to say the least. The ground underneath is uneven as well. You are encouraged NOT to touch anything as this is a fragile site so you need great balance.
We peeked at and inside the mausoleums. I found it interesting that images in the pagan households were also to be found in the early Christian ones. Images such as the peacock and sheep. I suppose if you were going to be persecuted for your faith, why not use some of the customs already in circulation to create ambiguity. When I was in class 5 in Berlin, I read these children books on the symbolism of Easter and Christmas. I learnt random tidbits like the Easter Egg representing the stone that sealed the tomb of Jesus, the Easter bunny representing fertility and the vitality of spring time (they do multiply like crazy don’t they?), and that December 25th was the day to celebrate the Sun god – Sarturnalia and we in fact don’t know when Jesus was born! Hmph! A Christian leader in the 4th or 5th century must have said, hmmm, the winter is oh so cold, why don’t we have a party and hey, if we choose this date – December 25th – our pagan friends will join us. Okay, I kid, but seriously. For all you know, Jesus was born in September and we should be celebrating his birth now!
Anyway, I saw them with my own very eyes. My group wasn’t very religious. Nobody kneeled to pray after we spied the bones through a tiny hole, but maybe they did in silence. I didn’t. I just felt wonderful being there. I was at peace. Words cannot describe. The guide explained that we were about 10 meters below the Basilica at this point and we had climbed back up for this view. We were directly underneath the Dome. So magnificent, don’t you think? That with all the revisions, the dome of the Basilica is built directly above the bones of St. Peter?
13Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesare’a Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?”
14And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Eli’jah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”
15He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?”
16 Simon [Peter] replied, “you are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
17And Jesus answered him, Blessed are you Simon Bar-Jona [Simon son of Jonah]! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.
18 And I tell you, you are Peter [Greek Petros], and on this rock [Greek petra] I will build my church, and the powers of death [Greek the gates of Hades] shall not prevail against it.
19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”
20Then he warned his disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Christ.
The tour ended in a cozy gold-trimmed chapel – the Clementine Chapel – which was the original church. As we made our way out, we again joined the crowds exiting the Tombs of the Popes, this time going with the flow. They and we stopped by a room dedicated to St. Peter as his Tomb. And as people snapped photos I wanted to burst out, this is not the real thing, I just saw the real thing down below, but I contained myself.
It was a perfect end to a mysterious tour. Mysterious even from the point of acquiring a ticket. I know I was lucky. There are thousands out there who never hear back from the Scavi Office about their request for a tour. And since you are not supposed to call them you have no idea if your fax or email got to the office or if it’s sitting in limboland; or if you are going to be granted your desired date or for that matter a tour at all, and you just wait, travel itinerary on hold as you have no idea what’s going on with the Scavi. Yes, I was lucky to have received confirmation of my tour before I even booked my flights and decided on the rest of my activities in Rome.