The Catacombs and the Appian Way

October 28, 2008 in Europe, Italy, Travelogue

< ![CDATA[  It is raining in Rome, although not the buckets full that were predicted. Just a slow, steady drip to accompany an otherwise grey day. It is our last full day in the city, and we’ve spent it resting. We ended our week and a half whirlwind tour of the city yesterday, with a visit to the catacombs of St. Sebastian. These are said to be the oldest in Rome and the very ones that were first called “catacombs” at all. They are a honeycomb of three levels and over seven miles of hand dug tunnels into the hillside which is now under the church of St. Sebastian. They were dug from the soft volcanic clay by the earliest Christians in Rome at the edge of a preexisting Roman cemetery. The clay hardened when exposed to the air and the catacombs grew steadily. They are dark. The ceilings are low. I can’t imagine the job of digging them, or placing the bodies, one by one with only an oil lamp for light and thousands of the deceased crowded around the workers. We were claustrophobic with the 100,000 original inhabitants removed... at least the ones in the tunnels we saw were removed. What was most fascinating were the alters in the antechambers dedicated to early martyrs and the engraving on the few marble slabs that remained of sealed graves. The early Christian symbols of fish and doves beside crudely carved human forms with hands raised to the heavens. The frescoes on the still older Roman graves of beautiful blue birds with long tail feathers and fruits, still brightly colored after thousands of years, plastered ceilings with floral motifs still attached and as lovely as their modern counterparts in buildings all over Rome. They say that Peter and Paul were both buried here for a while, when the Christians got worried about the safety of their remains in their original graves. When things settled down their bones were moved back to their initial burial places, under St. Peter’s and Pauls’ cathedrals, respectively. We stepped out into the sunlight, blinking a little, as the dark, cloistered atmosphere of the catacombs gave way to a perfect Roman fall day. Who should we meet, sitting just on the bench by the church, eating their picnic? Jonas and Hynda, two friends made at the Hash House Harriers run on Sunday. We all laughed at the improbability of running into the only people we knew in the whole city on the very far side of town from where we met. We were both there to walk along the Appian Way. The Appian Way was built in 312 BC and it connected Rome with Brindisi, in the south. It was the most important road in all of Rome and it allowed the Romans to move their troops quickly and keep them well supplied. Parts of the original stone road remain, although the stones are not as smooth and interlocking as they were 2300 years ago! It is absolutely mind boggling to stand looking at the ruins of walls and fortresses, on the very stones originally laid, hopping out of the way of speeding vespas, bumping along the road where countless Roman soldiers marched away to battle. To walk where messengers ran, straight to the heart of the Forum, with urgent news, where men we’ve all read and wondered about passed, talking with their friends, thinking about life and the universe, building an empire, going for a Sunday picnic with their kids... just like us. Tomorrow, the scenery changes. We hop the train to Civitavecchia at five and the ferry to Tunis, Tunisia at eleven... p.m. It is a sixteen hour passage between the continents via this route and should provide ample time to contemplate the coming adventure, and knit. Our very kind host in Tunisia has agreed to collect us at la Goulette the following day and transport us, with bikes, bags and kids, the 160 km overland to the apartment we’ve rented from him in Sousse. We are most grateful for this. I, for one, was not looking forward to landing on a new continent with no sleep, having to sort out bikes and bags and trains in a new country, a different language and with all the signs in Arabic, as we’ve heard they are. Mr. Hachana has already helped make our stay in Tunisia a good one! So... I guess that’s it. Our last message from Europe for this year. The next post you read, Lord willing, will be from the tip top of the dark continent.]]>