In San Lorenzo, One of Rome’s Best Churches

San Lorenzo fuori le Mura, interior, Rome

Today, the neighborhood of San Lorenzo is known for its students, grungy atmosphere, graffiti… and as a place you might not exactly want to wander around alone late at night.

But it should be known for something else, too: the magnificent church that gave the quarter its name.

First off, San Lorenzo fuori le Mura (or "St. Lawrence outside the Walls," because it is — justbarely — outside the city center) is ancient. Literally. Better yet, more of the ancient design has survived here than in Rome's (admittedly many) other ancient churches. Emperor Constantine, the first Christian emperor of Rome, first built an oratory here in the 4th century; the church itself came in the 5th century and was reconstructed by the Byzantines in the 6th.

And there are more than traces of the 5th- and 6th-century structures today. Walk up to the very front of the church and around the altar, and you're exploring the same aisles and chancel that the ancients built (below). Not only that, but the mosaic above you — restored in the Renaissance to the brilliant colors you see today — dates back to the Byzantines, too. Altar and Byzantine construction of San Lorenzo fuori le Mura, Rome

Okay, so the church is ancient, and it's beautiful. Yeah, yeah. What else?

Well, it's built on the spot where St. Lawrence himself is buried. One of Rome's most important saints, Lawrence met his fate during Valerian's persection of Christians in 258 A.D., and — the story has it — was grilled to death. (The Vatican has a sense of humor about the whole thing: Today, he's the patron saint of cooks and chefs).

Lawrence was buried in Christian catacombs here, and when Constantine became emperor, he  built a shrine and funerary hall at Lawrence's tomb. That's all directly under the church's altar today. And if you peek through one of the grates under the altar, and bring a flashlight (or a flash camera!), you can see some of the ancient tunnels that, presumably, lead down into those catacombs. Down into the catacombs at San Lorenzo fuori le Mura, Rome

If that doesn't do it for you, make sure you also check out the mysterious marble slab behind the altar: According to tradition, this is where Lawrence's body was laid after he was grilled… and it left a stain that would never go away.

Not a big fan of St. Lawrence? Hey, it's okay. The church also has the remains of the martyrs St. Stephen and St. Justin, also beneath the altar. And if none of these ancient folks do it for you, then try the gloriously-decorated Chapel of Pope Pius IX, where the longest-reigning pope in history — as well as the pope who convened the First Vatican Council and decreed the dogma of the immaculate conception of Mary — is interred. The pope, who died in 1878, has been kept visible for the faithful today, with just a silver mask covering his face.

All this, of course, is leaving lots of things out. Like the gorgeous 13th-century episcopal throne and marble screen, inlaid with precious porphyry and granite. Or the 13th-century frescoes, still in good condition, on the exterior of the church as you enter. Or the lovely 12th-century cloister, complete with fragments of ancient inscriptions and sarcophagi… and with the remnant of an all-too-modern bomb, courtesy of the Allies, that hit the cloister in World War II.

I could go on. Instead, I'll just leave you with one last gem: a 2nd-century sarcophagus depicting a pagan marriage feast. (Today, incongruously, it holds the 13th-century remains of Cardinal Guglielmo Fieschi). Ancient Roman sarcophagus, San Lorenzo fuori le Mura, Rome

The church is open daily from 7:30am-12:30pm, 3:30pm-7pm, and on Sundays from 7.30am-12.30pm and 4pm-8pm. It's located at Piazzale del Verano, 3, in the heart of San Lorenzo — a 20-minute walk from the Termini train station, or a 10-minute walk from the Policlinico metro stop on line B. Click here for a map.

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The Hagia Sofia: Roman Ruin, and Symbol of a City

Interior of the Hagia Sofia, Istanbul

There’s a reason why the Hagia Sofia is so
evocative of all of Istanbul: It’s a microcosm of the city's entire history, from Roman origins to Ottoman Islam to today’s (relatively) secular
nationalism. 

DSC_0235The site initially held an ancient temple, some remnants of
which remain in the current structure — like the dolphin design on the column to the right. The first Christian cathedral was built
on the site in 360 A.D.; it was rebuilt twice, both times after being destroyed by riots. (To see what the older Hagia Sofia(s) would have looked like, check out Byzantium 1200's digital reconstructions).

The current
building, which dates back to 537, was the largest church in the Roman empire. It also remained the biggest cathedral in the world for almost a millennium, beat out only by
the Seville Cathedral in 1520.

In 1453, with Constantinople’s seizure by the
Ottomans, the Hagia Sofia was turned into a mosque. And in 1935, at the height of Turkey’s
secularization under Ataturk, it became a museum.

See what I mean about it being a microcosm of Istanbul — and Turkey — in general?

You could write a book on the Hagia Sofia. (Many have). But among the many treasures not to miss are
its gorgeous Byzantine mosaics, which date back as far as the 9th century. Also
make sure you check out the seraphim (above) who was only recently uncovered: Although
his three compatriots are still plastered over, his face was revealed this year after
being hidden for centuries by the Ottomans.

Coronation disk of the Hagia Sofia, IstanbulFor a clear tie to the city of Rome, meanwhile, look no further than the gray granite disk set into the floor, on the right of the middle of the church (left). Placed here by Justinian in the 530s, this is where the Byzantine emperors knelt to be crowned as early as 641. If you've visited St. Peter's Basilica, you know that the Roman basilica boasts a similar disk in red porphyry; that's the rota porphyretica, set into the old St. Peter's Basilica and the spot where the pope crowned Charlemagne as Holy Roman Emperor in 800. The similarity in the two stones is no mistake. Charlemagne was setting himself up in direct opposition to the "other" successors to the Roman empire, the Byzantines, and by crowning him, Pope Leo III was showing that the papacy had wriggled from Byzantine control and was choosing the Holy Roman Empire as its protector instead. It's also no mistake that the St. Peter's Basilica disk is red porphyry, a precious stone that "one-upped" its sister stone in the Hagia Sofia. (Take that, Byzantines!)

On a broader, architectural note, of course, it's no surprise that the Hagia Sofia looks — almost — reminiscent of that seemingly divinely-inspired building in Rome: the Pantheon. Both structures innovated in setting a circular dome on a square, rather than circular, shape. And both awed contemporaries by building domes on such a large scale: The Hagia Sofia's original dome, which collapsed in 559, was thought to be slightly bigger in diameter but shallower than the current one, built in 563. Even so, the Hagia Sofia's dome today is 102 feet in diameter — just 40 feet smaller than the Pantheon's. (Check out the difference between the two in the images, below).

Don't miss the garden of the church, either. There, in an unassuming tumble that reminded me of abandoned bits of column in Rome's Forum, lie several marble blocks from the second church, dating back to 415. The most striking among them depicts twelve lambs, each symbolizing one of the twelve apostles. Many more remnants of the ancient church remain in the area — but they're still buried underneath the ground, excavations ending in the 1930s after it was realized that continued work could harm the current structure.

Even without that, though, there are enough treasures in the Hagia Sofia to keep a history or archaeology geek satisfied — and maybe a little bit awed.

Dome of the Hagia Sofia, Istanbul
Dome of the Pantheon, Rome

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The Ancient, and Roman, Ruins of Istanbul: Part II

Hagia Eirene, Topkapi Palace, Istanbul

We've got the basilica cistern and the Hippodrome, the Column of Constantine and the Valens Aqueduct. But there are other not-to-miss ancient Roman (or Byzantine) sites in Istanbul, too. Below, three others not to miss — and one more (perhaps the most major!) coming tomorrow.

5. Walls of Constantinople. One line of fortifications was
built by Constantine in the fourth century; a second row of walls was added by
Theodosius II in the fifth century. Although they saved the city from some eleven
invasions, they couldn’t withstand the invention of gunpowder and the Ottoman
conquest of 1453. Remnants of both the walls remain visible along their
original lines. (To see what the walls would have looked like, check out the great reconstruction done by Byzantium 1200).

2nd-century AD Roman sarcophagus, Archaeological Museum, Istanbul6. Archaeological Museum. If you're searching for antiquities in Istanbul, there's no missing the Archaeological Museum. One of the world's preeminent archaeological collections, the museum is replete with some 60,000 artifacts from a swath of ancient empires, from Greek to Egyptian, Phoenician to Hittite — and yes, Roman too. Some of the stars of the Roman collection include a series of beautiful sarcophagi, including this tomb with elaborate carvings of the story of Phaedra-Hippolita, dating to the second century A.D. (left).

The museum's absolute show-stopper, though, is a Hellenistic piece: the Alexander sarcophagus. Because photos simply don't do it justice, I considered not posting one. But to give you an idea of what the piece looks like, here's just one detail of part of the sarcophagus. Seriously, though: This is something you have to see in person.
Alexander sarcophagus in the Archaeological Museum of Istanbul Dating back to 332 B.C., the sarcophagus comes from Sidon, a successful Phoenician city-state that today lies about 25 miles away from Beirut. Despite the name, it belonged not to Alexander (we don't think), but probably to Abdalonymos, who Alexander made the king of Sidon in 332 B.C. Alexander, Reliefs from the Ishtar Gate, Babylon, in the Archaeological Museum of Istanbulthough, is prominent on the tomb, immediately recognizable for his curly and once-blond locks. The scenes that sprawl across the sarcophagus — two war scenes, two hunting scenes — tumble with vigorous action and expression. Not until the Renaissance, more than 1,000 years later, would sculptors reach this level of skill. To top it off, the sarcophagus is still scattered with the paint traces of its once-colorful past, giving the viewer a real sense of how this piece — and all Hellenistic sculpture — would have looked. That's pretty rare.

All of this leaves out, by the way, hundreds of other treasures in the museums: the Sarcophagus of the Crying Women, also taken from the necropolis at Sidon; animal reliefs taken from Babylon's Gate of Ishtar, built by Nebuchadnezzar in the 6th century B.C.; and the Treaty of Kadesh, the world's oldest known recorded peace treaty, signed in the 13th century B.C. by Ramses II and the Hittites. 

Not bad.

7. Hagia Eirene. A bit sightseeing-weary after three full days in Istanbul, I almost didn't go into this church. But I'm glad I did. Today part of the Topkapi Palace, the Hagia Eirene (top of the post) stands on the oldest spot of Christian worship in Istanbul.

The first church, built here in the fourth century by Constantine, burned to the ground; the current one dates back to an 8th-century restoration. (Not bad, really, as far as longevity goes). And, incredibly, it somehow missed the Ottoman sweep of turning churches into mosques — meaning even its 8th-century mosaic, depicting a black cross, was left intact.

And it has nothing to do with St. Irene. Instead, its name meant
the "Basilica of Holy Peace." (It was designed in harmony with the
"Church of the Holy Wisdom," or the Hagia Sofia, and the "Church of the
Holy Apostles").

There's another major ancient Roman site in Istanbul that I'm still missing. Any guesses?

Check back tomorrow for the final installment of this three-post series.

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The Ancient, and Roman, Ruins of Istanbul

Basilica cistern, IstanbulAt first glance, Istanbul appears anything but a city tied to ancient Rome. Mosques and minarets, not ancient temples, dot the Turkish capital's skyline; its forum is hard to find, most of its imperial monuments long gone.

For a city that became part of the Roman empire in 73 A.D., and was turned into the capital, and dubbed "Nova Roma," by Constantine in 330, it can seem surprising—but to find hints of the city's classical past, you have to look more closely.

Searching for Roman ruins in Istanbul? Here's where to find them. I'll post this in two sections, so look out for the second installment tomorrow (here it is!).

Medusa column, basilica cistern, Istanbul

1. The basilica cistern. Even if you're not all that interested in Istanbul's ancient ruins, the cistern (shown above) is a must-see, if only for its eeriness: Descend down 52 stone steps, and you’re suddenly in a
cavernous chamber filled with ancient columns, each lit with a dim light, echoing
with splashes, the whispers of tourists, and (unfortunately, I think) “atmospheric”
music.  

The cistern was built by Emperor Justinian I in the early 6th
century, on the same spot as a basilica that had been first built by
Constantine two hundred years earlier. More than 105,000 square feet in area
and capable of holding 100,000 tons of water, the cistern provided water
filtration for Constantinople’s palace. More than 7,000 slaves were used to
construct it.

 And all of those columns holding it up? There are 336 in
total, and they’re all ancient, too—most of them taken from even older structures
elsewhere in the empire. (Sound familiar? That kind of recycling is something
Rome, too, is known for, from the ancient Egyptian obelisks that dot the city
to, later, the use of the Roman ruins themselves in Renaissance-era buildings
like St. Peter’s Basilica). Most of their origins are mysterious, but some—like
the two upside-down Medusa heads—are particularly intriguing.

2. Column of Constantine. Erected in 330 A.D. by Emperor
Constantine to commemorate his new capital, the 115-foot column would once have
been another 50 feet tall. It also boasted a statue of Constantine on the top,
carrying an orb with a piece of the True Cross. A sanctuary at the column’s
foot included a number of relics, including an alabaster ointment jar that
belonged to Mary Magdalene, the basket from Christ’s miracle of the loaves and
fish, and a statue of Athena from Troy.

That’s all long gone, and the column
isn’t quite as impressive today
. But there's no beating it as a (conveniently central) reminder of how integral Constantinople
was to the ancient Roman empire.

Valens Aqueduct, Istanbul3. The Valens aqueduct. Spanning one of Istanbul’s main
thoroughfares, the aqueduct is such a matter-of-fact part of the fabric of
modern Istanbul that it’s easy to forget it’s an ancient ruin. But it is. Built
in 368 A.D. by Emperor Valens, the aqueduct once ran for about 3,200 feet. The
surviving section today, at 3,020 feet, is nearly as long—not bad for a 1,600-year-old
structure. Just as the popes in Rome restored ancient aqueducts, so, too, did the
Ottoman sultans in Constantinople, meaning the aqueduct remained the city’s
main distributor of water through the Middle Ages. 

Serpent Column with the Obelisk of Theodosius in the background, Istanbul4. The Hippodrome. You could walk right through
Istanbul’s ancient hippodrome—built for chariot races by Emperor Septimius
Severus in the early 3rd century, and restored and enlarged by
Constantine 100 years later—without realizing it. Today, all the seats and
most of the structures are long-gone. The only hint you have that the site once was a
stadium able to hold 100,000 spectators is in the shape and dimensions of
Sultanahmet Square, which more or less follows the lines of the ancient circus.
(Just as Piazza Navona in Rome today has the same shape as Domitian’s first-century
Circus Agonalis).

But some monuments do remain. Perhaps the
most evocative is the Serpent Column, brought by Constantine from
the Temple of Apollo at Delphi. Also known as the Plataean Tripod of Delphi, the
column was cast in 479 B.C. to celebrate the Greek victory over the Persians. Persian
armor and weaponry was melted down for the column, and all of the names of the
Greek city-states that fought in the battle were etched into the sides. A gold
tripod, later lost, initially sat on top, supported by three serpent heads.

For a visual of what the chariot races once would have
looked like, the Obelisk of Theodosius is a must-see, too. The obelisk itself is
actually ancient Egyptian, dating to the reign of Tutmoses III around 1450 B.C.
In Alexandria until 390, it was moved to Constantinople by Emperor Theodosius
I. Underneath, a marble pedestal shows scenes including the chariot race
itself, and Theodosius giving the winner the laurel crown of victory. And then
there’s the typically-imperial inscription in which the emperor lauds none
other than himself—in this case, for supposedly moving the obelisk and
re-erecting it in just 32 days.

Here's where to find Istanbul's ancient Roman sites, part II

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Off to Istanbul, the Other Rome

You can visit Rome, tour the forum, Pantheon and Colosseum, even visit the Baths of Caracalla, Hadrian's villa at Tivoli, and the ancient aqueducts — and you still won't get a full sense of the Roman empire.

The only way to do that is to visit Istanbul, founded as Constantinople — the new capital of the ancient Roman empire — in 330 A.D.

When people say the Roman empire "fell" in the 5th century, they're wrong. The eastern half soldiered on. It was later dubbed the "Byzantine empire" by historians who wanted to make a nice, clean break for the timeline… but those living in Constantinople at the time would have considered themselves Romans.

Constantinople continued as the empire's capital for nearly another millennium. And many traces of the city's Roman past still remain. Both the Hagia Sofia and basilica cistern, two must-see sites, were built in the 6th century by Emperor Justinian, who wanted to bring the Roman empire back to its former greatness and reconquer the western half. Then there's the hippodrome built under Emperor Septimius Severus in the 3rd century, and Constantine's inaugural column of 330, and the classical sarcophagi, mosaics and other artifacts of the Archaeological Museum.

In a sense, Istanbul is Rome, its successor and its heir. I'll be traveling through Turkey for the next week, and as I go, I'll be posting about what to do, see and eat. Please enjoy this brief break from the eternal city. I'm sure I will!

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