Travel

Time Travel on Rome’s Ancient Appian Way

The Appian Way — Rome’s gateway to the East — was Europe’s first super highway and the wonder of its day. Built in 312 B.C., it connected Rome with Capua (near Naples), running in a straight line for much of the way. Eventually it stretched 400 miles to Brindisi, from where Roman ships sailed to Greece and Egypt.

While our modern roads seem to sprout potholes right after they’re built, sections of this marvel of Roman engineering still exist. When I visit Rome, I get a thrill walking on the same stones as Julius Caesar or St. Peter. Huge basalt paving blocks form the sturdy base of this roadway. In its heyday, a central strip accommodated animal-powered vehicles, and elevated sidewalks served pedestrians.

The ancient paving blocks of the Appian Way can be seen in a park just outside of central Rome. (photo: Rick Steves)

The ancient paving blocks of the Appian Way can be seen in a park just outside of central Rome. (photo: Rick Steves)

Fortunately, about the first 10 miles of the Appian Way is preserved as a regional park (Parco dell’Appia Antica). In addition to the roadway, there are ruined Roman monuments, two major Christian catacombs, and a church marking the spot where Peter had a vision of Jesus.

Getting here from the center of Rome is easy; it’s a short Metro ride and then a quick bus trip (catch #118 from either the Piramide or Circo Massimo Metro stops). It’s best to come on a Sunday or holiday, when the whole park is closed to car traffic, and it becomes Rome’s biggest pedestrian zone. You can rent bicycles — and enjoy a meal — at a nearby café.

As you stroll or bike along the road, you’ll see tombs of ancient big shots that line the way like billboards. While pagans didn’t enjoy the promise of salvation, those who could afford it purchased a kind of immortality by building themselves big and glitzy memorials. One of the best preserved is the Tomb of Cecilia Metella, built for the daughter-in-law of Rome’s richest man. It’s a massive cylindrical tomb situated on the crest of a hill. While it dates from the first century B.C., we still remember her today…so apparently the investment paid off.

But of course, early Christians didn’t have that kind of money. So they buried their dead in mass underground necropoli — or catacombs — dug under the property of the few fellow Christians who owned land. These catacombs are scattered all around Rome just outside its ancient walls, including two inside this park.

The tomb-lined tunnels of the catacombs stretch for miles and are many layers deep. Many of the first Christians buried here were later recognized as martyrs and saints. Others carved out niches nearby to bury their loved ones close to these early Christian heroes. While the bones are long gone, symbolic carvings decorate the walls: the fish stood for Jesus, the anchor was a camouflaged cross, and the phoenix with a halo symbolized the resurrection.

Worshippers gather outside the Domine Quo Vadis Church along Rome's Appian Way, where St. Peter purportedly had a vision of Jesus. (photo: Ben Cameron)

Worshippers gather outside the Domine Quo Vadis Church along Rome’s Appian Way, where St. Peter purportedly had a vision of Jesus. (photo: Ben Cameron)

By the Middle Ages, these catacombs were abandoned and forgotten. Centuries later they were rediscovered. Romantic-era tourists on the Grand Tour visited them by candlelight, and legends grew about Christians hiding out to escape persecution. But the catacombs were not hideouts. They were simply low-budget underground cemeteries. The Appian Way has two major Christian catacombs, each offering visitors a half-hour underground tour to see the niches where early Christians were buried. The Catacombs of San Sebastiano also has a historic fourth-century basilica with holy relics, while the larger Catacombs of San Callisto is the burial site for several early popes.

On your way back to the city center, stop by the Domine Quo Vadis Church. This tiny ninth-century church (redone in the 17th century) was built on the spot where Peter, while fleeing the city to escape Nero’s persecution, saw a vision of Christ. Peter asked Jesus, “Lord, where are you going?” (“Domine quo vadis?” in Latin), to which Christ replied, “I am going to Rome to be crucified again.” This miraculous sign gave Peter faith and courage, causing him to return to Rome.

Inside the nave of the church, you can stumble over the stone marked with the supposed footprints of Jesus. You’ll see a fresco of Peter with keys on the left wall and one of Jesus on the right. A bust depicts Nobel Prize-winning Polish author Henryk Sienkiewicz, who wrote a historical novel that was the basis for the 1951 Hollywood movie Quo Vadis.

The wonder of its day, the Appian Way was called the “Queen of Roads.” Twenty-nine such highways fanned out from Rome, but this one was the first and remains a legend. For a time-warp road trip that will take you back 2,000 years, hit the highway.

 

The Hadrianic aqueduct of Caesarea Maritima, Israel

Caesarea Maritima is perhaps one of Israel’s most famous attractions. Its ruins are located by the sea-shore of Israel about half way between Tel Aviv and Haifa. It is the site of one of the most important cities of the Roman World, the capital of the province of Judaea. The city was founded between 22 and 10 BC by Herod the Great (37-4 BC) as an urban centre and harbour on the site of the earlier Straton’s Tower. The city has been populated through the late Roman and Byzantine era. Today, Caesarea is a large and beautiful national park and a fascinating place to visit while exploring the Holy Land.

Herod the Great’s palace and circus, Caesarea

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The Hadrianic Baths at Aphrodisias, Caria (Turkey)

The open-air pool with columns at its corners and surrounding statues of the Hadrianic Baths, Aphrosidias Carole Raddato CC BY-SA

The beautiful ancient Greek city of Aphrodisias, still partly excavated, is one of the most important archaeological sites of the late Hellenistic and Roman period in Turkey. The city was located in Caria in Asia Minor, on a plateau 600 meters above sea level. Today it lies near Geyre village, some 80 kilometers west of Denizli. The city was founded in the 2nd century BC on the site of a rural sanctuary of Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love. It was named after Aphrodite who had her unique cult image, the Aphrodite of Aphrodisias, and who became the city’s patron goddess.
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The Hadrianeum and the personifications of provinces

Just a short walk from the Pantheon in Rome, in Piazza di Pietra, are the majestic remains of the Temple of the deified Hadrian (Hadrianeum) built by Antoninus Pius, Hadrian’s adopted son and successor. Of the original temple, only eleven columns with capitals and the cella wall are still visible today.

Temple of Deified Hadrian (Hadrianeum), Campus Martius, Rome © Carole Raddato

In 1696, during the pontificate of Pope Innocent XII, the surviving part of the temple was incorporated into a large building designed by Carlo Fontana to house the central Customs Office. In 1879-82 the building was modified and its baroque decoration was replaced by a simpler one; in 1928 the wall of the cella was freed from later additions. Today the building houses the Borsa Valori di Roma, Rome’s stock exchange. Read more…

The Secret History of Iddi-Sin’s Stela

Osama Shukir Mohammed Amin sets out on a detective journey to discover the mysterious history of Iddi-Sin’s stela in Iraqi Kurdistan. Going back into this region’s troubled past, he disentangles a family dispute and discovers what really happened to this exquisite artefact.

I posted a picture on my personal Facebook page of what is commonly called “the rock of the Martyr Ghareeb Haladiny” (Kurdish: به ردي شه هيد غه ريب هه له ديني; Arabic: صخرة الشهيد غريب هلديني), which depicts a limestone stela of Iddi(n)-sin, king of Simurrum. Shortly after, one of my friends phoned me. He was very upset. He said that the “title” of the rock with respect to Martyr Ghareeb is wrong and that the rock was found by local people of the village of Qarachatan, and that Martyr Ghareeb had nothing to do with the rock. “They have altered the stela’s history and ignored the role of people of the village of Qarachatan, who found and protected this rock for 15 years,” he said.

Interviewing Mr. Nejem-Alddin Ahmad (who stands between the stela and Mr. Hashim Hama Abdullah, the director of the Sulaymaniyah Museum. A snapshot using VLC media player; video interview using my Nikon D610.

Interviewing Mr. Nejem-Alddin Ahmad (who stands between the stela and Mr. Hashim Hama Abdullah, the director of the Sulaymaniyah Museum.

A few days later, I met with Mr. Hashim Hama Abdullah, the director of the Sulaymaniyah Museum (Sulaymaniyah Governorate of Iraqi Kurdistan), where the stela is currently housed and displayed to the public. I told him what my friend said. He replied: “Yes the matter is complicated and the rock has passed through very turbulent times. It is a long subject that we have not uncovered its root till this moment. Many rings of its chain are still lost. Some people from Qarachatan village claimed that they did find and store the stela.”

The right edge of the stela. The edge has been broken and a large fragment has been lost. This has resulted in a large lacune; the cuneiform signs at the beginning of the lines have been lost. March 30, 2015.

“OK, let’s uncover the truth,” I suggested. “Let’s go there and meet the people who have any information about the stela.” Mr. Hashim replied positively and phoned Mr. Nejem-Alddin Ahmad, one of the Museum’s employees. Mr. Nejem-Alddin still lives in Qarachatan village and is the guard of the rock-relief of Rabana (mountain Rabana looks over the village and the relief lies on the cliff of that mountain, about 3-4 Km far from the village).

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The New Acropolis Museum Review

The New Acropolis Museum in Athens opened its doors to the public on June 20th 2009. Since then, millions of visitors have flocked to its airy halls. It was decided that a new museum was needed to replace the old nineteenth-century museum building (situated on the Acropolis) in order to house the ever increasing amount of archaeological material and to act as a fit and proper house for the marble sculptures of the Parthenon. We are so used to seeing old artefacts housed in old buildings, drowned in artificial light, but this museum, with its vast glass walls and lofty atmosphere, brings a true feeling of vitality to what it holds. It is because of this that the New Acropolis Museum is easily in my ‘Top 5 Museums’ list; how could it not be when the museum building itself is part of the attraction?

The Museum Entrance at Night-Time

The Museum Entrance at Night-Time.

One of the things that strikes me on each visit to this museum is just how much you can see in every single direction. On the first floor, you can look down and see the ruins of the archaeological site upon which the museum was built. If you look to your sides you will see ceiling-high displays of some of the finest Greek pottery. “Mind your back!” You nearly walked straight into a votive dedication to Asclepius, which thanks the god for healing an ancient Athenian’s ear, foot, and eye ailments (with the affected parts carved into the marble). In stooping down to look at some low-level displays you stand up and find yourself at the feet two Nikai statues, and if you look up, you see the ‘Bluebeard pediment’ looming where the first floor ramp meets the second floor. If you are looking for ancient Greek art and artefacts, you have certainly come to the right place!  The entire first floor of the museum is this long gradual ramp, and it displays artefacts that were found on the slopes of the Acropolis (video displays, a shop and a cloakroom fill the rest of the floor). Read more…

Never Before Seen: The Belula Pass Rock Relief

by Osama S. M. Amin April 14, 2015 Travel 0 Comments

I visited one of my relatives who resides at Lake Darbandikhan. It was a holiday. I was chatting with him about the relief of “Horen Shekhan” (Kurdish: هۆرێن و شێخان; Arabic هورين- شيخان) at Darband-i-Belula (Belula Pass). I told him that at the main hall of the Sulaymaniyah Museum, there is a large wall poster of a rock relief; the poster’s caption says that this is the “Relief of Belula Pass.” Where is this rock-relief of Belula Pass is located? He did not know the answer, but his son-in-law said that there is an ancient structure on a mountain at Darband-i-Belula (Kurdish: ده ربندي بيلوله) . “There is a sign on the road, I read it, which says that this the Akkadian relief of Belula Pass, but I have not seen that thing because it lies high up in the mountain,” he added.

Fantastic! I said: “Can you take me there, please, at least I can start from there?” He agreed. This archaeological trip was entirely unplanned but I always take my Nikon gear with me wherever I go!

Finally, we have found it! One my friends climbed up, in a very risky situation to sit down before the relief. Note the location of the relief and the very small space in front of it.

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Looking for Roman bridges in Sardinia

When I was planning my archaeological trip to Sardinia I discovered, thanks to vici.org (an Archaeological Atlas of Antiquity I have mentioned here before), that there were many Roman bridges still standing all across the country. Some are left abandoned and almost completely covered with vegetation but others are perfectly preserved. Ancient Roman bridges are an exceptional feat of Roman construction and, as I said before, I hold a certain fascination for these impressive ancient structures. I previously wrote about the Roman bridges I saw in Portugal here and in Southern France here.

Roman bridge Ozieri, dating to the 2nd century AD and restored in the 3rd4th century AD. It has six arcades for a total length of 87.50 metres (287 ft), Sardinia Carole Raddato CC BY-SA

When the Romans began their conquest of Sardinia in 238 BC, there was already a road network built by the Punic who had inhabited the island since around 550 BC. However the Punic road network was only linking the coastal towns, leaving out the interior of the island completely. The Romans built four major roads (viae principales): two along the coasts and two inland, all with north-south direction. The road network, initially built for military reasons, was then maintained and restored continuously for economic reasons.

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The Mystery & Enigma of Maya Architecture

Maya architecture has three regional styles. Jim O’Kon, a specialist in Maya engineering, and technology encounters a range of exotic animals in deepest rainforest while finding the style of the Ruta Rio Bec.

Driving across Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula and traversing the Maya cities on the Ruta Rio Bec is a voyage brimming with ancient history blended into the experience of traversing a jewel of a rainforest. The magnificent Maya ruins constructed in the Rio Bec regional style are situated in the midst of a Biosphere Reserve that is home to exotic species of fauna including monkeys, jaguars, crocodiles, toucans, macaws, parrots, wild boars, tapirs and dangerous snakes.

The jungle route affords the traveller the opportunity to view an incredible array of towering rainforest trees, a variety of exotic carnivorous plants, orchids of different species and myriads of insects. As you traverse the Maya sites it seems as though you are alone in the jungle and entering a state of suspended time. On the Ruta Rio Bec you will find yourself in mysterious places, zones of lost time and an enigma of otherworldly design.

Hormiguero Structure

Hormiguero Structure. Photo © Jim O’Kon.

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Ring Around the Ring of Kerry

One of Ireland’s most popular destinations is the Iveragh Peninsula — known to shamrock-lovers everywhere as “The Ring of Kerry.” The Ring, lassoed by a winding coastal road through a mountainous, lake-splattered region, is undeniably scenic. Visitors since Victorian times have been drawn to this evocative chunk of the Emerald Isle, where mysterious ancient ring forts stand sentinel on mossy hillsides.

A drive along the Ring of Kerry presents classic views of the Irish countryside. (photo: Pat O’Connor)

A drive along the Ring of Kerry presents classic views of the Irish countryside. (photo: Pat O’Connor)

It seems like every tour bus in Ireland makes the ritual loop around the Ring, using the bustling and famous tourist town of Killarney as a springboard. I skip Killarney, whose main attraction is its transit connections for those without cars. Instead, rent a car and use as your home base the tidy town of Kenmare (yes, it’s actually won Ireland’s “Tidy Town” award).

While in Kenmare, druids seek out the town’s ancient stone circle (with 15 stones in a circle 50 feet wide), one of 100 little Stonehenges that dot southwest Ireland. Fitness buffs enjoy horseback riding, boating, hiking, and golfing (one way to experience Ireland’s 40 shades of green).

Before or after the day you tackle the Ring, explore these sights near Kenmare: a mansion, open-air museum, and sheep farm. Muckross House is perhaps Ireland’s best Victorian mansion. Queen Victoria really did sleep here for three nights in 1861 — on the ground floor because she had a fear of house fires. Adjacent to Muckross House is a fascinating open-air folk museum that covers Irish farmlife from the 1920s to the 1950s. Talk with the docents who remember the year 1955, when electricity came to rural dwellings. Farmers would pull on Wellington boots for safety, then cautiously turn on the switch that powered the one bare bulb hanging from the ceiling.

Between Muckross House and Kenmare is a scenic mountainous chunk of Killarney National Park (great views at Moll’s Gap) and the Kissane Sheep Farm, a real working farm that offers demonstrations of hands-on sheep shearing and expert sheepherding. You’ll be wowed by the intelligence of the family dogs.

Ready for the Ring? Touring the Ring takes a long but satisfying day by car from Kenmare. Smart travelers get an early start (by 8:30), working their way clockwise to escape the tour-bus procession heading counterclockwise.

The 2,000-year-old walls of Ireland’s Leacanabuaile Ring Fort have withstood the test of time — without the aid of mortar or cement. (photo: Rick Steves)

The 2,000-year-old walls of Ireland’s Leacanabuaile Ring Fort have withstood the test of time — without the aid of mortar or cement. (photo: Rick Steves)

The laid-back town of Sneem (yup, funny name) is worth a stop. The square on the east side of town is called South Square and the one on the west is called North Square. When it comes to giving directions, the Irish march to their own beat.

Stop at Staigue Fort, an imposing sight rising out of a desolate high valley. The circular drystone walls were built sometime between 500 B.C. and A.D. 300 without the aid of mortar or cement. About 80 feet across, with walls 12 feet thick at the base and up to 25 feet high, this brutish structure would have taken a hundred men six months to complete. It’s thought that during times of tribal war, locals used the fort as a refuge, bringing their valuable cattle inside to protect them from rustlers.

The Derrynane House, just beyond the Staigue Fort, was the home of Daniel O’Connell, Ireland’s most influential pre-independence politician. His tireless non-violent agitation gained equality for Catholics 180 years ago. See the 20-minute audiovisual presentation on O’Connell, along with some of his belongings, including pistols from a duel and a black glove — which the remorseful O’Connell always wore on his pistol hand when he went to Mass. He was forced into the duel, killed the man who challenged him, and regretted it for the rest of his life.

Approaching Portmagee, you’ll see the striking silhouette of the island of Skellig Michael. Visit the Skellig Experience Centre, which tells the story of the island — the Holy Grail of Irish monastic island settlements. During the so-called “Dark Ages,” its monks helped preserve literacy and sacred texts. Hardy hikers can take a boat to the island and hike 600 vertical feet to the monastic ruins.

But I’m back in the car, heading on to two more ring forts: Cahergal and Leacanabuaile. Because this region had copper mines, it has a wealth of prehistoric sights. Copper melted with tin yielded bronze, the Bronze Age (2000 to 500 B.C.), and sturdier weapons and tools. The many ring forts and stone circles reflect the lively trade and affluence created by copper.

As I pull into Kenmare, the lush green landscape seems to glow as the sun sets. While the ancient sights are fascinating and the history is educational, the best reason to come here is the eternal beauty of the Irish landscape. If you go to Ireland and don’t see the famous Ring of Kerry, your uncle Pat will never forgive you.