The saffron robes of buddhist monks are gorgeous, but even more beautiful are their serene faces.
We spent the afternoon in Agra, home of the Taj Mahal. I didn’t realize it until I got to the Taj, that it is part of a huge complex of grounds and buildings. Photographs have a difficult time conveying the sheer scope of the place. What sets it apart from other sacred Islamic sites I’ve visited isn’t the size, it is the quality of the workmanship and materials, the craftsmanship, and the carving and ornamentation of the luminous white marble. The Taj Mahal really has to be seen to be believed, it is exquisite.
The light was soft and beautiful and I wanted to photograph the classic view. Three of the minarets had been cleaned and were gleaming white. The fourth minaret was in it’s scaffolding waiting it’s turn. I don’t think it detracts from the photograph, rather it shows that the Taj, no matter how seemingly perfect, is imperfect.
We spent the day at the Vatican and as a history nerd, I was in heaven. It wasn’t just the art but the architecture and context. It was overwhelming, beautiful, gorgeous, magnificent. I loved the work by Raphael and Michelangelo particularly the Last judgement in the Sistine Chapel. St. Peter’s Basilica is the largest church in the world but it’s difficult to appreciate just how big until you’re standing in the middle of it. Also, it was a little weird to see real pope mummies in some of the side chapels but I understand that these are holy christian relics. I’ve seen body parts in reliquaries before, most notable at St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice.
I couldn’t help but compare Rome and the Vatican with Istanbul (formerly Constantinople) and Hagia Sophia. After the Emperor Constantine moved the capital of the Roman Empire from Rome to Constantinople in 330 A.D., his new city surpassed the glory of Rome becoming the wealthiest and most powerful city in the western world.
Hagia Sophia was built by the Roman Emperor Justinian in 537 after rioting in the city led to the deaths of thousands of citizens and the destruction of a significant part of the city. It remained the largest and most important church in the christian world for centuries until Constantinople was captured by the Ottoman Turks in 1453.
In St. Peter’s, there is a circle on the floor of porphyry marble just inside the entrance that was reused from an earlier church which was demolished to make way for the current Basilica. It was on this exact deep purple circle that Charlemagne knelt and was crowned Holy Roman Emperor by the pope during Christmas mass in 800 A.D. Thus the rivalry was established between the Byzantine Romans and the newly created Holy Roman Empire. Ironically the porphyry marble sarcophagi that once held St. Helena, the mother of Constantine as well as that of their daughter are both on display in the Vatican Museum.
In Vienna, Christmas markets and crowds of people filled the town squares and this huge tree stood in the center of the city next to St. Stephen’s Cathedral.
This was our first full day on our round the world adventure without jet lag so we decided to explore Vienna. Thankfully the old city center is small enough to be circumnavigated in a day. The morning was cold and after some wonderful local food and amazing Viennese coffee we headed for St. Stephen’s Cathedral and managed to sit in the pews for the last portion of the midday mass. Built in 1147 it is the spectacular crown jewel of the city and a must see.
The weather had changed by the time we were back outside, much colder and snowflakes were tickling my nose. Many of the streets were lined with booths for local artisans selling holiday food and drink, arts and crafts. I bought Christy a small toy Squirrel and she was over the moon.
I wanted to see the area near the old city wall, which was demolished and replaced by the Ringstrade in 1857, where the Ottoman army of Kara Mustafa laid siege to the Vienna in 1683. It was hard to image looking at it, that the most ferocious carnage in European history prior to the 20th century took place in the location I was standing. It was now filled with happy holiday revelers, travelers, wide expanses of lawn, museums, shops and lovely little cafes.