Dec 16

A Day at the Vatican

Vatican Mass. Vatican City, Rome, Italy. 2016

Vatican Mass. Vatican City, Rome, Italy. 2016

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.

Byzantine Mosaic. Hagia Sophia. Istanbul. 2012

Byzantine Mosaic. Hagia Sophia. Istanbul. 2012

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.

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Nov 15

What is “the long view”?

I was having this conversation with a friend a few days before we left on our current Europe/Morocco expedition. She was asking me what I found most interesting as a traveler and why I found it so important to study history. I expressed my phrase, “I like to take the long view”.  For instance, I said, on the way in to see you this afternoon I noticed a small building. It was made with concrete blocks and stucco with a small arch and an array of windows reflecting facets of light and life. This wasn’t a particularly attractive building but that was not what caught my eye. What I saw were two thousand year old building techniques pioneered by the Romans that form the cornerstone of some of the greatest monuments of western civilization. Romans invented concrete, clear glass windows and the arch”.

Historically, successful ideas like concrete and the arch lead to the Pantheon and Colosseum, solved problems and moved society and culture forward. To me, the reason the long view has value is because it exposes the causal chains of how one idea leads to another and how additional minds contribute to the subject or idea connecting it to even more ideas as one thing stands upon another.

This is what I crave as a traveler. To understanding the world and the cultures and the people in it is to understand that they are the product of the causes and conditions of everything that has come before them. Understand those causes and conditions and those events and environments and you will have a better foundation to understand peoples, cultures, civilizations and the world. This is the long view.


Two thousand year old spiral concrete columns. Roman Volubilis. Morocco, 2015

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Aug 12

Round the world

This morning we are on our way to travel around the world by way of the Silk Road. Toady we fly to Instanbul where we’ll stay for a bit before continuing on to Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and China. From a historical perspective, we will be traveling through the regions that saw the first contact between East and West, Han China and Rome, Byzantium and the splendid court of the Tang emperors. This route saw the first exchange of silk and perhaps most importantly, the introduction of paper to the western world.

We’ll be updating this blog as we’re able with photos and video, so stay tuned!

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