Waiting eagerly outside of the chapel at the Catacombs of Saint Callixtus, we were a little worried about our bare shoulders. After all, this was Rome and everyone knew the rules in the Vatican, but it was a stiflingly hot July day and after a nightmare journey to get here, we were all more than a little flustered. We snatched sneaky glances at other people relaxing on benches or chatting with friends, checking out their attire. Luckily we weren’t the only ones with our shoulders on show. Slowly, groups of people were called in by language – Italian, German, Spanish, and finally English. We all lined up quietly like schoolchildren waiting for lunch. This was something I’d wanted to do for a long time and I was excited, if not a little nervous, about finally getting the opportunity. Having visited the rather macabre catacombs in Paris, where skulls and bones line the walls giving you the urge to run at almost every corner, I wasn’t sure what to expect here.
Slowly, our group entered into the small chapel and took our seats on a solid wooden pew. Not being a religious person, I’m not particularly comfortable in a church, always feeling like an imposter. Our leader, Brother Obet, a jovial monk from the Philippines with deep-set laughter lines around his eyes, started to tell us a little about the history of the chapel and the catacombs. His jokes made us nervous – were we allowed to laugh in a chapel? And so the tour began. We left the chapel, back into the stifling heat of July, and made our way towards the entrance to the catacombs of Saint Callixtus.
“Please watch your step when you are going down the stairs,” boomed Brother Obet, “We don’t want any accidents!”
We filed in silently, our eyes adjusting to the dark, our skin to the cool temperature below ground. Brother Obet stopped us on the stairs, pointing out various tombs that had been destroyed and ransacked by Barbarians. It was all a little blurry to me, my eyes still trying to adjust to the sudden blackness. I shut them tightly, willing them to focus. When I opened them again, I was alone. Where were the rest of the group? They must have moved on without me! Not wanting to be by myself in a crypt, I quickly scurried down the stairs and along a short passage. That’s weird, I thought, Brother Obet said that the catombs had been completely emptied by the Barbarians but these tombs are all closed. In fact, it looks like they’ve never even been touched.
The corridors were dark, the only light coming from small oil lamps that lined the walls. Not a particularly cost-effective way to light a tourist attraction but perhaps they were trying to make it authentic rather than practical. Dark passages loomed off to the left and right. I kept walking straight, hoping that I would soon catch up with my group or at least bump into another. I came to a T-junction. Right or left? I had absolutely no idea. I waited to see if I could hear anything, turning my head this way and that, straining my ears for the slightest noise. Voices! I could hear faint murmuring to my right. Finally, I was going to rejoin my friends. I was starting to get rather creeped out being on my own in what is essentially a giant cemetery. I hurried down the corridor, not looking at the child-sized graves on either side, just focussing on those voices. As I got closer and closer, the murmuring became chanting. Was Brother Obet demonstrating a Christian prayer?
The corridor curved left and abruptly ended in a small room, filled with the dull glow of the oil lamps. In the centre of the room, a small group of people were kneeling in a semi-circle – the source of the chanting. The oil lamps flickered, sending shadows dancing across the walls and ceilings. The people were wearing rather peculiar clothes. Perhaps it was some kind of historical re-enactment. I moved slowly around the side of the room, not wanting to disturb the performance. Graves lined every wall. I crept closer to the grave next to me. Symbols decorated the tombs. An anchor representing hope and the promise of a future life in paradise; symbolising a safe port after death. A dove looked at me, the olive branch it was carrying fluttered slightly in the dim glow. Then I remembered what Brother Obet had said; this was the very first burial chamber, built when the Roman Empire was still persecuting Christians. This was the final resting place of those who gave their lives in martyrdom, fighting for what they believed in.
I was so fascinated by the symbols that I didn’t notice the worshipping had stopped. I looked round. A young woman was staring at me. She held out the olive branch that she had in her hand. I took it, not knowing what to say or do; surely a smile in here would be misplaced. I nodded my head in acceptance.
Suddenly there was an almighty crash. The young woman’s eyes grew wide with fright and she gripped the arm of the man next to her. Shouting came from down the corridors. We were trapped. There was no escape from the tiny room. The voices grew louder and louder. The room filled with fear. The worshippers stood closer together, holding onto each other’s hands. A tall man stood at the front, holding his arms out to protect the others from harm. It was no good. I turned my head as two Roman soldiers entered the crypt, grabbing the tall man and pushing him to the floor. They were followed by a large man in a red cape. Removing his helmet, he bent down to stare at the worshipper in the eyes. He muttered something I didn’t understand before yelling at the soldiers behind him. The worshippers screamed as the tall man was dragged from the room. They backed against the wall as more soldiers funnelled in, pulling them by their arms and legs out of the crypt. They resisted but not for long. I turned to look at the young woman with the olive branch. As I did, I felt two hands grab my shoulders and pull me downwards. My head hit the hard stone floor with a crack. The pain was excruciating. I closed my eyes tightly in fear. The soldiers shook me. The floor was cold beneath my body.
“Get off me!” I screamed.
“Wake up!” came the reply, the voice full of fear and worry. “Are you okay?”
I opened my eyes to find a sea of faces staring down at me.
“Did she feint? Did she fall over? Should we call an ambulance?”
I blinked my eyes several times and slowly sat up. I held a hand up to my head, trying to stem the throbbing pain.
“Come on. Let’s get you outside for some fresh air.” Hands lifted me up and carried me out of the staircase back into the hot summer air. They sat me on the floor. Someone brought me some water. I gulped it down, the coldness catching in my throat.
“What happened?” I croaked.
“I don’t know,” replied my sister. “We went inside and then suddenly you just collapsed. Are you okay?”
Something scratched at my hand. The olive branch. I held it up incredulously.
“I’ll be fine,” I told her.
Find out more about a visit to the Catacombs of Saint Callixtus.