If you want to indulge in arguably the most incredible and not-very-well-known sight in all of Rome/Vatican, you simply CANNOT miss the tour of the necropolis underneath St. Peter’s Basilica.
The necropolis excavations originally began by Pope Pius XII in 1939-50. The necropolis goes down to the ORIGINAL St. Peters foundations built by emperor Constantine in 313 A.D. and then goes even further under to the excavated cemeteries, mausoleums and streets from the 1st and 2nd century. Yes, truly incredible. The tour leads you through the mausoleums and tombs to the spot that is said to be where St. Peter’s tomb originally was placed in this graveyard after being crucified.
This ancient Roman necropolis contains tombs of Pagans and Christians alike and is where St. Peter is known to have been originally buried. You actually are able to view what is said to be St. Peters actual bones and tomb that they found while excavating the necropolis, which is the main highlight of the tour. When you are at the spot of the actual tomb, you will be 33 feet directly beneath the floor of the basilica, the main alter and directly beneath Michelangelo’s dome. It is said that the original St. Peters was built with the alter aligning with this spot, as the modern basilica is today.
Going into the Necropolis is literally going into an underground world that has long been dead and gone-it is amazing, eerie and totally intriguing! In this tour, you will be able to still see whats left of the old writings, frescos and mosaic artwork on the walls and floors of the ruins, which is absolutely incredible, surreal and almost freaky. It gave me chills to think I was standing in a room from so long ago and I could STILL see the artwork as if it was just yesterday.
You will see images of pagan Gods, and others of Christ. They have excavated full streets (tiny, narrow streets) that you walk through while touring each mausoleum. At the time of the first century, you would have been walking at ground level, so at that time, nothing would have been above you but the sky. Today, there is a giant modern day basilica built atop this ancient world. I think the reality of all the layers of Rome boggles peoples minds, but that’s for another post!
How does the Vatican know this is truly Peter’s tomb and bones?
There are many reasons why the Catholic Church has determined these are in fact the bones of St. Peter, although it is a very controversial subject.
Some of the reasons :
* Greek letters inscribed “Peter” and fragments of words that may have said “is here,” or “within” on/near the tomb.
*Early Christians snuck down to the tomb and covered the walls with graffiti that paid tribute to Peter.
*Dirt on the bones that they think are of St. Peters matched the soil in the pauper’ grave.
*A stone found with them had the words “Peter within” carved on it.
*The feet of the body were missing, having been broken off at the ankles. St. Peter was crucified upside down and missing feet are typical because the body is chopped free before burial.
Whether you believe the reasoning or not, this tour and the history of this underground world are truly a hidden Gem that I wouldn’t miss for anything on a tour to Rome.
The main questions that came to mind on my visit was :
What initiated the excavations? I haven’t been able to get a solid answer for this question. I read once that the pope that began the excavations was digging in this spot in order to put in a commemorative monument of the previous pope, but stopped once they hit the graveyard ruins.
Why did they wait clear till the 1940’s to see if they could confirm that St. Peter’s remains were in fact under the basilica?
Why did they stop the excavations after revealing what they believed to be St. Peter’s grave and a few other mausoleums? Think of all the amazing things they could find! But that is the thing about Rome, no matter where you dig, you will find something underneath. You can’t really dig up all of Rome. The Vatican also accidentally discovered more of the Roman necropolis located underneath the Vatican gardens while digging their underground parking garage in 1956. This Necropolis is called via Triumphalis and has been open for tours only as of 2014.
The necropolis is cold, dark, wet and humid like a typical underground ruin. The rules on this tour are very strict and you are not allowed to take any photos. All photos in the slideshow above I got off the internet. Tour groups are small and limited to a certain amount of visitors per day. The excavations are strictly by guided tour only and are an absolute must see if you are able to get a reservation. The only hard part about getting the reservation is remembering to request it months in advance. All it requires is a simple e-mail. I think I requested reservations almost 4 to 5 months in advance and I visited in the off season. There are no set deadlines for submitting requests, so you are able to put it in up to several months in advance, which you would want to do especially during the busy season. Go to the main Vatican website for instructions on what to send in your e-mail request and further instructions.
Many people don’t know about the necropolis or confuse it with the crypt or grotto of the basilica- then realize they can’t get a tour unless reserved long before they got there. The grotto under the church is a completely different thing. The necropolis is underneath the grotto. Others confuse the modern tomb of St. Peter that you can view by looking down to in the basilica as Peters actual tomb, but do not be confused, the original tomb is actually directly below the modern tomb that’s in the necropolis and can only be seen by a previously booked tour.
To find any information on the Vatican website, the search engine is very user friendly to find anything. Just type in “Scavi Excavations,” and the first link will take you to the page with all the instructions on what to include in your e-mail and details on the tour or just click my link above. The e-mail to request reservations is: firstname.lastname@example.org, They then send you a receipt of your email request right away and then within a few days you will get an answer.
To view a very well done virtual tour of the necropolis through the Vatican Website, click the link below.