At the pleasure end of an official trip, I, along with my adventurous friend of many years, Asif Rehman, chose to visit the famous St Peter’s Basilica to round off a well-spent week in Rome. As we neared the Vatican enclave, we could see a queue that was over a mile long, well beyond the walls of the 44-hectare city-state, and spilling into Rome. It was a wonder that such a large multitude had woken up so early on a Sunday to visit the basilica (which is a church having a ‘processional’ form rather than a more ‘centralised’ one, I learnt).

Looking at the slow moving queue, we were rather disappointed but several tourists encouraged us to stick around and, assured us that we would be at the gates in no time. An hour later, we arrived at St Peter’s Square — which is actually elliptical — outlined by a monumental colonnade adorned with 140 statues of various Christian saints, designed by the Renaissance master Lorenzo Bernini.

In the centre of the Square is an obelisk dating back to 13th century BC Egypt, which was brought to Rome by the plundering Emperor Caligula. The obelisk was moved a few hundred metres to its present location in 1585 and marks the location where St Peter, one of the 12 disciples of Christ, was crucified in 67 AD. The ruling Emperor Nero had not taken to St Peter’s religious ministry in Rome with forbearance, and the dislike worsened after the Great Fire which was somehow blamed on the Christians.

Today, the obelisk is revered for having been a ‘witness’ to the martyrdom of the revered apostle, who is also considered as Christianity’s first Pope. Interestingly, the obelisk also serves as a huge sundial pointer, with the hour markers indicated by white discs on the cobblestone pavement.

While we watched, the Square was getting thronged by tourists and the faithful, both young and old. Everyone had a camera and a festive mood prevailed as people posed against fountains and statues. The further away one went from the basilica, the more prominent became the magnificent dome, whose design incorporates the masterly touch of Michelangelo who also worked on it for some years. Unfortunately, due to an amended basilica floor plan patterned on the Latin cross (which has one arm longer than others), the nave or the central hall was lengthened, causing the façade to obscure the dome as one gets closer.

A somewhat similar phenomenon can also be noted in our Badshahi Mosque at Lahore and the Jama Mosque at Delhi, where the façade rises too high in relation to the dome. I may mention that so far as I have seen, the Taj Mahal at Agra seems to have got the proportions just right, and the delicate dome can be happily viewed from far or near alike.

After purveying the Square, as we were about to enter the basilica, our eyes caught sight of the colourfully costumed Swiss Guards armed with the medieval halberds, guarding the entrance that leads to the inner sanctum of the Vatican. Dating back to the time when the present basilica’s construction started on the site of the older one in 1506, the guards have continued to perform ceremonial as well as personal security duties for the pontiff. Hidden from the view of the public are their SIG 220 pistols that are standard issue, ever since the attack on Pope John Paul II in 1981. The 135-odd Swiss Guards (actually Swiss mercenaries) are aptly called members of the world’s smallest army of the world’s smallest state. They are said to be the most photographed ‘item’ at St Peter’s!

Just outside the entrance to the basilica, we noticed a flyer pasted on the side which suggested that visitors — both genders included — might like to suitably cover their legs and shoulders. In the modesty-abhorring Europe of today, this notice seemed to have little meaning as we were soon to discover, much to our astonishment.

Not at all familiar with the rituals and symbolism of a church, we were overawed by the works of art, ranging from the images inside the dome on top, right down to the mosaics on the floor. Memorial statuary in marble and bronze, baptismal fonts, numerous altars and chapels dedicated to apostles, saints and popes took up every part of the basilica. Next to the entrance door on the right side is the famous Pietà sculpted by Michelangelo, a masterpiece carved from a single boulder of the finest white marble. It shows Mary grieving over the dead body of Christ with heart-rending composure. Graceful as she looks, Mary seems to have been depicted as rather young to be the mother of a thirty-something Jesus, I thought.

Rambling through the nave of the basilica without the corresponding historical knowledge of Catholic Christianity, we simply appreciated the artistry and wondered at the immense toil that must have gone into completing this great church commissioned by Pope Julius II, a patron of arts and many building projects. It was formally consecrated after 120 years in 1626, having been overseen by numerous teams of popes, architects, sculptors and artists during its long period of construction.

While I am at it, I must share some trivia with the readers that St Peter’s is not a cathedral as it does not have a bishop to head it, even though the Pope holds Mass and works in its precincts. Contrary to what one might believe, St Peter’s is not even the ‘mother church’ of Roman Catholicism, for that honour officially goes to St John Lateran in Rome, whose bishop the Pope actually is: justifiably so, as St John’s happens to be the oldest church of Rome, parts of which date back to 318 AD. Of course, association with the papacy and the focus of pilgrimage confer the title of the holiest church on none, but St Peter’s.

As we moved to the intersection of the nave and the outlying arms of the basilica just below the dome, we came upon the centrepiece Papal Altar, which marks the purported burial place of St Peter. The altar is covered by a huge bronze canopy known as the baldacchino, with gold embellished spiral pillars supporting it. The canopy was crafted by Bernini in Baroque style, which is evident in much of the interior of the basilica. On orders of Pope Urban VIII Barberini, over 900 tonnes of bronze was stripped from the pagan Roman temple (and later church) called the Pantheon, for use in the canopy. That pillage gave rise to the famous taunt, “what the barbarians did not do, Barberini did!”

After spending about an hour in the basilica, we decided to check what was going on at the Sacrament of Confession, where several worshippers had lined up in front of wooden booths with small peephole windows. We learnt that here, one could confess and be instantly relieved of his or her sins, with the assistance of the Fathers on duty. Asif and I joked with each other that were we to go for a thorough cleansing, it would take up the better part of the day so it was wise to give others a chance!

Not having enough time, we decided on a brisk walk-through tour of the nearby Vatican Library, instead of the gloomy underground crypt where former popes and other important personages are buried. The well-lit and profusely decorated library is a vast repository of over two million books and 75,000 historical manuscripts. Vatican scholars in their standard religious attire could be seen busy with their research work, apparently undisturbed by tourists like us who trundled around with clicking cameras. “Silenzio!” echoed a gentle command uttered by the library attendant each time the tourists’ loud whispers tended to turn into a cacophony.

A visit to the adjacent Sistine Chapel could not be undertaken due to its closure for renovation work; instead, I bought a book on the Sistine Chapel from a nearby book stand. Informative though it was, I found it appalling that a hallowed place of worship would put up with the rather inappropriate depiction of unclad figures, all in the name of art or so-called liberalism. After all, much more than legs and shoulders were on display.

Finally, as we took leave of Vatican and looked back at the huge basilica, we could not help but be amazed at the immense diversity in the places of worship, ranging from the uncomplicated and austere, yet glorious Ka’aba, to the lavishly adorned and ornate St Peter’s. Man has a way of getting to God… and the wonder is that He loves it anyhow!

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The dome of St Peter’s.

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The colourfull Swiss guard.

Mid-2011 gave me an opportunity to visit various cities of the US. Selected as a fellow of the 49th World Press Institute Fellowship along with nine other journalists from various countries, I got a chance to journey through some of the best parts of the US — Saint Paul, Minneapolis, Muscatine, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Boston, New York, Washington, Atlanta and Chicago.

Every city had its own unique character but what left me spellbound was Ely. “Unbelievable” was the first word I uttered when I saw Ely.

Situated on the Northern Boundary waters of America, Ely touches the Canadian border. It is a real place for adventure with frozen lakes and warm people. It is about 100 miles north of Duluth and 137 miles southeast of International Falls in Minnesota, and 240 miles north of Minneapolis – Saint Paul.

For a moment you don’t trust what you see — this is what Ely does to you. Just imagine life on the lakes amid lush green trees and wildlife such as bears, wolves, eagles, moose, deers, and many other creatures. For a local Elyian who lives around the lakes, it is a routine to see animals loitering around, but for someone like me, hailing from the agrarian Punjab, the sight was awe-inspiring.

We started our journey from the twin cities of Saint Paul and Minneapolis. Saint Paul is a capital of the state of Minnesota; located along the Mississippi river and adjacent to Minneapolis. A six-hour car ride takes you through Duluth, a city in northeast Minnesota on Lake Superior. With Lake Superior on the sidelines and magnificent landscape of International Falls an unforgettable journey awaited us!

While passing Duluth, which is also one of the biggest port areas in the state, Lake Superior looks grand. Lake Superior, by surface area, is largest freshwater lake in the world; the deepest of the Great Lakes. With 31,700 square miles surface area, which is greater than the combined areas of Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, and New Hampshire, it contains 10 per cent of all the earth’s fresh surface water.

Finally, the zigzag muddy paths took us to our host family of Caroline and Joe Owens. Having Eagle Nest Lake in the backyard of their wooden house, the couple has a dream house in a jungle. Joe, a former navy officer, is spending his retirement days in the town with his charming wife Caroline. The couple loves to host people and talk to them about the US and the world in general. There are only four houses on that big lake. Most of the houses in Ely are situated on different lakes.

Ely was first named Florence, but after discovering that another town in Minnesota was already called so, the name was changed to Ely. It is named after Samuel B Ely, a miner from Michigan who, amusingly, has never been seen in the town. Earlier, it was named “Que Quam Chep” (land of the berries) in the Chippewa language. According to the 2010 statistics, the city has a modest population of 4,000.

Today Ely is best known as a popular entry point for the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW); and is home to the International Wolf Center and the North American Bear Center. You can watch bears and wolves in the open being monitored by the experts.

The International Wolf Center is dedicated to educate people about wolves. It is mostly run through local donations. Whereas the North American Bear Center’s mission is to advance the long-term survival of bears worldwide. It focuses on changing misconceptions with scientific facts about bears, and their relationship with humans. Ely’s wildlife contains bald eagle, beaver, black bear, frogs and toads, loons, moose, red fox, whitetail deer and timber wolf.

In early times, as the mining of the iron ore began in the town, the population of Ely began to boom. Mining has been a key industry in Ely since the late 1800s and remains a significant issue to this day. Now, there are about six mines in the region surrounding Ely and it employs a majority of the locals. For a long time it has been known that there are significant nickel and copper deposits in the Ely area.

“You have been to Ely. Did you canoe?” is the first question that every Minnesotan will ask. And canoeing is one experience. Ely is also known as the “Canoeing capital of the world”. It rests in the heart of the Superior National Forest, 15 miles south of the Canadian border and only minutes away from BWCAW, a favourite destination for both canoers and fishers on its many lakes.

BWCAW also offers guided trips, which are designed for novices as well as advanced-level paddlers, and is personalised to satisfy the groups. Also on the offer are guided boundary waters fishing and fly fishing trips for Smallmouth Bass, Northern Pike and Walleye.

This outdoor recreational area has something for everyone, with over 1,500 miles of canoe routes, over 100 public boat landings and many picnic areas. There are over 1,000 clear water lakes in this wilderness.

Ely can be a treat for a shopaholic like me. It has some of the most unique souvenir shops in Minnesota, along with a furniture and photo galleries, musical instrument shops, florists, greenhouses, art galleries, fabric shops outdoor equipment, collectables and what not.

The people of Ely are hospitable and casual, and like living in cosy wooden houses surrounded by trees. Almost every family has its own boat and a pontoon for late night parties. The town also has its best community-based newspaper ‘Ely Echo’ and ‘North Country Angler’, and two radio stations.

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Lake Superior.


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