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B Is For "Bellissima"

Open the Google Translate Page, choose to translate from Italian to English, and type the word “Bellissima” in Italian. It returns the word “Gorgeous.” Now that’s an accurate word to describe Rome, the Eternal City.

We had two days and three nights in Rome. What should we do and what had to be left for (hopefully) another time? We chose to stick to the most well-known things and were mostly glad we did. So we fit three Italian dinners, six well-known tourist attractions (and one off-the-beaten-path delight), as well as three stops at the same gelateria for cones of pure “magnificenza” into 70 hours. And for the most part, Rome did not disappoint. What a whirlwind!

Today i'll tell you the story about our day at the Coliseum, where this B letter photo were taken.

"Yesterday we had been to the Vatican City and the Trevi Fountains. By the time we arrived back at the hotel, my feet looked like balloons. Apparently hot weather and a refusal on my part to drink much water will do that to a person. All night i had kept my feet raised on a pillow in hopes of easing the swelling. i drank many litres of water to compensate for what i had lost during the day, and prayed for the best. This morning everything seemed fine, so i laced up my hiking boots and set off towards a building that’s intrigued me since i’d been a little girl reading a book in a small library about a land far away. It was the end of May and the days were hot and humid. The sun baked mercilessly down on all who were not protected by hat or parasol or shade. The metro that deposited us right at the foot of the Coliseum was crowded and stuffy.

We bought some tickets for a guided tour, as it promised to help us skip the lines. Of course, that meant that we had to wait in the sun for 40 minutes before the tour would start. So we spent the time wandering around the Coliseum, taking photos and marveling at the fact that we were actually seeing it with our own eyes. We returned to the indicated assembly point for the tour, waited for some late-comers to join us, and then proceeded to stand in the sun for another hour, listening to our guide as she explained interesting historical facts about Rome, the Coliseum, and other ancient sites in the vicinity. Only then did she lead the group towards the colossal structure we’d come to see.

Because of the constant din of many visitors in a cavernous building, we couldn’t make out much more of what the guide said after this point, but still we were grateful that we could walk through halls that have stood for almost 2,000 years now. Even though it doesn’t look the way it did then, the mere fact of setting foot here filled me with awe. When you consider the lifetime of a human compared against the time that this edifice has stood silently in its appointed place, you are humbled. Even though we are the crown of Creation, we are still mortal and we’ll live for only a fraction of the years the Coliseum has seen. The paradox of being deeply loved and highly valued, even though our bodies are frail and our time here limited, is one of the most beautiful things about our lives on earth, isn’t it?"

Over 28 centuries Rome progressed from a settlement next to the river Tiber, to the capital of the Roman Kingdom, the Roman Republic, the Roman Empire, the Papal States, the kingdom of Italy and finally the Italian Republic. Rulers have come and gone, and some have left a more lasting impact than others. Eventually, the gorgeous city of Rome remains and thrives on the banks of the Tiber river.

As with the Empire State Building in New York City and the Eiffel Tower in Paris, one structure personifies Rome for me: the Coliseum. Putting aside its raison d’être, the structure itself if impressive, especially considering that it was built almost 2,000 years ago. It’s the largest amphitheatre that has ever been built, and could house somewhere between 50,000 and 80,000 spectators. Even though it’s been severely damaged by fan earthquake, stone-robbers and a fire, so much of the structure still remains today that it’s the focal point of many a tourist itinerary to Rome.

It was built in the centre of Rome, in a part of the city that Nero had claimed for himself after the controversial Great Fire of Rome. After his reign, this piece of land was reclaimed for the people of Rome and the Flavian Amphitheatre (the original name of the Coliseum) especially built for their benefit. Since then, it has stood in the heart of Rome.

Built from about 100,000 cubic metres of travertine, as well as tufa and brick-faced concrete, held together with about 300 tonnes of bronze clamps, its exterior walls measured 189 metres in length, 156 metres in width and 48 metres high, and the arena itself measured 87 by 55 metres. Ironically, the construction of the Coliseum was financed by the treasures brought from the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem after the Great Revolt in 70AD, and many Jews who’d been brought to Rome as slaves were actually involved in the construction of the Coliseum in one way or another.

Throughout the centuries, it’s been repurposed in diverse ways, including being used as a quarry from which stones were sourced for other building projects, a cemetery, quarters for a religious order, a fortress and many more.

Something that reminded me in a little way of my childhood is the fact that it’s built in a small valley among the Caelian, Esquiline and Palatine Hills, just like the little town in the Karoo where i grew up is surrounded by hills. However, there’s not much else which can be compared between these two places.

Of course, what we see today is only the shell of the original structure, as it’s been damaged by fire, earthquake and looters. The elegant sloping end of two walls we see today used to be the exterior wall and one of the interior walls, respectively. And the wall that seems to be most intact used to be an interior wall.

These days thousands of tourists pour through the gates every year to see the home of the gladiators. Or they may just bring your coolbag, find a place to sit and have a leisurely lunch with a spectacular view. At night the arches are lit up, which created the dramatic “B” for my letter photo collection. Sometimes you might even have the opportunity to see a live performance inside or in front of the Coliseum.

Even though i’m deeply dismayed at the fact that this used to be the place where people practised violence against each other and against animals, we can still learn so much from visiting a place like this.

For instance, it is actually because of the horrific weight of everything that happened here centuries ago that we’re able to look back on those dark pages of history and recognise that humans left to their own devices – with no superior authority to guide them and no-one who holds them accountable - will eventually turn against each other in the most vile manners. They will look out for their own interests, and in the process justify their apathy, cruelty and injustice towards others, and eventually many will suffer and die to serve their selfishness, greed and insatiable hunger for power. The truest lesson that i have learned here is that every single person is and should be held accountable for their lives. Especially those who have the privilege of power bestowed on them through birth, circumstance or election. And it leads me to think about myself. Are there any areas in my life where i could and should act more selflessly, more patiently, more graciously towards other people? Am i holding back when i should be giving, or hiding when i should be serving?

"When we left the Coliseum today, i was silent, as each day that i'm touched profoundly by an experience. The questions i have started asking myself beg to be answered, and i am the one who have to provide them."

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