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A Destination for Pilgrims for Centuries

Saint Peter’s Basilica is one of the grandest and most prominent features in the city of Rome. The enormous domed structure rises above the city, located outside the old city walls and on top of the tomb of Saint Peter.

The history of Saint Peter’s Basilica and the papacy began with the destruction of Rome by fire in 64 AD. Romans were furious and blamed Emperor Nero, whom they suspected of ordering the fire. Known as the “Great Fire of Rome”, the devastation destroyed two-thirds of the city and burned for days.

However, Nero made the Christian community, which had recently emerged, the scapegoat of the devastation. He captured Christians and then sent them to horrible deaths.

Peter, one of the twelve apostles of Jesus Christ, was a leader of the early church. He is venerated as the founder of the Roman Church and considered to be the first Bishop of Rome, the Pope. He was martyred during this time.

Peter’s remains were believed to be buried in a simple pauper’s grave dugout in the Vatican Hill, a vast cemetery outside the city. At the time, it was forbidden to bury the dead within the city walls, and it was there that Christian pilgrims kept, initially as a secret, Peter’s burial place.

Peter’s earthly remains became the seed of the Vatican church and the location for Saint Peter’s Basilica.

The completion of the current Renaissance-styled building took over 100 years, was essentially finished by 1612, and was consecrated in 1626. However, it took many more decades and centuries for Saint Peter’s Basilica to become what it is today – one of the largest churches in the world, with an enormous interior space that can host 20,000 people and the sites of some of the most famous artworks, such as Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s baldachin – a huge sculpted bronze canopy and Michelangelo’s masterpiece sculpture, the Pietà.

Text & Photos by Cammy Yiu