Catacombs and Old Byzantium II

Still dazed by the Byzantine glory of the Franciscan Monastery of Mount St. Sepulchre, I followed the guide as he led the way down to the Lower Church via a staircase off-limits to the general public. The archway above the staircase was emblazoned with a single word: Nazareth.

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At the bottom was a replica of the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth; the spot where Mary said yes to the Arch Angel Gabriel. The level of detail was extraordinary, even down to a vandalized pillar – apparently thieves in Nazareth smashed the pillars because they thought that jewels were hidden inside.

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Then we were off exploring the dark, meandering tunnels of an elaborate maze of faux catacombs. The original catacombs in Rome provided refuge for early Christians and were extensive underground networks. These catacombs, in the heart of Washington DC, had an eerie authenticity to them; dimly lit, with dark, gaping recesses on either side waiting for bodies. There were crypts along the way, two of which contained the remains of saints who had originally been buried in the catacombs.

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We emerged from the darkness into an underground chapel complete with ornate altar and intricate mosaics lining the walls….

catacombs washington dc franciscan monastery mount st sepulchre old byzantium

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…through dim passageways and rooms covered with early Christian graffiti and artwork…

catacombs washington dc franciscan monastery mount st sepulchre old byzantium

…and finally, dramatically, we entered the Grotto of the Nativity.

catacombs washington dc franciscan monastery mount st sepulchre old byzantium

We’re not in Kansas any more

I climbed up the spiral stairs leading from the grotto, which had holes in the steps to provide underground ventilation, and took a last look back; still trying to process this  bizarre journey.

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In order to create accurate reproductions, the founder of the monastery, Fr. Godfrey Schilling, travelled to the original shrines to take  extensive measurements and photographs. The phenomenal design is the work of architect Aristide Leonori, who was also responsible for the Basilica Church San Guiseppe al Trionfale in Rome and the Church of St. Joseph in Cairo. This place worked its magic on me so completely that I was genuinely startled to step back out into the hustle and bustle of DC. It was the most surreal experience I’ve had in quite a while, and I felt oddly dislocated; pleasurably out of place in space and time.

You won’t find this remarkable place on the usual must-see list of Washington DC, but it was one of the highlights of my visit. I cannot remember how I stumbled across it, but I’m awfully glad I did. Do not miss it.

The Franciscan Monastery of Mount St. Sepulchre is located at 1400 Quincy Street, a short walk from the Brookland CUA Metro stop. The H6 and 80 bus lines stop nearby. There are guided tours daily which I highly recommend, because it is the only way you will get to explore the Lower Church and the catacombs. The tours are free but donations are welcome.

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About ailsapm

Hi there! I’m Ailsa Prideaux-Mooney. I’ve lived in many places, and travelled to many more. I had a lot of fun getting there and being there, wherever there happened to be at the time. I climbed a castle wall in Czesky Krumlov, abseiled down cliffs to go caving in the west of Ireland, slept on the beach in Paros, got chased by a swarm of bees in Vourvourou (ok that wasn’t fun, but it was exciting), learned flower arranging in Tokyo, found myself in the middle of a riot in Seoul, learned to snowboard in Salzburg, got lost in a labyrinth in Budapest and had my ice cream stolen by a gull in Cornwall. And I’m just getting started. If you’ve enjoyed what you’ve read so far, I’d love you to follow my travelogue - wheresmybackpack.com - and remember, anyone who tries to tell you it’s a small world hasn’t tried to see it all.
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27 Responses to Catacombs and Old Byzantium II

  1. fgassette says:

    WOW! How beautiful.

    BE ENCOURAGED! BE BLESSED!

  2. If I ever get to Washington DC, I’ll be going to see this! Thank you for letting us know about this.

    • ailsapm says:

      You’re welcome, Denise – and let me know when you visit, because I guarantee you’ll be blogging about it, and I’d love to read your post too! xxx Ailsa

  3. scrapydo says:

    This is wonderful. Thanks for sharing

  4. cocoaupnorth says:

    Fascinating stuff and beautiful pics as usual:-)

  5. You are an incredible photographer. Thank you for sharing.

    • ailsapm says:

      Thank you for your kind words, Trinity, and for stopping by to say hello! Glad you enjoyed my little visit to a most unexpected place 😉

  6. Just amazing. Your photos are fabulous! Just showed my husband this and the other post. We’re boarding the H6 bus!!!!

  7. adinparadise says:

    Wonderful photos, ailsa. Thanks for sharing your awesome experience. Yes, I can imagine how strange it must have been to step back into the busy city.

  8. Gilly Gee says:

    It’s amazing and beautiful but also quite bizarre,i can imagine how disorientated you felt coming outside!

    • ailsapm says:

      The tour only lasted about an hour, Gilly, but we went through so many shrines and tunnels and grottos that it felt like we’d just done a whirlwind tour through Italy and Israel, with France and Turkey thrown in for good measure.

  9. What a wonderful trip through your photos! Thank you!

  10. It’s really wonderful, and so surprising, when you come across these transplanted islands of faithful recreation in parts of the ‘new world’, isn’t it? Really amazing, Ailsa … see why you were so taken by the monastery, and its crypt.

    • ailsapm says:

      I was so excited when I happened across this fabulous place, it’s these kind of discoveries that make travel so much fun 🙂

      • You’re right – the serendipitous discoveries are the memories most precious to us – because they’re our discoveries, not something everyone else has seen. There’s also the joy of sharing something new with people. What a fine thing blogging is 🙂

  11. wow … what a cool place! At first I thought you actually were in Nazareth! In Washington, D.C. — who knew?

    • ailsapm says:

      Really cool, Stephen, the level of detail they went to when recreating these shrines is extraordinary. Trippy experience, and really fun. xxx

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  14. ARvWD says:

    Hmmm. Very elaborate, but … does it really feel authentic? More in the nature of a religious spectacle, or a fair. Though of course the originals themselves become inauthentic very quickly, once they are ‘discovered’. The whole paradox of organised religion, in a rather splendid nutshell. Next stop, the Reformation. Thanks for your like too!

    • ailsapm says:

      Oddly enough, even though this place could be misconstrued as ‘Disney does the Holy Land’ it came across as relatively authentic. I suspect it has a lot to do with the fact that it is very much a functioning place of worship and a destination for pilgrimage rather than tourism. You raise a good point about the commercialization of pilgrimage destinations, so in that light, I don’t think this is any less authentic than the sites it replicates. Thanks for checking out my site, I enjoyed your post on the Old Cathedral on Guanabara Bay.

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