The Story of the Rome Keyhole Photo

The door to the SMOM HQ
The door to the SMOM HQ. Click to see a larger image of people looking through the keyhole.
This article is all about the daily photo from May 12, 2009. If you haven’t seen it, please check it out. It is a photo of St. Peter’s Basilica through the keyhole to the door of the headquarters of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta. (that is a mouthful)

There are certain iconic photos of famous places that everyone is familiar with. If you have seen a photo of the Taj Mahal, odds are it is of the building taken from the front with the building in the center and reflecting pool in the foreground. If you’ve seen a photo of Machu Pichu, you’ve seen it taken looking down from a hill above the ruins. If you’ve seen a photo of Time Square, it was taken near ground level pointed at One Times Square. Every one of those iconic photos can differ slightly depending on where you are standing, what you are standing on, etc. The Rome Keyhole photo is one of the few iconic photos I know of that everyone pretty much has to take exactly the same. The camera has to literally be in the same spot to get it to work.

The key hole
The key hole

If you look at the top photo on this page (click to see a bigger version) you’ll see a girl taking a photo through the keyhole. She was actually rather frustrated because it wasn’t working out for her. While I was there about a dozen people walked up to the gate to look through the keyhole. I took over 30 photos with various settings on my camera to get it to work. It is a really tricky shot because you are dealing with a very small hole, not much light, and a very far away object. The lack of light means a longer exposure time and the far away object means it will move around significantly with the smallest movement on your part.

If you look at the second photo, it shows the entire keyhole with some of St. Peter’s in the hole. This is a much harder shot because you need to get the door and the dome in focus. This would have turned out much better if I had my tripod with me. I should go out of my way to note that this photo is far from original. If you search for “Rome keyhole” on Google, you will find a ton of almost identical photos.

The view through the keyhole is so perfect, you can’t help but wonder if it wasn’t planned that way. Not only is St. Peter’s perfectly framed by the garden arch, but the two domes are in perfect alignment. If the garden were aligned just a slight bit differently, or if the keyhole were in a slightly different spot, it wouldn’t work. I have to believe that during construction, someone noticed the view and set up the arches and keyhole on purpose.

SMOM Letter box
SMOM Letter box

All of this, of course, raises the question: what exactly is the Sovereign Military Order of Malta? They are better known as the Knights of Malta and their full name is the Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of Saint John of Jerusalem, of Rhodes and of Malta. They are what is left of the former monastic order of the Knights Hospitaller which were created during the Crusades to protect pilgrims in the Holy Land. They used to control Malta until they were expelled by Napoleon in 1798.

They are a very unique entity in the world. They claim to be a sovereign power and have diplomatic relations with over 100 countries and international organizations. Yet, they have no territory. They also have permanent observer status at the United Nations similar to that of Palestine, the difference being that Palestine, however you define it, is a place. The SMOM has extraterritorial jurisdiction over this location and another building near the Spanish Steps in Rome. The buildings are Italian soil, but the SMOM has authority over it as if it were the embassy of a foreign country. Some people think they are an independent country like the Vatican, but they are not. (However, I think it would be cool if they were because the world needs more tiny countries.)

The SMOM has their own license plates, coins, stamps, and passports. Despite the use of “military” in their title, their current mission is that of providing humanitarian and medial aid. Its mission is similar to the Red Cross.

When in Rome…

Trevi Fountain Rome
Trevi Fountain Rome
The last several days have been extremely busy for me in Rome. After the grueling day of travel from Tel Aviv to Rome via Athens, I basically slept in and tried to find a more permanent lodging solution (I grabbed a hotel close to the train station in central Rome that was more than I wanted to spend per night for the rest of my stay). The place I’m staying is reasonably located, reasonably cheap, very clean and new with free wifi….most importantly, it has free wifi.

Rome is the most densely packed city I’ve ever seen in terms of things to see. Asian countries tend to move their capitals every few hundred years. Nara to Kyoto to Tokyo is a good example. That means all the history gets spread out as the capital moves. Rome has been a primary city in the Italian peninsula for almost 3,000 years. You have Roman ruins along side renaissance churches. Almost every street you walk down will have a small church several hundred years old. You can look down any semi-major thoroughfare and see a fountain or obelisk at the end of the road. (BTW, I’ve seen more Egyptian obelisks in Rome than I did in Egypt. That is not an exaggeration either. I only saw 3-4 in all of Egypt still standing)

Pantheon in Rome
Pantheon in Rome

Wednesday I went to see the Roman ruins around the Palentine Hill. This was the city center of ancient Rome. There is a surprising amount still standing, at least partially. You can go in the curia where the senate once sat as well as go up on the Palentine hill and see where the Emperors going back to Augustus lived. Nearby is also the Colosseum, which I am sure you are familiar with. I’ll be doing a longer write up about the Roman ruins in the city later after I process some of my photos and visit some more sites.

Other than ancient ruins, the big thing you think about when you think of Rome is churches. I managed to visit St. John Lateren, St. Mary Major, the Pantheon, aka the Basilica of St. Mary and the Martyrs, and several other basilicas and smaller churches. I also wound up at the Vatican and St. Peter’s Basilica on Thursday. On Saturday I took a tour of the Vatican Gardens and the Vatican Museum. The Vatican and the churches of Rome will also be a longer, separate, and really interesting post of its own.

Spanish Steps in Rome
Spanish Steps in Rome

Thursday I was asked by Jessica from Rome Photo Blog if I wanted to come along on a tour of one of the few Jewish catacombs in Rome. It was the only catacomb in Rome on private property and is seldom open to the public. Not being one to turn down and opportunity, I said “sure”. She works for a company called Context, which until then I had never heard of, but what they do is really fascinating and is one of the better business models I’ve heard of for a tour company. The create walking tours of small groups lead by scholars and experts in their fields. You could do a lot worse than to sign up with them to do a different tour every day you are in Rome.

I’d like to thank everyone who offered advice for what I should do and see in Rome. I’ve done many of the suggested things already. I’d especially like to thank Jim Drake, Connie Laubenthal, Miss Expatria, Drew, and Bob Hayes.

The rest of my time in Rome will be just as busy as the last few days. I’m planning on a trip to Ostia Antiqua, the Headquarters of the Knights of Malta, St. Paul’s Outside the Walls, one of the larger christian catacombs and probably another visit to the Vatican. I need time to process all my photos. I’ve taken more here than in any other city on my travels.

Breakfast in Tel Aviv, Lunch in Athens and Dinner in Rome

My first glimpse of the Parthanon
My first glimpse of the Parthanon

What a day. I’m still exhausted even after a night’s sleep. Yesterday was probably the second most grueling day of my travels (the first being the 30 hours I went from the Solomon Islands, to Nauru, to Kiribati, to Fiji, to Hawaii). I got up at 3am in Tel Aviv and left for the airport at 4am for a 7am flight. Here is how my day went:

Tel Aviv, Israel

Getting through Ben-Gurion Airport is a challenge. Especially if you have a ton of Arab stamps in your passport AND if you are carrying a ton of electronics with you, AND especially especially if you have a keffiyah in your bag. The first stage of security is a well dressed young person who will take your passport and start to ask you a ton of questions. I think the only role they serve is to try and trip you up in your answers. They asked me some questions several times, I can only assume to see if my answer was consistent.

After the questions, they put your bags through an X-ray machine and used a chemical sensitive cloth which detects explosive residue on my clothes and bags. After the bags went through the X-ray (and they made me open up my laptop when it was put through the machine), I went to another station where they opened up my bags and inspected everything by hand, and used the residue cloth on everything inside. They also asked me more questions.

After all that I finally got to go to the ticket counter….where they asked me more questions. Once my bag was checked, I went through more security where all my carry on luggage was again inspected and again put through an X-ray machine. This time they inspected every piece of electronics by hand and also did the chemical residue on everything.

I should note a few things about going through security at Ben-Gurion Airport. First, all the security personnel were under the age of 30. I got the impression that working security was either an option for doing your tour in the armed forces, or they get people who have just served. Second, no one acted like a jerk or tried to “respect their authora-tay”, which I’ve noticed is common theme when going through airports in the US. You get people who try to act like a big deal because their TSA job is the only time in their life they will ever have any sort of authority over people. Third, they have a lot of X-ray machines and plenty of space to perform their security checks. You have lines, but it isn’t nearly as bad as what you will see in US airports like in Vegas.

By the time you get through everything, you get the impression that they implement real security, not the security theater you see in the US.

Syntagma Square, Athens
Syntagma Square, Athens

Athens, Greece

I landed in Athens at about 9:30am and didn’t have to board my flight until 5pm. Up until a day earlier, I had no plans to visit Greece. The cheapest ticket I could find had this long layover in Athens, so I figured I’d make the most of it. I had one and only one goal: get to see the Acropolis. I didn’t want to chance trying to cram too much into my time in Athens. Unexpected stuff can happen and I didn’t want to risk missing my flight.

Getting into Athens was very straight forward. A single express bus took me from the airport to the center of downtown. The route to the Acropolis was an easy walk from where I was left off. If I had more time in Greece I’d certainly see more things, but honestly, I’m not sure if I’d spend more time at the Acropolis. You climb up the hill (and it isn’t a very big hill), you walk around the buildings up there, and you go back down. You can’t go inside any of the structures, which I suppose is a good thing. The view of Athens from the top of the hill is pretty impressive.

I had a nice lunch at a Greek restaurant of grilled lamb and some grape leaves stuffed with rice. I got back to the airport with plenty of time to spare and my flight to Rome took off at 5:30pm.

Rome, Italy

The only hitch in the whole day was at the airport in Rome. I some how ended up at the Terminal A baggage claim and my bag was in the the Terminal B claim. All the doors were one way only, so I had to beg and plead to get access into the baggage claim area to get my bag. The train into the Rome city center was simple enough, except most of the ticket windows were closed because it was Sunday evening. I met a couple who were visiting Europe from Vietnam, and were surprised that I’ve actually been to Vietnam.

The Termini station in Rome has many hotels around it so I picked one that looked nice and got a room for the night. It wasn’t designed to be a long term solution, but it was dark and I needed something. I dumped my bags and went out to find something to eat. I had some prosciutto and more grilled lamb.

I didn’t do much the next day. I slept for much of the day because I was still tired from the previous day of traveling. I walked around for a few hours to orientate myself to the city and walked around the coliseum area without my camera. The amount of history here is crazy. You can’t go a block without seeing some old church or historic building.

I’m in a small hotel now for the next week. Its cheap with free wifi and it is very nice and clean. I’ll be posting more from Rome as I figure out what I’m doing.

My Big Fat Greek Layover

I only have a few hours left in Israel. At 4am tomorrow I take off to the airport for my 7am flight to Rome. I’ll have an eight hour layover in Athens, so I’m going to try and make the best of it and so see the Acropolis in the time I have. It should be a really busy day: wake up early, fly, run around Athens, get back to the airport, fly, arrive in Rome and try to get settled in a room I have yet to book. I also gain another hour back from the 24 I lost when I went over the International Date Line.

Yesterday I spent all day taking photos in North Israel. I visited Caesarea, Haifa, Acre, and got to within about 20-30m of the Lebanon border. In Caesarea was the former capital of Israel during the time of Herod. He built it in honor of Augustus and created an artificial harbor. It was also the HQ for the Roman Governor of Palestine. It was believed the Paul was imprisoned here before he was taken to Rome to be executed. There were also Crusader and Turkish buildings built on the site. The ancient Roman theater has been rebuilt and is currently used for performances. I’m not sure how I feel about that….

Haifa is the home of the Baha’i Gardens which is the most sacred spot in the Baha’i Faith. The gardens were beautiful, but closed because it was a Baha’i Holiday. We could take photos from the top of the hill, but that was it.

In Acre we explored the old Crusader Fort, which is still inhabited. Acre is a mix of Jews, Arabs, Christians and Druze. It was very odd to explore all the tunnels and rooms in the fortress and then walk outside into the middle of a wedding ceremony.

I’m excited to be ending the Middle East part of the journey and beginning the European part. It will be nice to be in a place once again where I can at least pronounce the words I see on signs, even if I can’t understand them.