Tuesday, April 05, 2005

And now... a little history lesson.

The Vatican City is the world's smallest independent state, both in land area (o.44 km²) and population (921). The history of the Vatican as a papal residence dates from the 5th century, when, after Emperor Constantine I had built the basilica of St. Peter's, Pope Symmachus built a palace nearby. It became independent in 1929 with the signing of the Lateran Treaties between Italy and the Holy See, the government of the Vatican State, which, inter alia, granted Roman Catholicism special status in Italy.

The state, or rather the pontiff, is guarded by the world's smallest army, the Swiss Guards. All recruits must be unmarried Roman Catholic males between the ages of 19 and 30. They must stand at least 172cm (5ft 8in) tall, and they must have completed military training in the Swiss armed forces. Once joined, they learn to handle swords and halberds, just as their predecessors did.

During my visit to the Vatican, I, like many tourists before me, took photos of the colourfully-garbed Swiss Guards. As I was also going on a tour of St. Peter's Tomb (also known as the tour of the excavations below St. Peter's Basilica), I had the opportunity to walk through the gates which a pair of Swiss Guards were well, guarding. One of them escorted me to where I had to go, and I had the brief opportunity to speak to him, whereupon I asked him, in awe, "how many languages can you speak?" Five, it turned out: French, German, Italian, Spanish and English. I was, naturally, quite impressed. And more than a little taken with the tall, not-at-all bad-looking young man, despite the jester-like quality of his uniform.

Anyway, therein ends the brief history lesson.

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