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Last week on the day of the summer solstice, June 21st, I decided to go to the Pantheon. The Pantheon is one of the most amazing buildings of all time. Built by the Emperor Hadrian around AD 125, it consists of a cylinder topped by a dome. The diameter is exactly the same as its height (43 metres) and could enclose a sphere. What’s amazing about it is that the domed part does not have any steel bars or screws which had not been invented at that time. Instead, it is made up of different types of aggregate. The widest part of travertine the middle with more terracotta and the top with a lighter tufa and pumice so that the dome supports its own weight. It is still the largest dome in the world made of non-reinforced concrete. At the very top is an oculus or opening, about 9 metres in diameter which is the sole source of light apart from the entrance.
So now you can guess why I wanted to go to the Pantheon on June 21st. On this date, the sun is directly over the Tropic of Cancer so it is the one day of the year when the sun shines down through the oculus and hits the floor not exactly directly down onto the centre but in front of the entrance. This astrological event coincided with a time of day of 1 pm in Rome. I got there at about 12.30 and it was already amazing to see a circle of light on the floor. As you can imagine, people had been pouring in and out constantly as the Pantheon is one of the most visited sights in Rome and this is the peak of the tourist season. At 1 pm, the circle of light had moved directly in front of the door and all the lights were switched off. It seemed that automatically, people formed a ring around this 9 metre circle of light and actually stood silent for about a minute. We were all awestruck by the Pantheon in darkness except for the rays of the sun shining down through the oculus forming this circle of bright light on the floor. It was one of the most mystical sights I’ve seen outside of being in a natural landscape.
As its name indicates, Hadrian wanted the Pantheon to encompass the worship of all Gods although this was not usual in his time with temples almost always dedicated to a specific god. Today, it is the catholic church of Santa Maria and the Martyrs but on days like the summer solstice, it still maintains its character of being a universal place of wonder and worship.