New York City is a mainstay of family vacations to the United States Northeast. This city is unique for its multiple tourist attractions and has been dubbed the cultural and financial capital of the world. In many decades of residence in New Jersey just a few dozen miles west of this great city, our family had never visited for multiple consecutive days, much less enjoying two overnights a few blocks from Times Square, the “Crossroads of the World.” This intersection is arguably the world’s most visited tourist attraction, hosting 39 million visitors in a given year. The fame of New York City is legendary, not overshadowed by the sometimes conflicting metrics of most visited, most popular, most fascinating, or other superlatives describing cities of our modern world.
This marvelous city was home to a few tens of thousands of people before 1800, had grown to one million in 1870, and now boasts 8.5 million residents in its five boroughs. It has always been the most populous city in the US and retains that distinction to this day. Historically, New York is a relatively recent arrival on the world map along with many other densely populated world cities since the global population explosion began two centuries ago.
The recent visit to New York City was reminiscent of our stay in Rome, Italy in 2011. Rome was the first world city to achieve a population of one million residents in its heyday around the time of Christ. Rome experienced a serious depopulation in the intervening centuries due to a multitude of factors, but in modern times it has regained its former glory and its population now numbers 2.8 million. We will contemplate two architectural wonders of the ancient city of Rome and their parallels in modern New York City. The two wonders of ancient Rome, the Colosseum and the Pantheon, provide interesting counterparts in New York City’s new Yankee Stadium and the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in northern Manhattan.
The ancient Colosseum, an architectural wonder even for its day, was built from 72-80 AD with slave labor and the efforts of skilled Roman artisans. It was the venue of gladiator games and other public spectacles. Concrete and vaulted arches were an innovation. It was financed partly with treasures from the Roman siege of Jerusalem in 70 AD and accomplished with slave labor from Jews captured in that event. Imagine—in the Colosseum there were no loudspeakers, video cameras, or giant video screens for instant replay, or to quickly replay events for judges to determine the accuracy of athletic officials’ on-field calls many miles distant. The Colosseum’s vast network of rooms, passageways, and tunnels supplementing the main arena find an analogy in passageways and refreshment venues surrounding the beautiful grassy playing field of the New Yankee Stadium, built from 2006-2009. We wonder, however, if Colosseum patrons felt they were deprived as spectators in the first century AD.
The Pantheon was conceived by Emperor Agrippa around the time of Christ. It was destroyed by fire, reconstructed, and dedicated by Hadrian about 126 AD. Originally the Pantheon was intended as a “Temple of Every God.” Its dome is 141 feet above ground and is still the largest non-reinforced concrete dome in the world, 23 feet thick at the base of the dome and ranging to two feet thick at its summit. The engineering genius of that era provided a progressively lighter composition of concrete from the dome’s base to its summit to allow for ideal weight bearing. In my personal view, the Pantheon, standing for two millennia, is one of the most astounding wonders of architectural technology and engineering, even in the present day. Professional engineer David Moore has written, “Today, no engineer would dare build this structure without steel rods. Modern codes of engineering would not permit such mischief.” The Pantheon was converted to a Christian church in the 7th century.
The Cathedral of St. John the Divine in northern Manhattan is spectacular for different reasons. This enormous 601 foot long Episcopal cathedral was begun in 1892 and is far from completion. It is doubtful the structure will ever be completed, because the need for maintenance and repair far exceeds the requirements for completion. The emotions we experience upon perceiving such monuments to God’s gifts range across a wide spectrum. Our family sojourn in New York City and Rome enabled us to contemplate the physical, intellectual, and spiritual gifts our Creator has bestowed ever since the creation of humanity in the image of God.