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Impressive Sicilian Highlights

Siracusa (Syracuse) is a window into the ancient history of the Mediterranean and Europe. Its vast archeological site, on the edge of the modern city, is a rare treasure of temples, amphitheatres and an ancient castle. The island of Ortygia - a labyrinth of charming ancient and medieval streets - makes for a delightful holiday of sightseeing and shopping. This was a center of Greek, Byzantine and Judaic civilization. Physical evidence of these three cultures can still be seen today, making Ortygia a fascinating place to visit for anybody curious about the historic patrimony we have inherited from classical mythology, early Christianity and medieval Judaism.

Located near the southeastern corner of Sicily on the Ionian coast, Siracusa is built on an ancient Greek settlement founded by Corinthians in 734 BC (BCE), amalgamating with the Sicels (Sikels) who had displaced the indigenous Sicanians. More than any other modern city in Sicily, Syracuse manifests a visible continuity from its ancient Greek past, both historical and mythological.

Its older residential quarter is an island, Ortigia (or Ortygia), from the Greek for quail, probably named for that bird's abundance in this area. Ortygia is known for, among many other things, the freshwater Spring of Arethusa. When Artemis changed Arethusa into a spring of water to escape the river god Alpheus, it was here that the transformed maiden emerged. On a more factual note, Syracuse was the city of ArchimedesAeschylus (whose plays are still performed in the huge amphitheatre) and Pindar. Plato spent several years here. It was the most important city in Magna Graecia, the Greeks' America, and for a long time rivaled Athens as the most important city of the Greek world. However, it was not the first "Greek" settlement in Sicily.

Thapsos, site of an ancient Mycenaean settlement not far from Syracuse (though today unpleasantly close to Augusta's oil refineries), has yielded finds dated to circa 1500 BC. Other traces of this civilization in Sicily have been found at Panarea in the Aeolian (Lipari) Islands. Given the seven centuries separating them, it would be incorrect to presume an extremely close link between the Mycenaeans (of Mycenae in the Peloponnese) and the Corinthians who founded Syracuse, but they broadly shared the same origins and aspirations.

Athens, Carthage, Rome. These were the only three cities of the ancient Mediterranean world to covet the power and prosperity of Syracuse during its Golden Age. Though it was an important city from the time of its foundation, Syracuse flourished unhindered after Gelon's victory (with the help of the Agrigentans) over the Carthaginians at Himera, near present-day Termini Imerese, in 480 BC, and soon became the most important Greek city in Sicily and peninsular Italy, both economically and politically. Enhanced by the civilization of the Romans and Etruscans to the north, Megara Hellas (or Magna Graecia to the Romans) became the cornerstone of the society and culture of western Europe. It would not be overzealous to say that the history of Hellenistic Sicily is largely the history of Syracuse.

The city also played an important role in the propagation of Judaism and Christianity in the central Mediterranean and then through the Italian peninsula to points northward and westward. Unequivocal, tangible traces of both religions at the dawn of the Middle Ages, during Sicily's Byzantine period, can be seen here.

In 415 BC, in connection with the Peloponnesian War, the Athenians undertook an ill-fated invasion of eastern Sicily. By then, victorious Syracuse was at least as prosperous as Athens, a reality that was not lost on the defeated army. When Plato visited Sicily in 398 BC, suggesting Sicily as his model of a utopian society, it was Syracuse he had in mind.

Despite the efforts of Archimedes, the city fell to the Romans in 212 BC. Following the fall of the Western Roman Empire in the fifth century, it was sacked by Vandals and Goths. The Byzantine Greeks of the Eastern Roman Empire took it in 535, and for a few years in the middle of the seventh century the Emperor Constans made it his capital. The Arabs arrived in the ninth century, converting the splendid Cathedral - itself earlier converted from a large Greek temple to Athena - into a mosque and developing Bal'harm (Palermo) as a metropolis that eclipsed Syracuse in population and affluence. Until then, Syracuse's position as Sicily's most important city had gone unchallenged for a thousand years.

Accompanied by Norman, Lombard and Norse adventurers, the Byzantines under George Maniakes reclaimed the city for a few years around 1040, eliminating the local emir, but internal quarrels among the Byzantine leadership facilitated the Arabs' return. These "Saracens" were removed from power by the Normans led by Roger I and his knights in 1085, yet the Arabs, who had contributed much to Sicilian administration, wealth, agriculture and technology, were to hold an important place in Norman Sicily.

Let's consider the city's ancient structures before looking at its medieval treasures. Some of the ancient sights to see in Syracuse are located in Ortygia, which is the medieval city's historic center but also the location of Syracuse's largest standing Greek temple, long ago converted into a cathedral. Ortigia is reached via the Ponte Nuovo, (New Bridge). However, some of the more spectacular of the ancient landmarks are on the Teminite Hill, on the city's periphery, in an archeological park near Viale Teracati and Via G. Emanuele Rizzo.

Greek and Roman structures are ubiquitous in Ortygia; the imposing Cathedral of Siracusa was built around a Greek structure, the Temple of Athena (or Minerva), its massive columns very evident.

Located on the edge of Ortygia, the Temple of Apollo (or Artemis) is probably the oldest Greek temple in Sicily, and indeed the oldest Greek temple outside present-day Greece built in the Doric style, dating from around 565 BC. Unfortunately, only a few columns and walls remain in Piazza Pancali. A few blocks away, in Piazza Duomo, the 5th century BC Greek temple, built on the site of a much older Sikelian one, became the cathedral. This is one of the just a few surviving examples in the former Magna Graecia of a temple being converted directly into a church, though in Rome examples abound. (Various churches in Sicily were built on the sites of ancient temples, but nothing else of such scope is still standing.)

Down by the shore, the Spring of Arethusa, which takes the form of a large fountain and pool, is reached either from the Foro Italico or Via Capodieci. Further along the coast is Maniaces Castle, named for the able Byzantine general (George Maniakes) who occupied part of the Ionian coast of Sicily during the 1030s. Most of the medieval structure was actually built during the reign of Frederick II two centuries later, and the fortress has been extensively modified in successive centuries.

The city's patron saint, St. Lucy, was martyred near the site of the church of that name, in Piazza Santa Lucia, in 304; her feast day in December is a local holiday marked by a grand festival. Located at the end of Piazza Duomo, the church was built during the Byzantine era, and then restructured by the Normans during the 12th century, only to be modified almost beyond recognition in the 17th century. Beneath it are extensive catacombs. The church houses Caravaggio's Burial of Saint Lucy.

In the Neapolis Archeological Park on the Terminite Hill a clear distinction can be made between the Greek and Roman structures. Siracusa has a large Greek amphitheatre (literally carved out of the rock) and also a Roman one, both well preserved. In conformity to tradition, the Greek Theatre is semicircular and open, the Roman one oval and enclosed. This archeological park has some charming surprises, such as the Altar of Geron II and the Ear of Dionysius, formerly a limestone quarry. There is also the Saint Venera Quarry and various necropoli and other caverns. Quarries are not exclusive to Neapolis; there are several elsewhere in Syracuse, such as the Capuchin Quarry in the city.

About eight kilometers due west of the city towards the Belvedere locality is Euryalus Castle, an ancient fortification complete with moats (now dry) and immense walls. It was probably designed, at least in part, by Archimedes, who among other talents was a distinguished military engineer. This vast fortress was remarkable in 401 BC, when it was built, and still magnificent when it was later expanded during Byzantine times. For that matter, it is still impressive today. To the Greeks, it was a defense against Carthaginians and then Romans (it fell to Marcellus due to betrayal rather than siege). To the Byzantines, it was a bulwark against the Saracen Arab threat. In 309 BC, during the war against the Carthaginians, it held some three thousand foot soldiers and four hundred horsemen. Euryalus Castle today may be a shadow of its former self, but it remains one of the few extant examples of Greek defensive architecture anywhere.

The castle itself was the centerpiece of an extensive defense system that included 27 kilometers of walls around what was then one of the largest cities in the Greek world. Dionysius the Elder developed the city in this way to make it safe from any attack. In this he succeeded to a great extent.

The Roman Gymnasium is located off Via Elorina near the Porto Grande (Large Port). Built during the 1st century AD, it included a temple, theatre and court. Located below sea level, it is sometimes flooded.

Another Greek settlement, Megara Hyblaea, on the coast about 10 kilometers north of Syracuse and south of Augusta, can be reached by local train via the Megara-Giannalena station.

The Orsi Regional Archeological Museum, one of Sicily's finest and most modern, displays finds from Megara as well as ancient Syracuse, and is well worth a visit. This structure exhibits archeological treasures in their proper historical context. In many respects, it is superior to Palermo's Archeological Museum, though the collections are actually somewhat different. It is located on the grounds of Villa Landolina off Via Teocrito. Nearby you'll find the most extensive Paleo-Christian catacombs outside Rome itself.

Saint Paul visited Syracuse around AD 59, and probably preached in the Giudecca (Jewish Quarter) where medieval Saint John the Baptist Church now stands. Enhancing the lustre of the city's religious heritage is the recently-discovered mikveh (Jewish ritual bath) a few blocks away in Via Alagona, dating from the seventh century.

Syracusa's medieval heritage mustn't be overlooked. A few sights stand out. The Bellomo Palace, on Via Capodieci, was built as a castle during the 13th century and restructured in the Catalan Gothic style during the 15th. It houses the Art Gallery, whose collection includes Antonello da Messina's Assumption and other notable works.

Palazzo Montalto, near Piazza Archimede, was built in 1397 in the so-called "Chiaramonte Gothic" style; its arched windows and detailing resemble those of Palermo's Steri, built in the same style a few decades earlier. The Fountain of Artemis in Piazza Archimede is attractive, though perhaps overrated in such a monumental city as this one.

For Visitors: Except for forays to the large archeological site and the Orsi Museum in the "modern" city, you'll probably want to spend your time Ortygia. With its delightful narrow streets and restricted traffic, this island makes sightseeing on foot a joy. Much as we love Taormina, the cognoscenti regard less-crowded Ortygia as a pleasant alternative. The island is full of good hotels; a favorite for intellectuals and culture vultures in search of genuine atmosphere is Alla Giudecca in Via Alagona above the mikveh hypogeum. Yes, there are beaches nearby, and there's no shortage of fine restaurants in Ortygia, but we suggest you avoid those that offer "tourist menus" in favor of the charming trattorias, pizzerias and seafood restaurants on the narrow streets away from the largest squares. The seafood specialties are seasonal to some extent. The pastas with mussels and urchins are especially tasty but more available in Spring and Fall than Summer. 

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