Not many are aware of Syracuse’s background, and often people are surprised. A city established on the sea, in the middle of trade routes of the Mediterranean. Syracuse is one of Italy's most historically valuable places, able to fascinate its visitors with traditions, art and colourful culture.

What to see in Syracuse?

Pre-historical traces

The origins of a city

  • The Archaeological Park “Neapolis”
  • Valley of the Temples

Roman time

  • Archaeological Museum Paolo Orsi

New Kingdoms

  • Latomia of the Capuchin
  • Ortigia & Aretusa
  • The dome of Siracusa
  • Maniace Castle

Contemporary times

Pre-historical traces

(Di Davide Mauro, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikicommons)
(Di Davide Mauro, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikicommons)

According to some studies and findings, the coastal area of southern Sicily was populated as early as the Neolithic period, particularly in the area of Stentinello, a Neolithic village located right next to the northern entrance to Syracuse and the plain of Targia, dating to the 5th millennium BCE. Here, the remains of rectangular piling buildings enclosed within a ditch dug into the rock, forming an oval space of about 180 x 200 meters, have been found. Burials of this culture have been spotted in other places all over Sicily. These ancient graves were oval pits dug into the rock where corpses were laid in a crouched position.

The site has been abandoned for years and is difficult to locate because of the presence of private fences and the absence of signals. In addition, finding the area where the village stood, especially the hut holes, is very difficult, given the presence of wild vegetation. The site also stands next to an industrial area, which has caused its historical value to be lost.

The origins of a city

Magna Grecia: Greek colonies in South of Italy (Arrotta, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons)
Magna Grecia: Greek colonies in South of Italy (Arrotta, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

The earliest origins of Syracuse, however, date back to 733 BCE, a year when, according to the famous Greek historian Thucydides, Greek colonists in search of new lands landed on these very shores. In particular, this expedition was undertaken by inhabitants of Corinth, a famous Greek polis. Leading them was the "ecista" (leader) Archia, who landed on the small island of Ortigia with his men and drove the local tribe inland.

This colony was called Syrakousai. This name is thought to be derived from "Syraka", a prehistoric name with which the autochthonous inhabitants referred to this place. However, the origins are uncertain, and no firm explanation has yet been given.

What is certain, however, is the rapid development of Syracuse as a Polis of Magna Graecia (an area of southern Italy named so for the intense Greek colonisation and influence). Already in the 7th century BCE, the city participated in the Olympic Games in Greece at Olympia, confirming itself as a progenitor city of great athletes. One must remember that southern Italy consisted of many towns that identified themselves in every way as Greek poleis and therefore had a close relationship with the motherland Greece, in terms of trade, sports, politics and much more. Syracousai grew in commercial and political terms due to its strategic location in the middle of the Mediterranean routes. In 435 BCE, the city established the first tyranny, with Gelon I sanctioning the beginning of a very prosperous period, which within a few years made Syracuse a real Mediterranean power.

However, great powers attract allies but also enemies, and in the context of the Peloponnesian War that was raging all over Greece, Athens, the queen of the Mediterranean development and trade, grew jealous of the Sicilian city. Fearful of Syracuse's commercial expansion, in 415 BCE, Athens readied the most expensive and mighty armada that had sailed from Greece up to that time and sent it to Sicily, intending to subdue that stubborn and disrespectful Greek colony across the sea. It was a massive defeat that remained forever in history. The Syracusans, having annihilated the Athenian fleet (with a little help from Sparta), emerged not only victorious but also more powerful and confident.

Thus, the city came to be ruled by great tyrants, including the singular Dionysius I, a patron and cunning military and political strategist.

The rise of Syracuse's power attracted brilliant minds, scholarly innovations and magnificent architectural constructions. Sicily was at this point formed by many poleis of Greek origin captained partly by force and partly by will by Syracuse. This network enabled the Sicilian Greeks to drive the notorious Carthaginians, who raged from the coast of North Africa off the Italian island.

Syracuse's power was extinguished in the Roman siege of 212 BCE when Rome's legions came to storm the city. They prevailed, but not without difficulty, for in Syracuse lived the famous engineer and discoverer of antiquity Archimedes, who provided his city with war works and machinery unknown to the Romans. According to tradition, the slayer of the genius was a Roman soldier who, not having recognised him, did not carry out the order to capture him alive.

1. The Archaeological Park “Neapolis”

The park, is located corresponding to a small part of the ancient district of Syracuse during Greek and Roman times: "Neapolis" (from the Greek "Νεά πολις" "New City"), and it encloses most of the surviving Syracusan monuments. The archaeological park is a natural place rich in artifacts and important evidence of the ancient history of the city. Must-see place for the quality of content and beauty of the place.

2. Valley of the Temples

If one has time, and has not already passed by the southern Sicilian coast, should definitely pay a visit to the Valley of the Temples in the province of Agrigento. This place, about a two-and-a-half-hour drive from Syracuse, is closely related to the latter in that it represents the soul of the Greek-Sicilian polis, and thus allows its visitors to get a beautiful overview of what were the interactions and relationships of the individual cities of the time headed by the powerful Syracuse. In 1997 the entire area was included in the list of world heritage sites compiled by UNESCO. It is considered a popular tourist destination, as well as one of the main symbols of the entire island.

Roman times

(Herbert Frank, CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons)
(Herbert Frank, CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

The city was an important religious centre. According to the Acts of the Apostles, during the 1st century CE is testified three-day stopover of the apostle Paul in Syracuse. With the rise of Christianity, impressive catacombs were built up in the ancient city, which are reported to be the largest and best-preserved in the world, comparable to those in Rome. Syracuse remained in Roman hands until the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476 CE.

Barbarian invasions of the territories followed. The authorities of the now debilitated Western Empire, tried to defend Sicily from the invasion of the notorious Vandals, but without success. A papyrus document - the so-called papyrus of Odoacer - dating from 489 CE testifies how the Syracusan territory was now in the power of the Germans.

Syracuse was in the grip of decadence and was conquered in 535 CE by Belisarius from the Byzantines (Eastern Roman Empire, which previously survived the Barbaric Invasions) and remained in Byzantine hands until 878 CE when it was attacked several times by the Saracens and was subdued by them.

The city was set on fire, and the invaders destroyed all sorts of fortifications. The looting was described in the Muslim Annals as the largest the Arabs had ever done, and it went on for more than two months.

3. Archaeological Museum Paolo Orsi

The Paolo Orsi Regional Archaeological Museum in Syracuse is one of the leading archaeological museums in Europe, and contains unique pieces of Syracuse history and throughout the Mediterranean. It is rich in a repertoire ranging from prehistoric finds to Roman times. Highlights include the magnificent "Venus Landolina," a work portraying Venus, goddess of beauty for the Romans. She is in the demure or, more likely, rising position. She in fact covers her breasts with her right, elegantly turning her head, and with her left holds a cloth lowered to her hips , which opens theatrically inflated by the wind, revealing the goddess' legs.

New kingdoms

The city was finally taken from the Arabs by the Normans in 1085 CE. The new political order of the island given by the Normans did not, however, give Syracuse the chance to regain its former role as the capital of Sicily (they, in fact, as inaugurated by the Arabs, retained the capital seat in Palermo). Thus, Syracuse, as indeed all of Sicily and part of the south of Italy, became “Kingdom of Sicily”. This land was coveted by governors from central Europe and was eventually part of the Holy Roman Empire, which was now ruled by Spanish royal blood.

The political order of Europe was evolving and becoming more complicated, with many alliances and new lineages. With the rise of new colonial powers, Sicily and thus Syracuse, as a borderland between the western and eastern Mediterranean, became a key outpost for defending imperial borders. Emperor Charles V, had it fortified in such a mighty manner that it assumed, from then on, the appellation "fortress."

However, the 15th CE was a century of significant natural disasters for Syracuse: the most destructive event was the 1542 CE earthquake, during which the city was close to total destruction.

4. The Latomia of the Capuchin

(Davide Mauro, CC BY-SA 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons)
(Davide Mauro, CC BY-SA 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons)
The Latomia dei Cappuccini is the largest of the latomie in Syracuse, and was used from the origins of the Greek polis as a quarry to enrich the city with monuments and dwellings. 'appellation "of the Capuchins" derives from the end of the 16th Century CE, when the quarry was integrated with the overlying convent of friars of the order of the same name, from which it then took its name permanently. From that time it was exploited as a vegetable garden for the convent's uses, created the garden and an irrigation system. It is today a sublime place, a unique experience not to be missed if you are in Syracuse.

5. Ortigia & Aretusa fountain

Syracuse's Ortigia is a magical place that knows how to excite its visitors among colorful and ancient streets of the village. This little island just detached from the rest of the city was used for centuries as a fortress thanks to its strategic position of control over the bay. It was able to defend Syracuse and its inhabitants countless times.
Visitors can see traces of many eras that have each left their own culture and art. Simply by walking around, one can savor the soul of the city, with its stores and culinary wonders. However, to get to know the wonderful details of this place, it is recommended to take a guide, only then will you be able to fully appreciate the secrets of this little town, including the famous Arethusa fountain, concealed by a mythological and legendary air.

6. The dome of Siracusa

The cathedral of Syracuse, officially the Metropolitan Cathedral of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, stands on the elevated part of the island of Ortigia, incorporating what was once the main Doric-style sacred temple of the polis of Syrakousai, dedicated to Athena (Minerva) and converted into a church with the advent of Christianity. It is considered the most important church in the city of Syracuse and has become a UNESCO-protected property. Its style blends into a marvelous unique journey of Syracuse's eras: on the outside mainly Baroque and Rococo, while inside it alternates between parts dating back to the Sicelian period, as they belonged to the Greek temple, and parts dating back to medieval times. Of great religious significance, it holds statues, relics and remains of saints, martyrs and Syracusan nobles.

7. Maniace Castle

The castle is named after the Byzantine commander George Maniace, Prince and Vicar of the Emperor of Constantinople. Fortifications must almost certainly have existed on the site where the castle stands since Greek times as it is strategically important for the defense of the port of Syracuse. The original layout of Maniace Castle is due to Emperor Frederick II of Swabia, who entrusted its construction to the architect Riccardo da Lentini between 1232 and 1239 CE shortly after his return from the Crusade to the Holy Land.

Contemporary times

The natural disasters, however, did not stop the power games and expansionist aims of the kingdoms of Italy and Europe, which saw a succession of treaties and new dominations in Sicily up to the independence movements by which a new and unified nation was conceived: Italy.

Syracuse surrendered itself to Italian patriots on July 28, 1860 CE, and with the unification of the kingdom of Italy immediately following, Syracuse once again became the capital of the southeastern Sicilian province permanently.

Syracuse was later used as a port for the "long fascist arm" aimed at Africa, and it became an incredibly strategic location during World War II. From 1941 to 1943 CE, with the outbreak of World War II, Syracuse suffered numerous bombings, such as the sad event in 1941 when the liner Conte Rosso was destroyed, causing a severe number of casualties.

The Allies occupied the city between the night of July 9 and the day of July 10, 1943, through Operation Ladbroke (itself part of Operation Husky). Near the hamlet of Cassibile, precisely in the Contrada Santa Teresa Longarini (a few kilometres from the southern entrance of Syracuse), the armistice between Italy and the Allies was secretly signed on September 3, 1943 (to be made known to the world through the Proclamation Badoglio).

With the war over, the city experienced a period of reconstruction and new hope. In 2005 Syracuse was included by UNESCO in the list of World Heritage Sites.

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