Syracuse in Sicily – Birthplace of Archimedes
Sicily in the minds of many people is something native to Italy and is associated with Italy almost more than the same Rome. But in pre-Christian times the island was a Greek colony with Phoenician “admixture”. In fact, it was the Corinthians who founded Syracuse, which quickly became the most important Hellenic colony in eastern Sicily. Even Cicero described Syracuse as the largest and most beautiful city of ancient Greece. But in 241 B.C. Sicily failed to resist the expansion of the mighty Roman Empire. From that moment began the “Italian” history of Syracuse, and the picturesque remains of both great cultures, Roman and Greek, have survived to this day.
How to get to Syracuse
The nearest airport to Syracuse is in Catania where many European carriers fly.
In the summer time direct flights to Catania also fly from Moscow, St. Petersburg and other cities of Russia. To find a suitable flight you can use the form below.
From the airport to the city can be overcome in 45-60 minutes. There are several options:
- use the bus . Buses of InterBus and AST. Buses run once an hour and will take just over an hour. One way tickets start at 6,2 Euro and round trip tickets start at 9,6 Euro.
- book a transfer . It is very convenient to book a transfer to Syracuse at the appointed time of arrival. You can do this through the service KiwiTaxi. The driver will be waiting for you with a sign at the exit of the airport terminal at the appointed hour.
- rent a car at the airport . It is of course possible to find a rental company upon arrival at the airport, but if you plan to visit Sicily in season it’s better to book a car in advance. The world famous reservation service Rentalcars will help you with your choice. If you want to get to Syracuse from the airport, take highway E45.
You can also reach Syracuse from other cities in Sicily and some towns in continental Italy by train. Direct flights can be found from Catania, Messina, Taormina, Salerno, Naples and even Rome.
You can find train schedules and fares on the Omio website [link].
Hotels in Syracuse
Syracuse is not only a historical but also a seaside resort town, so the choice of hotels here is quite large. But remember that in summer Syracuse is quite a popular vacation destination, so it is better to book a hotel in advance.
You can find the best selection of hotels in Syracuse by clicking on the link below.
Here was Archimedes…
Syracuse is good in every way, and we will talk about the highlights later, but the first thing we want to emphasize is that here, in Syracuse in Sicily, the great Archimedes himself was born, lived, worked and invented.
Unfortunately, no artifacts directly related to the great scientist have reached our days. All we have is the hometown of Archimedes himself – Syracuse.
Many tourists fall for the myth about the “tomb of Archimedes”, which is supposedly located in the current Archaeological Park.
In fact, nothing is really known about the real burial place of Archimedes. So let’s consider the whole city of Syracuse as one huge monument to the great Man.
The square of Archimedes
Historical proximity to such an epochal personality as Archimedes is commonplace for the Sicilians, but the citizens of Syracuse have still paid tribute to him by naming a picturesque square after Archimedes.
The fountain with a sculptural group by Giulio Moscetti decorates its center. The main character of the composition is Artemis the Huntress.
The elegant fountain with a sculpture of the goddess Artemis graces Archimedes’ Square
Go back in time 25 centuries in the ancient historical district of Syracuse, Neapolis.
The most significant exhibit of this peculiar architectural museum is the picturesque ruins of the Greek Theatre.
The Greek amphitheater in Syracuse is about 2500 thousand years old, and it continues to fulfill its direct function
The object is so ancient that its first reconstructions took place as far back as the era of Carthage, and then the Roman Empire. A huge amphitheater, which at one time attracted up to 15 thousand spectators at various events, has been well preserved to this day.
Since the beginning of the last century the National Institute of Ancient Drama has held annual festivals of Greek art here.
From Ancient Greece we move on to the era of the Roman Empire, and immediately “bump into” another majestic landmark of Syracuse – the Roman Amphitheater.
At one time, the structure served the same purpose as its Greek counterpart: to entertain the public.
But here the entertainment was of a typical for ancient Rome bloody character – gladiatorial fights were mostly held here.
The Roman amphitheater was worse preserved than the Greek one.
The amphitheatre of the 1st century BC was buried underground for many centuries until it was discovered and excavated by archeologists in the 19th century.
The scale of the building is by no means provincial – it is the third largest Roman amphitheatre after the Colosseum and the Verona Arena.
Temple of Apollo
Another important archaeological find, discovered on the island of Ortiggia in Sicily in the mid century before last, are the ruins of the Temple of Apollo. The temple was built in the 3rd century B.C., according to some estimates. Its remains were discovered and revealed to the world by a group of archaeologists led by Paolo Orsi.
The Temple of Apollo dates from the 3rd century BC.
The temple changed its religious function several times as Sicily came under the dominion of the Byzantine Christians, the Muslims and even the Normans. The picturesque ruins look very spectacular and contrast with the modern buildings.
Catacombs of St. John.
The greatest monument to the Christian pages of Syracuse history is the Catacombs of Saint John. The site dates from the 4th century AD. The aforementioned eminent archaeologist Paolo Orsi devoted ten whole years of his life to the meticulous study of the dungeons.
In early Christian times, the catacombs were the burial place of the city’s influential citizens. The most notable and interesting object is the sarcophagus of Marcian, the first bishop of Syracuse.
The catacombs of San Giovanni were used by the city’s inhabitants to escape the bombing of World War II
It is noteworthy that the catacombs of St. John saved the lives of many Syracuseans many times already in the twentieth century. It was here that frightened citizens repeatedly hid from the bombing during World War II.
While in Syracuse, it is impossible to pass by the Cathedral. The first religious building, which was built on this site back in the 5th century BC by the tyrant Gelon, was dedicated to Athena as a sign of victory over Carthage.
Since then, the building has been rebuilt many times by successive conquerors – first the Byzantines, then the Normans.
The city’s cathedral is a striking example of Sicilian Baroque
The temple was badly damaged by an earthquake in 1693, and in fact it was rebuilt but in the Sicilian Baroque style. It is true that the architects managed to join very harmoniously in the new ensemble the antique columns, preserved since the times of Ancient Greece.
Some elements of ancient architecture were carefully transferred to the Paolo Orsi Museum of Archaeology. This museum, by the way, deserves separate words.
Paolo Orsi Regional Museum of Archaeology
If you want to get a clear idea of the cultural characteristics of the civilizations that dominated at different times in Syracuse and Sicily in general, you should definitely visit the Paolo Orsi Museum of Archaeology.
The famous archaeologist collected many artifacts found in the territory of Syracuse and relating to all the historical periods through which the city has passed.
The exhibition features fascinating finds from Ancient Greece, the Roman Empire, the Byzantine period as well as from the Norman, Arab and Spanish periods.
The Altar of Hieron
Another interesting Syracuse site is the Altar of Hieron. It was built in the 3rd century B.C. and served its direct pagan purpose – for sacrifices.
The scale of the building and historical evidence suggests that whole bulls were sacrificed here. And, somewhat shockingly, to satisfy the gods, animals were slaughtered here by the dozens, if not hundreds, in a single ceremony.
The base of the sacrificial altar
The Ear of Dionysius.
In addition to man-made monuments of antiquity, there are also extremely interesting natural sites in Syracuse. The most famous of them, where tourists always flock, is the Ear of Dionysius, a picturesque grotto whose entrance was carved in the rock by nature itself in a characteristic “anatomical” shape.
The grotto of Dionysius’ Ear was used as a prison for a long time
The history of this place is quite bleak – in the 4th century BC the tyrant Dionysus arranged this place as a prison, and using the acoustic features of the cave he overheard the conversations of the most “important” prisoners.
Continuing the theme of the natural attractions of Syracuse, it is impossible not to say a few words about the Spring of Arethusa.
According to an ancient romantic legend, at the dawn of civilization the beautiful nymph Aretusa captured the heart of the god of the river Althea.
The rebellious lover did not wish to reciprocate Althea’s feelings and asked Artemis to turn her into a pure spring, thus saving herself from pursuit by the obsessed lover.
The undertaking was unsuccessful, for Alpheus, even in this form, found her beloved and reunited with her, carrying her waters beneath the sea.
The spring of Arethusa has been known in the city of Syracuse since antiquity
The real spring is fed by underground waters flowing from the Ibley Mountains themselves. In the middle of the reservoir there is a small charming island covered with thickets of the unique Syracuse papyrus.
Palaces of Syracuse
Syracuse is also famous for its majestic palaces. The most famous and significant of these are:
- The Palace of Vermexio, built in 1633 (located near the Cathedral Square).
The Vermexio Palace has served for centuries as a meeting place for the local authorities
- The Palace of Montalto on the island of Ortigia. In its appearance we can see a significant Gothic influence. There are still archaeological excavations in the vicinity of the palace.
- The Moniace Palace is the most monumental and imposing structure in Syracuse. The palace is situated in the south of Ortigia. For a long time it served as residence of the Emperor of Sicily and then as residence of the monarchs of the Aragonese Kingdom. From the middle of the 16th century, the palace and the surrounding fortifications served exclusively military and defensive purposes.
Church of the Madonna of Lamentation
To conclude our sightseeing tour of Syracuse, let’s make an unconventional move and invite you to see the Church of the Weeping Madonna. Contrary to what you might expect, it’s not ancient, to say the least, but there’s an amazing history associated with this temple.
In 1953, a simple Syracuse family encountered a true miracle – an image of the Holy Madonna “wept” in their home.
The rumors about the weeping Madonna reached the officials of the Vatican, whereupon the highest priests of the Catholic Church with the scrupulousness obligatory in such cases analyzed for a long time all the circumstances of the event, before in the 70s of the last century to recognize this fact as an “official” miracle.
The Church of the Weeping Madonna in an uncharacteristically futuristic style
Immediately after the Vatican verdict, the decision was made to erect the Church of the Weeping Madonna, and in 1994 the building was built.
Even then, the Roman Catholic Church demonstrated certain progressive views – the futuristic architectural style of the built church is not only unlike other religious Christian constructions, but not like anything built before, anywhere at all.
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Photos by: cc-by-2.0, Jerzy Strzelecki, Zde, Giovanni Dall’Orto, Sibeaster, Guillaume, Jerome Bon, Rollopack, Berthold Werner, Salvo Cannizzaro
“Syracuse is the largest of the Greek cities and the most beautiful in the world; it really is. Its high position not only contributes to its security, but has the consequence that the city, from all sides, both land and sea, presents a very beautiful sight. Its harbors are within the city limits, and partly surrounded by buildings; opening in two opposite directions, they merge in their inner corners, whereupon that part of the city which is called the Island is separated by a narrow strait from the mainland, with which it is connected by a bridge.” Cicero
Syracuse (Syracuse) was founded in the eighth century BC by the Greeks. Thanks to its fertile soil and convenient harbors, the city soon became rich and prosperous. But its history was not peaceful: 415-413 BC. – War with Athens, in 409 B.C. – B.C. 415-413 B.C. the war with Carthage during which the ships with four and five tiers of oars never seen before were built and powerful throwing machines were constructed. In 316-289 B.C. Syracuse had almost all of Sicily under its rule. In 264 BC the 1st Punic War began, during which Syracuse was besieged by the Romans and only at the cost of large payments Syracuse was able to get out of the war. After that came a period of peace, which lasted for about 50 years. At this time Archimedes lived in Syracuse and among other things he participated in the fortification of the city. But his engineering genius showed its full force during the 2nd Punic War in 212 B.C. Archimedes built throwing machines which threw kernels and stones to the Roman armies and the Romans were forced to stop their assault. True, Syracuse was defeated by treason and Archimedes was killed. For Syracuse began a period of Roman rule, it was the decline and decline of a prosperous city. In 878, after a long and difficult siege, during which the defenders reached the point of cannibalism, the city was conquered by the Arabs. In 1038 General George Maniac conquered Syracuse and restored Christian worship, rebuilt military fortifications and erected a castle at the extreme tip of the ancient Ortigia still bears his name. Maniac also removed St. Lucia’s body from its coffin (the relics of St. Lucia are said to heal those with vision problems) and sent the body to Constantinople in a silver frame. But one bone remained in Syracuse on the island of Ortigia, in the chapel of St. Lucia. In 1086 the power of the Normans begins. The city, because of its location, became a military fortress. Roger I of Sicily builds new quarters, restores the Cathedral, and builds new churches. From 1205-1220, Syracuse was under the rule of the Emperor. Syracuse is under the power of Genoa. But already in 1221 the city is conquered by Frederick II, Holy Roman Emperor. At this time the Palazzo Bellomo was built. After the death of Frederick II followed a period of anarchy and turmoil, power was divided between the Angevin and Aragonese dynasties. In the end, Frederick III of Aragon came to power. But in subsequent years, power also passed from one hand to another. In 1693 a terrible earthquake severely damaged Syracuse. But the city was quickly rebuilt, acquiring Baroque features.
In the 1700s, after the death of Charles II, a power war broke out between the Spanish, Savoy, Austrian and Bourbon dynasties. In 1860 Syracuse was annexed to the united Italy. In 1872 Archimedes Square was built, the historic districts of Ortigia, Sperduta, via del Littorio (now corso Matteotti – rebuilt in the Fascist period) were restored. In 1900 there was a memorable earthquake named Santa Lucia, because it occurred on December 13th, the day of the patroness of Syracuse, Saint Lucia.
The historic center of Syracuse is on the island of Ortigia. To get to the island you must cross the bridge Umbertino (from here you can take a boat trip around Ortigia) .
The Temple of Apollo (Tempio di Apollo) (piazza Pancali) is one of the first buildings in Syracuse. It was built in the sixth century BC. The size of the temple along the perimeter is 58 x 24 meters. It was later remodeled into a Byzantine church, of which the central stairway has been preserved. It then became a mosque, a Norman church and eventually part of a Spanish barracks.
Syracuse. Temple of Apollo.
We walk along corso Matteotti, one of the main shopping streets of the historic center. It leads to Piazza Archimede (Piazza Archimede) . In the center of the square is a fountain by Giulio Moscetti with Artemis the Huntsman in the center. Syracuse. Temple of Apollo.
In Via Maestranza and via Landolina we reach piazza del Duomo (cathedral square) . Once this was the site of an ancient acropolis.
Piazza del Duomo . The cathedral.
The cathedral was built on the site of the temple of Athena (V century BC at the time of the tyrant Gelon). After the earthquake of 1693 the Cathedral was rebuilt into a Christian church in the 7th century, with Baroque features. There are frescos of the XVII century by Agostino Schilla, Luigi Vanvitelli.
The cathedral church. Interior.
The church of Santa Lucia alla Badia (S. Lucia alla Badia) and the Cistercian monastery are dedicated to the patron saint of the city.
Church of Santa Lucia alla Badia.
The first mention of the church dates back to 1427. In 1695 the church was rebuilt after the earthquake of 1693. The church houses Caravaggio’s work The Burial of Saint Lucia .
Caravaggio’s The Burial of Saint Lucia.
Further on via Picherali . Here in a small square is the spring of Arethusa (Fontana Aretusa) . In Greek mythology, Aretusa was an Aelian nymph who was pursued by the river god Alpheus. With the help of Artemis, she fled to Sicily, where she turned into a spring. There she was joined by Alpheus, who carried her waters beneath the sea.
Syracuse. The spring of Arethusa.
At the far end of the island is the castle of Maniaca . The castle was built by the Byzantine general George Maniac in 1038. Later the castle was owned by the Norman rulers and then the Aragonese dynasty. Now there is a museum.
Syracuse. The Castle of Maniac.
In the modern quarter of Syracuse is situated the archaeological park of Neapolis. Here you can see well-preserved ancient ruins. The Greek Theatre, carved out in a rock (5th century B.C.). This theater could hold 16,000 spectators. During the reign of Giron I the tragedies of Euripides and Aeschylus were staged there. The Romans rebuilt the theater so that to hold here gladiatorial fights. Nowadays the theater shows classical Greek tragedies.
Syracuse. Greek theater.
Near the theater is the entrance to the Capuchin quarries of Latomia, “huge open-air pits which were at first quarries and later turned into prisons, where for eight months the Athenians taken prisoner after the defeat of Nicaea were confined; they suffered in this huge ditch from hunger, thirst, unbearable heat and died in the mud, where all manner of devils swarmed. The quarries were used until the sixth century BC. Stones from here were used to build monuments of the city. After Syracuse’s victory over Athens (415-413 BC), wounded soldiers were locked in the quarries and left to die. Later (until the 16th century), monks settled in the quarries. In 1868, the quarries became state property and were opened to the public. The Ear of Dionysius is a huge cave, about 65 m long and 23 m high, with excellent acoustics. According to legend, the cave was created on the orders of the despot Dionysius in order to eavesdrop on the conversations of prisoners. With Caravaggio’s light hand the cave became known as the ear of Dionysius. But there are other versions: some scholars believe that this cave, connected with the theater, served as an underground performance hall, for with its extraordinary resonance the slightest sound is amplified to incredible proportions.
Syracuse. The Ear of Dionysius.
The Altar of Gieron I. Every year hundreds of bulls were slaughtered on this altar, sacrificing them to the gods.
Syracuse. The Altar of Gieron I.
Roman amphitheater is considered one of the largest amphitheaters. The amphitheater was built in the 2nd century and was used for chariot races and gladiatorial fights. The size of the amphitheater is 140 x 119 meters.
Syracuse. Roman amphitheater.
Not far from the archaeological park of Neapolis are the Catacombe di San Giovanni. It is known that by Roman decree it was forbidden to bury Christians inside the city walls. Christians used underground Greek aqueducts for burial. At the entrance to the catacombs is the ruined basilica of San Giovanni, where the first bishop of the city, St. Marcian, was martyred in 254.
San Giovanni Basilica. Entrance to the catacombs.
San Giovanni Basilica. Entrance to the catacombs.
Address of the catacombs: Via di San Sebastiano. Tues Tuesdays and Wednesdays 9 am-12.30, 14.30-16.30. Forbidden to take pictures.
In 1953 a miracle happened in the house of a couple – a little image of the Madonna cried. In 1966, began the construction of the sanctuary dedicated to the Madonna of tears (Madonna delle Lacrime) . It was completed and consecrated in 1994. The unusual shape of the temple rises to a height of 74 meters, the spire is decorated with a 20-meter statue of a bronze Madonna, inside the crypt, where the remains of the Roman temple are preserved.
Syracuse. Sanctuary of the Madonna della Lacrima.
Syracuse. Sanctuary of the Madonna della Lacrima.
The cuisine is based on fish and meat. Fish: swordfish, goldfish (orata), lobster (spigole), lobsters (aragoste), shrimp, tuna, bluefish.Tuna with onions; smoked swordfish; octopus; soup with sea products. Sausages Palazzolo, Buccheri pork salami. Rabbit alla stimpirata. Ravioli with homemade ricotta, spaghetti with eggplant and zucchini.
Artagine is a fish restaurant. Via Catania, 19
Puppet Museum in Syracuse. Piazza S. Giuseppe
The first museum in Italy dedicated to marionettes: valiant knights – champions of the Christian faith and the Saracen Moors, wizards, sorcerers and various monsters. In addition to the puppets, the exhibition includes various documents that capture the main moments in the history of Italian marionette theater: the puppet workshop of Vicolo del Ulivo, which has existed since 1978 and the birth of their theater.