Syracuse: Fact or Fiction, by James Potter

Posted on October 30, 2012


SYRACUSE : Fact or fiction?

“You must see the Greek Theatre and all of the archaelogical area. And, of course, there is the Duomo in its beautiful piazza”. Claudio, our hotel receptionist, was telling us in perfect English what to see and do in Syracuse, an ancient town in the south-east corner of Sicily. “But before all else”, he continued, “you must see our fountain – the Fountain of Arethusa. It’s not much to look at but we are very proud of it. It is where the city was first settled many centuries ago and it is the reason Syracuse remains today.

Claudio was right. The fountain and the small fresh water lake it forms – home to a few contented ducks encircling a clump of papyrus reeds – was not much to look at. Apparently until relatively recently it was even less inviting to travellers who would find hordes of women standing in the turbid and muddy water washing the dirty linen of Syracuse.

Arethusa fountain

But what I found really captivating was the stories, or rather the legends, about this fountain. According to Greek legend, Arethusa, a nymph, was transformed into the fountain while being chased by her lover Alpheus. He in turn was changed into an underground river that fed the fountain. The river, it was said, travelled some 1000 kilometers under the ocean floor from Mt Olympus in Greece. A golden cup, accidentally lost in the river during the Olympic games, mysteriously appeared in the Sicilian fountain some months later. Blood, from the sacrifice of oxen on Mt. Olympus, in due course also reddened the waters of the fountain.

Although the latter miracle could be put down to some cunning tricks by priests, there is no doubt that stories that arose about the fountain helped the Greek sailors feel closer to home while exploring foreign shores. It is equally certain that fresh water provided by the fountain has helped the citizens of Syracuse survive various attacks and sieges – from the Roman conquests to the Saracen invasion in the seventh century, and through to the liberation of Italy in World War 2.

The tales of the fountain are typical of Syracuse – historic stories that must surely be  partly myth; legends that might contain some truth. One is never sure!

The fountain is on the long narrow promontory of Ortygia, one of the four cities that have now merged to become Syracuse. Ortygia has a delightful jumble of architectural styles – Greek, Roman, Norman, Arab, Spanish and Baroque – with narrow medieval-looking streets, highlighted by an impressive courtyard here or a balcony there.

It was feted as the gastronomic capital of the ancient world, and Claudio was anxious to prove to us that it could still hold its own in the modern world. The grilled mixed fish and clam soup of La Tavernetta da Pippo on via Cavour, and the rustic regional seafood dishes of Porta Marina (on via dei Candelai) were highlights to which he gave us detailed directions.

Greek temple inside Duomo

Not surprisingly the highest part of this area is occupied by Syracuse’s cathedral, Santa Maria delle Colonne. What is surprising is that it stands on a sacred site that has been a place of worship for over 2500 years. The Greeks built a temple to the goddess Athena in the fifth century BC (it was already 100 years old when the Parthenon of Athens was built) and a thousand or so years later it was converted to a Christian church. The original temple was preserved by simply filling in the gaps between its columns to create the new walls of the cathedral. The ancient columns can still clearly be seen embedded in the more modern stonework.

What cannot be seen – if it ever really existed – was a statue of Athena on the temple roof holding a shield of pure gold. It is said that this shield, flashing brilliantly in the Mediterranean sun, acted as a daytime beacon for approaching ships.

In the fourth century BC Ortygia, under the rule of the tyrant Dionysius, was the most powerful city in Europe. Dionysius, if all the legends can be believed, was quite a character. He aspired to be a great poet but unfortunately failed miserably in this. Unfortunate, too, for his many critics who he had imprisoned. In another story he apparently managed to marry two women on the same day.

The entry to the Ear of Dionysius

We followed the trail of Dionysius a little further to the other ancient part of Syracuse that is equally frequented by tourists. This is Neopoli, an area now usually referred to as the archaelogical area.

Here we found ‘The Ear of Dionysius’, an artificial cave which has a 20 metre high opening in the shape of a human ear (or possibly more like the ear of a donkey) . We followed the ‘S’ shaped cave for some 70 metres to hear some amazing acoustic effects. The slightest sound becomes magnified over and over. A piece of paper being torn becomes a gunshot; a single voice becomes a choir. Legend has it that it was built by Dionysius as a prison. In his own apartment at the top he could overhear any whispered conversations and use these to judge his prisoners guilt or otherwise.

This is one legend that cannot be true. The total confusion of amplified sounds would surely have made any individual conversation impossible to distinguish. In truth, nobody really knows the purpose of this amazing cave.

Inside the Ear of Dionysius

Nearby is a 200 metre long altar used in the third century BC for sacrificial ceremonies. Once a year 450 oxen were led up a long ramp and summarily dispatched. The enormous size of this altar can still be seen despite many stones in its structure having been removed over the centuries for building works.

My favourite part of the archaelogical area was the latomie or quarries. When no further stone was required from these quarries, gardens were planted on the 30 metre deep quarry floor. Today they provide a romantic and luxuriant paradise. One of these quarries is in fact called Latomia del Paradiso. Butterflies chase each other amongst the citrus, fig and olive trees, and a quietness descends, broken only by birdsong.

It came as a shock to realize these quarries were originally used to hold up to 7000 of Dionysius’s prisoners in what could have been the world’s first concentration camp. A relentless sun and suffocating heat all day, with a rapid cooling at night would have forced prisoners to lose all hope. Apparently the people of Syracuse would gather above to hear prisoners attempt to recite poetry or speeches. Any captive who pleased one of the jeering multitude above had the chance of escape – even if only to a life of slavery.

Syracuse: Greek theatre prepared for performance

One of the favourite poets and playwrights of the time was Euripedes. He wrote 95 plays and many would have been performed in the Greek theatre which still stands, no more than a stone’s throw from the quarries. This beautifully designed outdoor theatre – probably the most ancient theatre in existence today – could hold an audience of 40000. Many of Euripedes’ plays are still performed today as their pro-feminist themes are very popular with modern audiences. By a wonderful coincidence we found that a season of one of these plays, “Medea’, was just about to begin. Imagine the delight of being able to sit where Syracuseans had sat for 2500 years, overlooking the beautiful harbour, to hear the same words that the ancient stones around us had heard so many times.

Syracuse: Greek theatre prepared for performance #2

One ancient member of the audience would almost certainly have been Archimedes – probably Syracuse’s most famous son. A remarkable mathematician and scientist for his time, Archimedes is said to have saved the city from attack with remarkable machines of war. A giant iron claw could pick up invading ships and plunge them back into the sea; a ‘death ray’, consisting of a series of mirrors could set ships alight by concentrating a beam of sunlight. Over time these stories have generally been discarded as more Syracusean myths.

Archimedes in Piazza Duomo 1

Another tale of Archimedes has him running through the streets naked, shouting ‘Eureka’, after discovering the principle behind floating bodies while taking a bath. It therefore seemed to us quite obvious that a new public sculpture in the Piazza Duomo was a tribute to Archimedes. This remarkable 30 metre long statue shows a giant figure embedded in the ground (or in a bathtub!) struggling to get free.

Archimedes in Piazza Duomo #2

However local authorities insist there was no intention that this figure represent Archimedes. This may be so, but I like to think that Syracuseans, with a past in which reality and myth entwine, still like a dose of mystery in their history.