A place of meeting, exchange and trade, the agora was the beating heart of the ancient city, a lively space in which Syracuse is metaphorically identified in this route.
The only site of its kind, it has always been a crossroads of peoples thanks to the richness and variety of its territory, as well as its strategic position in the Mediterranean Sea.
The peoples and cultures that have crossed Sicily over the centuries come together in Syracuse in an exceptional synthesis: from Sicels to Greeks, Romans to Muslims, to Jewish communities and the Spanish sovereigns who chose this city as their royal residence.
Their stories are documented and imprinted in stone, in the remains of buildings that still appear today like precious books to be flipped through, open to those who already know or are curious about the narrative.
Today Syracuse resonates in a dense web of main and secondary streets, monuments and sumptuous Baroque palaces, medieval alleys and Arabic places.
This labyrinth still echoes with the ancient greatness that made it a mythical place, where every corner slips into the past and transmits memory through traces left from the passage of multiple civilisations.
Entering the heart of Syracuse means taking a “journey through memory” to learn, through the discovery of the emblematic stops, the uniqueness of a historical site that we can still “experience” today, as first-hand protagonists of its discovery.
The synthesis of this narrative is represented by the island of Ortygia, the heart of Syracuse, which developed in the bosom of continuous stratifications of styles and architectures. Even its urban layout allows you to observe from above what becomes evident when you walk within it: on an interweaving of Greek linear streets, successive cultures, curvilinear forms and deviations take shape that have generated a “continuum” along the thin, almost invisible, border lines that separate one dominion from another, like an imperceptible diaphragm.
The first stop on the route is the Rocky Necropolis of Pantalica. The settlement of Pantalica, a veritable natural fortress, runs along a rocky spur where the deep valleys of the Anapo and Calcinara rivers meet.
The culture that took its name from this site experienced a long evolution. In fact, four periods can be distinguished, three of which (from 1250 to 730 BC) are prior to the foundation of the first Greek colonies on the island’s coasts, while the fourth corresponds to when the indigenous culture came into contact with the new Greek settlers.
The site was inhabited again during the 8th and 9th centuries AD, in the Byzantine period, when the population took refuge there because of raids by the Islamic peoples, exploiting and expanding the caves of the ancient necropolises.
The remains of three troglodytic villages, three rocky oratories and the name “Pantalica” itself date back to this period (Pantalica comes from Buntarigah, meaning “caves” in Arabic).
The second stop is Ortygia, the first landing place of the Corinthian settlers and the beating heart of the ancient Greek polis. Thanks to the overlapping of styles and architecture, the Piazza del Duomo is the synthesis of a story that continues uninterrupted from prehistoric times to the present day.
From prehistoric huts to the acropolis of the Greek city, crossing the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, reaching the sumptuous Baroque reconstruction after the earthquake, this place is a representative space of spiritual and temporal power.
The third stop is Neapolis. In 70 BC, Cicero (In Verrem II 4, 117-119) describes Syracuse as an area divided into four cities rather than districts: Ortygia, Akradina, Tyche and Neapolis.
The final place, which in the ancient Greek city indicated the most recently developed area, is today known to the world as an archaeological park that preserves precious vestiges of different peoples: the theatre, designed by Damokopos and carved into the white limestone rock, which staged the plays of Aeschylus; the base of the sacrificial altar made by Hiero II; the Roman amphitheatre, the Ear of Dionysius and the grandiose latomie are a concentration of artistic, literary, historical and natural cues.
Another prominent feature in this itinerary is the fortified city.
The fourth stop on the route is in fact the system of fortifications from land to sea. A route that compares two walls that enclosed the city at different times in its history: the vast Dionysian Walls surrounded the city from the sea to the Epipoli, while the Spanish fortifications built by Charles V circumscribed the island of Ortygia and included the Castello Maniace in the project to reinforce the city.
The next stop, the hypogea and catacombs of Syracuse, embraces the early Christian period. Just outside the ancient walls of the city, near the Neapolis Archaeological Park, stands the Church of San Giovanni alle Catacombe in all its monumental beauty.
The evocative open-air church houses two treasures dug into the rock of its cellars: the Crypt of San Marciano and the catacomb of San Giovanni. The complex of the Syracusan catacombs is considered second in importance and size only to Rome. The presence of Christian cemeteries confirms the city’s strong religious imprint.
Though there is no historical evidence of the spread of the Christian faith in Syracuse, it is likely that the Syracusans learned of the Gospel message long before other cities in the West because of the city’s strategic location, a crossroads for ships heading from East to West.
The final stop on the route is Giudecca, the old Jewish quarter. In the heart of the Mediterranean, Syracuse played a primary role as a cultural centre in the antiquity.
This geo-cultural context also involves the Jewish communities that throughout the first millennium, following the diaspora, were concentrated in insular Italy, until their expulsion in 1492 by the Catholic sovereigns.
Ancient Giudecca was a network of streets and trade routes, named “platee”, full of markets and workshops. The best known included the district of the Ferraria, its name given from the Italian word “ferraio” meaning blacksmith, due to the concentration of blacksmith workshops.
The Cannamela quarter was also known, the name of which keeps the memory alive of the workshops where the “Cannamela” (sugar cane) was refined. Giudecca also had a fish market, various community ovens for cooking matzo, the unleavened bread of Passover, and the city quarter macellorum iudeorum, for the Jews’ ritual slaughter of meat.
The most precious and recently discovered treasure is the ancient ritual bath of the Jewish community of Syracuse: the Casa Bianca mikveh, located near the ancient synagogue, now lost.