Siracusa and a short history of Sicily
Trip Start Jan 25, 2007
31Trip End Jun 30, 2007
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The one place I haven't written about, and that is the cradle of ancient Greek civilisation in Sicily is Siracusa, 12 kms from my home town of Floridia.
Siracusa was the second colony founded by Greeks (from Corinth) in Sicily in 733BC (the first was Naxos in 734BC, below Taormina, but this was destroyed during early wars and has never been more than a village, and now a beach resort). The first settlement of Siracusa was on the small island of Ortigia, which has a small bay on the northern side and a large bay on the south.
Siracusa very quickly became the leading Greek colony in Sicily and was ruled by a succession of 'tyrants' (both semi-benevolent and non-benevolent) - the term tyrant was invented in Siracusa and was applied to those who seized power and ruled alone. Tyrants ruled Sicily (except for brief periods) from around 500BC to the Roman conquest in 212BC. During much of the early part of this period Siracusa was probably the largest and most powerful city in what we now call Europe. It's population was around 300,000 (now around 120,000) and it extended into 5 districts on the mainland. It was protected by city walls 27kms long, which joined together at Castello Eurialo, a large fort on high ground about 10kms inland (the ruins are pretty impressive).
It's most famous son is Archimedes, but many famous Greeks lived there for a while or visited - Plato, Aeschylus, Pindarus, and Sappho.
The modern city is not very attractive, but Ortigia is very like it was around the 1700 to 1800's
The Duomo is famous as I think it is the longest continuously used cathedral in the world. The outside walls utilise the columns of the original Greek temple of Athena, then it was progressively built on and became Norman in appearance, with substantial use of mosaics. After the massive 1693 earthquake it was extensively rebuilt and a new baroque facade was added.
After the Roman conquest Sicily became the main area for providing wheat and was known as the granary of Rome. Significant deforestation occurred and Siracusa slowly lapsed into obscurity, as Palermo became more important.
In 535 Siracusa's fortunes were revived as it briefly became the capital of the Byzantine Roman Empire. During the Arab empire between 878-1081 the city was virtually reduced to only Ortigia. I believe that under Arab rule Sicily was very rich and many beautiful buildings were built. The names of many towns date from this time, although they have been Italianised.
In 1081 the Arabs were driven out by the Normans (a couple of swashbuckling brothers actually), who ruled Sicily for around 140 years. There were many Arabs in their employ and they became quite Sicilianised
Sicily then came under the dominion of Frederick II of Swabia, who was the Holy Roman Emperor, and transferred his court from Germany to Palermo and was a great patron of the arts, public buildings, etc. His line died out quickly and for a short time Angevins (from what is now France) ruled, but there was a famous rebellion called the Sicilian Vespers, in which pretty well everyone who spoke French was killed by mobs in the streets.
The Aragonese then took over for a couple of hundred years and replaced by the Hapsburgs until the early 1700s, when the Spanish, the Savoys (from Northern Italy, and the Austrians fought over it.
Eventually the Spanish Bourbons took over (as well as Southern Italy, almost to Rome, and was known as the 'Kingdom of the Two Sicilies) and it remained that way until Garibaldi and his 1,000 Redshirts landed in Marsala on May 11, 1860 and began driving out the Bourbons and unifying Italy, which wasn't completed until 1872, I think. The Redshirts were actually a bunch of poorly trained volunteers with virtually only the clothes on their backs and a rifle, and it's a wonder how they managed to defeat the Bourbons - I think they had a little help from the locals.
Maybe this is why Italy feels like so many different countries - it's actually a relatively new country in historic terms, as what is now Italy was ruled by so many different powers, which were overlaid on the local cultures
As you can see the history of Sicily is basically of one invasion after another and this has definitely conditioned the mentality of Sicilians, and the Sicilian language, cooking, culture, etc is all a direct result of this.
Hope this helps you to understand me better :) - I have the further complication of having lived in Australia pretty well all my life.
ps: Don't take the history as gospel - I may have some dates and facts wrong, but the overall gist is right.