In 1968, the hillside town of Gibellina was devastated by a 6.1-scale earthquake. Somewhat like the residents of Noto, who befell a similar fate, the town decided to abandon the ruins and start from scratch in a location which was close by, and hopefully more stable. Between 1985 and 1989, an Italian artist named Alberto Burri used the old city’s ruins as the canvas for his most audacious work of modern sculpture. The resulting concrete cemetery is a bold piece of art, a comment on death, and a moving tribute to the devastated city.
On our second day in Syracuse, we made our way to the Parco Archeologico della Neapolis, where some of Sicily’s greatest ruins are bunched together, almost as though our ancient forebears wanted to facilitate future tourist groups.
Syracuse had been under the control of the Greeks, the Romans, the Byzantines and the Arabs, but was always home to a healthy Jewish population. As in many of the European cities to which Jews emigrated following the diaspora, the ruling hierarchies were grudgingly tolerant of them and their religion. That is, until the arrival of the Spanish who decreed the total expulsion of Jews from their kingdom, in 1492.
Once upon a time, Syracuse was the most mightiest city-state in the world. Ruled by famous tyrants like Dionysius the Elder, and home to Archimedes, one of history’s greatest thinkers, the power of Syracuse extended far beyond the Greek Empire, to which it belonged. The city’s influence waned only during the Arab occupation of Sicily, when the capital was moved to Palermo.
Saint Lucy was a 4th century Sicilian martyr, born and executed in Syracuse. She’s thought to be responsible for ending a famine 1582, and Sicilians honor her feast day on December 13th by abstaining from bread.
An aging monarch seated on his throne and holding a snake, the Genius of Palermo is the mysterious emblem of the city. No one knows where it originated or what it truly symbolizes, but it has come to epitomize the city itself.
One of the most controversial figures in recent Italian history is Salvatore Giuliano, who enjoyed a reputation as the Sicilian Robin Hood, stealing from the rich to give to the poor. But that’s a simplistic and overly noble description of Giuliano, who operated out of Montelepre near Palermo and was a constant thorn in the side of the government and police.
The Arab rule of Palermo lasted little more than a century, but constituted a true golden age for the city. Gardens and glorious buildings sprouted up, and Palermo replaced Syracuse as the island’s capital. It became the second largest city in Europe, renowned across the continent as a center of learning and for its privileged way of life. Among the many improvements introduced by the Moors was a system of underground canals, or Qanat, that provided the whole city with fresh water from natural springs in the Monreale area.
On any visit to Palermo, a day trip to the town of Monreale is essential for a few reasons. Its magnificent cathedral is one of the world’s finest and best-preserved examples of Norman architecture. And the view obtained over Palermo’s valley is incredible. Just a handful of miles from the city, Monreale couldn’t be easier to reach and would be worth the journey just for a walk through its picturesque, sleepy mountain streets.
What do Medusa, heads of wheat and human legs all have in common? Surely not more than this one thing: they all appear on the flag of Sicily, one of the strangest flags in the world.