Today, I spent the day on mainland Siracusa, visiting sites all located within about a ten-minute walking radius of my hotel.
Sadly, I didn’t make it back to the island portion of Siracusa, Ortigia, today. Tomorrow, I take a train in the morning to my next stop, Catania. So, I won’t get an another chance to stroll around Ortigia this trip. Sigh.
Then again, it provides me with an incentive to live long enough and stay healthy enough to come back, while also being able to visit the other places in the world I want to see or see again. As if that’s in my control to any more than a minor extent. Did I mention, sigh?
But enough about that. There’s today still to narrate.
Neapolis Archaeological Park
The Neapolis Archaeological Park offers views of a few ruins and other works of the Greek and Roman periods in Siracusa.
The ruins etc. notwithstanding, the park could have provided better way-finding and informational signage.
A collection of identical signs clustered near the entrance provided maps of the site marked with three colour-coded routes. The routes differed in the number of attractions on them and their normal walking time, 30-, 60-, or 90-minutes.
I intended to follow the 90-minute route. The park thwarted that intent. For one thing, they did not repeat those maps deep inside the park.
Placing matching colour-coded arrows along the paths would make it simple to follow the chosen route. But, no. That didn’t happen. I didn’t see any signage for the routes, colour coded or not, inside the park other than one sign pointing to “All Routes” at the entrance to one of the sections of the park.
For another thing, some of the park was temporarily closed when I was there.
In addition to the way-finding issues, the park offered little descriptive text for its sights—pretty much just the name of the sight and maybe one or two sentences in Italian and English.
The one exception was the Roman Amphitheater. There, they provide a few signs, in Italian and English, with brief descriptions of the construction and use of the amphitheater.
Thus, for the most part, where I provide background information below about one of the sights, it came from the tour book I’m using, a sparse online brochure that the park directed me to via QR code, or, in one case, a tour guide at a nearby, completely independent attraction.
But you probably foolishly didn’t come here to read my gripes. So, after that long approach, let’s dive into what I did (and didn’t) see at the archaeological park.
Sights—Open, Closed, and Obscured—at the Park
The first sight I saw during my attempt to see everything were some amazing artificial caves. Back when the Greeks ruled Siracusa, their quarrying operations created them. In addition to beautiful shapes, some of the cave walls display enchanting green, orangey, grey, and sand colours.
Citrus trees grow in a nearby field. A few of the trees bore fruit ripe enough that some fell on the ground, rotting. Low, wood fences suggested that the park didn’t want visitors to go in and pick the fruit, despite it going to waste.
Another nearby field once held a quarry and a prison. Today, a garden with a variety of trees, bushes, and grasses fills the field. Again, low, wood fences kept us tourists out of the garden.
The Altar of Hieron II is a set of stones forming a rough slab (it was probably once less rough). Apparently, it was the longest alter the Greeks ever built. They dedicated it to Zeus. At one point, they sacrificed 450 oxen on it in a single ceremony. I don’t know if the sacrifice brought them good fortune, but it certainly didn’t help the oxen.
The star of the show, both archaeologically and otherwise, of the park is its Greek Theatre. It is complete enough and in good enough condition that the park uses it for performances even still.
The people of Syracuse probably enjoy that. However, it creates drawbacks for tourists, at least some of the time. Today, workers were busy preparing for a major production. That included covering the stone seating area with wooden benches and the stage area with a wooden platform. The workers had mostly accomplished that task. Because, of course they had. After all, I was there. So I didn’t get to see much of the Greek Theatre exposed.
The work also meant that visitors couldn’t enter the theatre per se. And the work blocked off some of the paths near it. Oh, well. All was not lost.
Standing at the back of the seating area, I got a nice view of a distant bay off the Mediterranean Sea. So, there was that.
Also, water rushed down a short waterfall just behind the theatre. The waterfall is part of an old aqueduct that draws water from a mountain spring about 24 kilometres (15 miles) away. So, there was also that.
In addition to the Greek theatre, the park also contains a Roman amphitheater. That’s in much rougher shape, and much less complete than the Greek theatre. On the bright side, they don’t stage performances there, nor cover up the amphitheater when doing so. As a result, I got to see what’s left of the amphitheater fully exposed.
The alleged tomb of Archimedes sits somewhere in the park No one knows for sure it really is Archimedes’ tomb. Cicero went looking for the tomb years after Archimedes died. Cicero declared this one to be it.
I might have described the tomb in great detail, if I could. But, in addition to my weak literary skills, it’s temporarily closed. So, I wasn’t able to visit it. Because, of course I couldn’t.
The (multiple) stories of the nature of Archimedes’ death, or at least the subset of them I know, bear repeating because I fear there might still be some people I haven’t yet bored to numbness. I worry they’ll have trouble sleeping.
One story I’d already read is that when the Romans captured Siracusa, the emperor ordered that Archimedes be captured alive and brought back to Rome so the Romans could exploit his knowledge. But when a soldier found Archimedes, Archimedes refused to go, claiming to be too focused on his work to leave.
According to this story, the Roman soldier became enraged at Archimedes’ attitude and he killed Archimedes despite the soldier’s orders.
The guide at the nearby Tecnoparco Archimede di Siracusa (see below) told this story and added two more versions. In one, a soldier killed killed Archimedes because the soldier didn’t recognize him and thought he was in the way.
The guide told yet another version that also makes the rounds. In that version, the people of Siracusa killed Archimedes themselves to prevent the Roman emperor from being able to make use of Archimedes’ knowledge., at least in part because many of Archimedes’ inventions improved weaponry.
Nobody today knows the truth about Archimedes’ death.
I prefer the version where Archimedes faked his own death, or possibly committed suicide, so people would stop nagging the hell out of him to keep inventing stuff for them. But I just invented that version so it’s not likely true.
Tecnoparco Archimede di Siracusa
The Tecnoparco Archimede di Siracusa is an outdoor museum dedicated to Archimedes, a native sone of Siracusa.
If you read my journal entries from my Greece trip, you know this isn’t the first Archimedes museum I visited in my life. It’s the third. I also went to Archimedes museums in Olympia, Greece and Athens, Greece. Those museums extended beyond Archimedes to also include inventions of contemporaries of Archimedes.
This Archimedes museum is dedicated to Archimedes.
As I said, it is all outdoors. The museum contains more than twenty working recreations of Archimedes’ inventions or previously existing inventions that he improved significantly. The museum divides the displays into sections for mathematical, military, and hydrological inventions. The displays are working models that the guide demonstrates or that guests, such as myself, try out.
The visit starts with a seven-minute video that consists of mostly illustrations, still and animated, of Archimedes’ inventions and his times. A guide then led as through the displays, explaining each. The visit ends by playing a game apparently popular at the time of Archimedes. It consists of a number of various polygon-shaped pieces of wood that players must assemble to fit into a rectangular wooden form. Apparently, they can be assembled in a number of different combinations. But there are more combinations that won’t fit properly into the frame.
I used “start” and “finish” loosely above. When I arrived, a guide had already finished showing a group of people who spoke either Italian or English (she did the commentary in both languages) the video and the first couple of exhibits. She told me she’d show me what I missed after the end of the tour. We reached near the end, and she told some people something to the effect of, “Okay, you’ve seen everything. You can stick around, but feel free to leave if you wish.” She said the same thing to some other people at another point in the tour.
The museum seemed to run the tours the same way we used to watch movies when I was a kid. We went to the theatre whenever we wanted, regardless of the start time of the film. Then, when the movie ended, we stayed until it started again, watched the part we missed, and left. Damn, we were cretins back then, weren’t we?
Note: If you visit Siracusa, beware. I read on Trip Advisor that there is an Archimedes and Da Vinci museum in Siracusa, on the island of Ortigia. Some of the reviews on Trip Advisor said that one is a slick, overpriced rip-off with rude staff. And some of the reviewers said they think that museum tries to trick people into believing it’s the Archimedes museum I went to today. The one I went to is just a little ways behind the Greek Theatre of the Neapolis Archaeological Park, on the Siracusa mainland.
That having been said, for all I know, staff from the museum I went to today might have written those reviews. I didn’t go into the other museum, so I cannot confirm or refute the reviews. But I quite enjoyed the one today. And its staff were very friendly.
Paolo Orsi Archaeological Museum
The Paolo Orsi Archaeological Museum is quite extensive, covering a few floors of a decent sized building. It’s focus is on Sicily, mostly the south-eastern portion of it, including, but not exclusively, Siracusa.
The displays start with the prehistorical. This includes rocks formed millions of years ago, bones from animals now extinct in the region, including a small hippopotamus, and bones of animals that were brought over already domesticated in the early days of settlement in the region.
The exhibits then move into archaeological finds from human civilizations of a variety of ancient eras. Artifacts include undecorated pottery and pottery fragments; glazed and decorated pottery; spear, javelin and axe heads; jewelry; sculptures; architectural elements; sarcophagi; and probably a bunch of other stuff I’ve forgotten.
The tour book I use here said the museum has a coin collection. I couldn’t find it. However, I did see a room that was closed. It might be in there.
The museum organizes its displays, in part, by the region where the artifacts came from. Extensive text in Italian and English describe the region, the nature of some of the finds, the era the artifacts came from, and the years the excavations took place. Placards at every display case catalog the artifacts, again in Italian and English.
The museum is so extensive that my eyes glazed over and my brain started to turn to mush* well before I left. At the start of my visit to the museum, I read all of the text diligently. By halfway through the museum, I read maybe half of the text. By the end, I read very little.
(* People who know me, particularly people who know me well, no doubt wonder when my mind isn’t mush. I don’t know the answer to that. That’s probably because my mind is mush.)
Catacombs of San Giovanni
The entrance to the catacombs of San Giovanni sits just behind the abandoned church of San Giovanni. The tour book I use said the church collapsed in the earthquake of 1693. Maybe it largely collapsed, but apparently not entirely. It has no roof. And portions of the walls are gone. But much of the walls still stand.
In fact, just as I arrived to tour the catacombs, a couple and their guests were getting started on a formal wedding ceremony, including wedding music. So, it’s not entirely abandoned.
A visit to the catacombs requires joining a paid tour with a guide who provides commentary in both Italian and English. I think she provided identical commentary in both languages, but how would I know? For all I know, she might have provided accurate information to the Italian-speakers and just made up nonsense to tell us anglophones. But probably not.
The people who control the catacombs strictly forbid picture-taking. I don’t know why. But if you have been busy searching this page looking for catacomb pictures, you can stop now. They don’t exist here.
Unlike the catacombs of San Filippo Apostolo in Ortigia, these looked more like what I thought catacombs looked like. Grave niches line a long tunnel and a number of perpendicular cross-tunnels.
The grave niches come in three sizes. Shallower ones contained single bodies. Deeper ones contained couples’s bodies. And even deeper ones contained families’ bodies. (Here, I use “shallow” and “deep” to refer to horizontal depth into the wall, not vertical depth in the ground. All of the niches sit above the floor.)
The catacombs also hold some small grave niches that were used for babies or just bones rather than full bodies.
According to the guide, the catacombs contain about 10,000 grave niches. But they don’t know how many people had been buried there. That’s not because they don’t know how many niches remained empty, but rather because the ancients cycled the use of the niches, burying different people in each niche in different periods.
During the Second World War, the people of Siracusa used the catacombs as bomb shelters. There are no dead bodies or bones in there today. I think they were removed before they used the catacombs as bomb shelters. But I’m not sure. The guide’s Italian accent was quite strong at times when she spoke English, so I might have misunderstood.
Aside: Sanctuary of the Madonna of Tears
Take a look at the modern structure in the picture in this section. The tour book I’m using tells me it is the Sanctuary of the Madonna of Tears. The story goes that an unassuming couple in Siracusa had a bas-relief of the Virgin Mary hanging on a wall in their home. In 1953, the bas-relief Mary allegedly started crying and didn’t stop for three days. Oy, the trouble she’d seen.
That doesn’t sound terribly likely to me, but here’s the good news. The real-life woman of that unassuming couple had been blind. After the bas-relief Mary had her crying jag, the woman could see again.
Apparently, the Vatican verified that the alleged tears were real human tears and that the woman could see. I didn’t read anything saying that the Vatican verified that the tears actually came from the bas-relief Madonna. Presumably no Vatican officials were in the home at the time. Nor did I read anything saying that they verified that the corporeal woman had indeed been blind before the crying jag.
But, hey. A miracle is a miracle. Who am I to question it? (I’m Joel. Please follow along.)
Sometime after the Vatican certified the miracle, the church was built.
Apparently, the original bas-relief Madonna and a reliquary with the tears sit inside the church. I didn’t go inside, so I can’t confirm that.
That’s the official story. That’s what they want you to believe. But, …
An alternative theory
I have another theory.
Look at the picture again. I think it’s clear.
That’s not a church at all. It’s the mother ship of an expeditionary force from the planet Mishug Enna, in the outer reaches of the galaxy. I think representatives from Mishug Enna walk among us, disguised as humans. Prove me wrong.
I think invaders from Mishug Enna have taken over the souls of half of the population of a country some of your readers live in today. The proof is that the same population believes that the creatures of Mishug Enna rule the other half of the world and are trying to take their souls. Oy. Better to wander around ruins and lust after unreachable lemon trees. Talk about conspiracy theories, who did kill Archimedes anyways? Happy travels and keep those blogs coming.