Wednesday, July 11, 2007

May 2007 - Siracuse, Sicily - Ancient Ruins on the Mainland

The Greek Theater in Siracuse, set on a hill overlooking the Ionian Sea, is one of the best examples of ancient theater architecture in the world and one of Sicily's most important archaeological sites. It was designed in the 5th Century BC by the Greek architect Damacopos and was enlarged in the 3rd and 2nd Centuries BC by Hieron II. From the 5th Century BC onwards, the great Greek playwrights wrote and staged their works at this monumental theater, including Aeschylus who premiered some of his famous tragedies there.

For centuries, the theater was the center of Siracusan life, and since 1914, in even-numbered years, the theater hosts a summer program of classical plays first performed here over 2,500 years ago. Here you can see modern bleachers and stage set up over the ruins of the semi-circular, stoney-tiered cavea (seating area) and the half-moon orchestra and rectangular stage area. In this picture, you can see the Ionian Sea beyond all of the trees that fill the archaeological zone of the city.
The theater's construction was much more complex than it appears in these pictures, as Emperor Charles V, in 1520-31, had much of the stone used to build the walls around Ortygia Island. In addition to the tiers of seats being completely made of stone, the stage, which was significantly enlarged by the Romans, was flanked on either side by an enormous pillar of stone, and a monument to Dionysus was erected on the orchestra where the chorus acted, danced and sang. The sectional design of the cavea and the ancient Greek system of assigning a different letter to each section is used in modern theaters today.

At the top and center of the theater, behind Casandra, is the Grotta del Museion, a cave hewn out of a rock wall with a rectangular basin into which an ancient Roman acqueduct flowed. As you can see, the water is still flowing.

Just next to the Grotta, punctuating that same rock wall, are these rectangular votive niches. Experts believe they may have housed votive paintings or tablets in honor of Syracusan heroes.

Separating the Greek Theater from the southern section of the archaeological site are these rock quarries, the Latomie. Over the centuries, Siracusan architects have extracted millions of cubic meters of stone from these quarries. The tremendous caves carved into the stone have also been used as prisons.

Here's Casandra down in the basin of the quarries completely surrounded by lemon trees flowering plants.

This is the entrance to the large Grotta dei Cordari, which until recently was used by local rope makers (cordari).

And behind us is the entrance to the Orecchio di Dioniso (Ear of Dionysius - not the god Dionysus), the most impressive of the caves which we were able to explore.

Here I am inside the cave. Given the extraordinary acoustics of the cave, legend has it that Dionysius, the tyrant of Siracuse from 405-367 BC, could hear the whispers of his most dangerous prisoners and take due precautions.

After testing the acoustics of the cave for awhile ("Hello-o-o-o-o-o-o . . . can you hear me-e-e-e-e-e?"), we climbed up from the quarry and continued on to the next ruin, the Altar of Hieron II, who ruled from 265-215 BC. Only the foundations of the Altar remain but you can still get a sense of it's enourmous size - longer than 2 football fields and almost as wide as 1. The Altar was dedicated to Zeus and was used for public animal sacrifices.

The last noteworthy site that we visited in Siracuse's archaeological zone was the Roman Amphitheater. This was a huge public work undertaken in the early years of the Roman Empire, resulting in an arena that was only slightly smaller than the Arena in Verona.
Like the Coliseum in Rome, the walls in the interior were part of the underground section used to house the stage scenery, and beneath the tiers of seats were corridors through which the gladiators and wild animals would enter the area. Above, you can see two of the brick arches that supported those corridors.

We took this last shot of us in front of the Amphitheater before leaving the archaeological site and beginning our drive north, out of Siracuse and along the coast towards Taormina.
We've had enough ancient ruins for awhile and are ready for beaches and volcanoes.

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