Part XLVIII: The Syracuse Archaeological Park, Syracuse, Sicily
The Greek Theater, Syracuse, Sicily
The Greek Theater, Syracuse, Sicily

We awake to blue skies, but an ominous forecast on the television: fine today, but rain predicted for the following two days. Not good. We decide that we must launch out on a mission this morning, if we are to avoid spending our entire time in Syracuse confined to our flat.

Syracuse began its life as a Greek colony, long before Rome expanded to conquer Italy and Sicily. The original center of the colony was in Ortigia, where we are staying. As the population grew, the city expanded to the north and west. Today some excellent Greek remains are found in the Syracuse Archaeological Park, our destination for the morning. The park is a twenty-five minute walk, north of Ortigia, so we set out on foot, dodging cars as we cross the busy streets.

The park contains a number of interesting remains. As we enter, we encounter the first of these, the foundation of the Altar of King Hieron II. A fence blocks our approach to the altar, so we are forced to admire it from a distance. Built in the third century BC, the foundation is a long, low base of limestone stretching toward the distant trees. Our guidebook claims that this is the largest extant altar of the Greek period, spacious enough to have allowed the sacrifice of 450 oxen at the same time.

The altar of King Hieron II, Syracuse, Sicily
The altar of King Hieron II, Syracuse, Sicily

Further on in the park, we find the stone ruins of the Greek theater. Now we have had the opportunity to see a number of theaters on this trip, and quite frankly, once you've seen one, you've pretty much seen them all, unless you have a specialist's interest in the minutiae of theater construction.

The Greek Theater, Syracuse, Sicily
The Greek Theater, Syracuse, Sicily

The Syracuse theater does have one interesting difference from all the other theaters we've encountered: it was carved out of the stone hill face, rather than built up using blocks of limestone. It takes a big chisel and many laborers to knock out a theater of this size.

The Greek Theater, Syracuse, Sicily
The Greek Theater, Syracuse, Sicily

Our walk next takes us down into the stone quarries that supplied limestone blocks for so many of the Syracusan buildings. At one time these quarries were underground, but a catastrophic earthquake brought the roof down. I wouldn't want to have been on digging duty that day.

Exposed Stone Quarry, Syracuse, Sicily
Exposed Stone Quarry, Syracuse, Sicily

The most famous relic from this mining activity is a teardrop-shaped cave. When the famous Italian painter Caravaggio visited he dubbed it “Dionysius' Ear.” The legend holds that the terrible Syracusan tyrant Dionysius used the cave as a prison for his adversaries. Because of the shape of the chasm, someone standing at the mouth of the cave can clearly hear the voices speaking within. Dionysius used to exploit this auditory oddity to eavesdrop on his enemies.

Dionysius' Ear, Syracuse, Sicily
Dionysius' Ear, Syracuse, Sicily

We want to test the properties of the cave. Unfortunately, the tour groups are also keen to make their voices heard. When we arrive, a group is deep within the cave singing some Norwegian drinking tune. This goes on for about forty or fifty verses, a mass Scandinavian yodel. We take pictures inside the cave. On they sing. We explore the back of the cave. Still they sing. Finally, in despair, we walk out of the cave. They stop singing and begin to file out. Will we get a chance to test the claim by whispering covert plans deep in the cavern? No, here comes another tour group: Texans this time, belting out football fight songs. Go Aggies.

Interior, Dionysius' Ear, Syracuse, Sicily
Interior, Dionysius' Ear, Syracuse, Sicily

We withdraw in defeat. We pass the Ropemaker's Cave, so named because until recently, the Syracusan rope makers used to hang their hemp strands in its moist depths. It is now off limits, due to a roof stability problem. Probably too many people bellowing within it.

Up to the Roman amphitheater, a much later structure that is in poorer condition than the Greek theater. The difference between a theater and an amphitheater lies in the critical prefix “amphi,” which means “double.” In an amphitheater, spectators can watch the action from both (double) sides. Much of the amphitheater is missing. I suspect this is because it was built up from stone blocks which could easily be reused elsewhere, as opposed to the theater which was carved out of immovable stone.

Roman Amphitheater, Syracuse, Sicily
Roman Amphitheater, Syracuse, Sicily

Our last stop in the Archaeological Park is the so-called Tomb of Archimedes. Archimedes was one of Greece's greatest mathematicians and inventors. Not only did he make advances in calculating the value of pi, but he also discovered Archimedes' Principle, and allegedly created a death ray — employing mirrors to focus the light of the sun on enemy ships to set them ablaze.

Archimedes was called upon to help defend Syracuse when the Romans lay siege to the city 214-212 BC. In addition to the Death Ray (which probably didn't work) he was also credited with inventing a ship-smashing claw. The claw was attached to a crane. The operators would lower it onto Roman ships in the Syracuse harbor, grab their bows, and then pull them up from the water. The lifting action would snap the keels of the ships and they would capsize.

The great scientist met his death as he had lived, pondering the mysteries of math. After Syracuse fell, the Roman generals issued orders that Archimedes was to be captured alive. His mind was too valuable to sacrifice. A Roman soldier found him drawing triangles in the sand, working on an equation. Archimedes ignored an order to come with the soldier. The soldier, angered by this contemptuous treatment, drew his sword and killed Archimedes.

According to legend, he is buried here in the Archaeological Park. This is a controversial claim, however, as scholars doubt if his tomb ever held his body. The tomb wasn't even built until a couple of centuries after his death. In any event, we are once again kept back from this small necropolis by a fence.

The Tomb of Archimedes, Syracuse, Sicily
The Tomb of Archimedes, Syracuse, Sicily

We have spent a long day touring the Archaeological Park, and by the time we return to our flat, we are exhausted. Clouds are gathering overhead, as I make one more evening ramble in search of photographs.

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Copyright, 2017 Richard J. Goodrich