Question: Where in the world does a magnificent cathedral and mosque stand within an ancient Doric temple?
Answer: The Cathedral of Syracuse, Sicily
On the small island of Ortigia at the heart of the port of Syracuse, a cathedral made from bright limestone dominates among all the ancient structures. This church, known as the Cathedral of Syracuse, was built as a Doric temple to the Goddess Athena in 480 B.C.E., and has since been transformed throughout time into both a mosque and a church.
During the fifth century B.C.E. Syracuse was a major power of the Mediterranean world, even described as the “greatest Greek city and the most beautiful of them all.” The bustling city equaled the size of Athens at this time, and it is there that a spectacular temple to the Goddess of Athena was constructed. It was built in the classical Doric style with six sturdy columns on the short side and 14 on the long sides. Later archeological excavations uncovered archaic and pre-Hellenistic artifacts showing that the temple was built on an even older foundation. Throughout the Greek rule of Sicily, it was treasured as one of the most important temples on the island.
By the time of Byzantine rule in the seventh century C.E., the temple was converted into a church by Saint Bishop Zosimo of Syracuse with the temple’s columns incorporated into the walls of the church—these can still be seen from the outside and inside of the cathedral. During the ninth century, Arabs conquered the island and the cathedral was converted and used as a mosque. But again in the 12th century, it was transitioned into a Christian place of worship with Norman rule. After a destructive earthquake in 1693 damaged the Norman façade and bell tower, the cathedral was reconstructed in the current baroque style during the 18th century.
Today, the cathedral holds several relics of Saint Lucy, the patroness of Syracuse, including bone fragments, a robe, a veil, and a pair of shoes. Born in Syracuse, Saint Lucy is believed to have brought food and aid to Christians hiding in the Roman Catacombs during the Great Persecution of the Roman Empire’s rule. Her feast day is celebrated twice a year on the first Sunday in May and on December 13 throughout Italy and Scandinavia, but in Syracuse, her feast is especially important. A statue of Saint Lucy is carried out of the cathedral and paraded through the streets. This spectacular statue of silver housed at the cathedral is said to contain three fragments of her ribs in its chest.
Along with the statue of Saint Lucy, the Cathedral of Syracuse is filled with thousands of years of history as a place of worship for the world’s most powerful empires. Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, this splendid structure is not to be missed in Syracuse.
9 More Facts About the Ancient Port of Syracuse:
- Syracuse is a 2,700-year-old city located in the southeast corner of Sicily and known for its rich Greek and Roman history, culture, amphitheaters, and architecture.
- The colony was founded in 743 B.C.E., chosen for its natural harbor and spring water, and the colony quickly dominated the coastal plains and beyond in the main island of Sicily.
- The settlers found that the nearby land was fertile, helping the city to grow and prosper, into one of the most powerful Greek cities in the Mediterranean.
- The Greek settlers of the city formed an elite class while the native Sicel people worked the land as the lower and oppressed class.
- Syracuse was the birthplace of the mathematician, engineer, and astronomer Archimedes who is considered the greatest mathematician and scientist of antiquity.
- Remains of temples dating back to the 6th century B.C.E. dedicated to Zeus and Apollo have also been found within Syracuse.
- After Greek rule, Syracuse became part of the Roman republic and then the capital city of the Byzantine Empire.
- Later it served as the capital to the Kingdom of Sicily and eventually was united with the Kingdom of Naples to form the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies until 1860.
- The ancient city is now listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its numerous Greek and Roman ruins including the Temple of Apollo, Arethusa Spring, and the Ear of Dionysius.
See the magnificent Cathedral of Syracuse and explore the ancient city when you join us for Sicily’s Ancient Landscapes and Timeless Traditions.