Sicilian Archaeological Sites
A tour through Sicily’s archaeological sites can be an unforgettable experience. Visitors will be enraptured by the Island’s pluri-millennial history, by its monuments and archaeological sites evidence for its glorious past.
Among the many sites in the Trapani province, outstanding is Selinunte (Selinus), an ancient Greek polis founded in the 7th century BC; it was destroyed by the Carthaginians, conquered by the Romans and highly injured by earthquakes in the 10th and 11th century. It was discovered by the historian Tommaso Fazello in the 16th century and first excavated in the 1900s. Surrounded by a terrific natural landscape, it is a major attraction for tourists from around Italy and abroad. The Archaeological Park, comprised between the Cottone and Modione rivers, preserves remains from ancient temples testifying to the importance of this own, founded around 651-650 BC by the Greek Pammilos. After a long conflict with Segesta, an Elymian colony, the city served as a military post against Punic attacks. After a short truce it was invaded again and successively destroyed by Chartage and Rome. The G Temple – all the temples are named after letters of the alphabet –, remained incomplete, dates from the 5th century BC, prior to Carthage take over. The area also includes: the acropolis, set on a hill between the two mentioned rivers, supposedly enlarged between the late 6th and the early 5th century BC; smaller temples, such as the D, built in the 6th century, and the B, thought to be dedicated to philosopher Empedocles; the necropolises, where innumerable relics were brought to light; two sanctuaries dedicated to Malapholos and to Zeus Melichios, likely erected during the Punic period. According to historians and archaeologists much of the city still lies undiscovered.
Marsala, in the province of Trapani, was an outstanding Punic post and port able to withstand attacks of Dionysios, Timoleon, Phyrrus and Rome. Scanty remnants of the ancient city are a door flanked by two watch-towers, a house with peristyle, rooms and various floor mosaics. Remains of the Roman domination are an underground funeral chamber with precious painted decorations.
The ruins of the city of Segesta testifies to the Elymians’ presence in Sicily. They, also founders of the neighboring Erice (Eryx) and Entella, are believed to be refugees from the destroyed Troy. The city fought a long war with Selinus to gain an outlet to the Thyrrenian Sea. The temple enclosed within the city walls, dating from the late 5th century BC, is a precious specimen of the Doric architecture. Surrounded by an impressing landscape, it has a well-preserved structure with 36 Doric columns. The semi-circular theatre, dating from the second half of the 3rd century BC, retains some twenty steps carved into the rock. The acropolis was divided into two parts. The southern side was mostly built with private and residential houses, while the northern was reserved for public buildings like the agorà. The site also preserves remains of the city-walls with towers and gates, dating from between the Republic and the Empire ages, of a towered castle enclosing a three-naves church within its walls, and a shrine, located in the Contrada Mango, built in the 6th century BC.
Eryx (Erice) was founded by the rather mysterious Elymian colonists, allegedly refugees from Troy, who, along with Sicans and Sicels, are considered to be the earliest settlers of Sicily. Partly destroyed by the Carthaginians, Erice was taken by the Romans in 241 BC.; it enjoyed a considerable prosperity under the Arabs and the Normans. The many relics discovered across the territory include: remains of the city walls still retaining three Norman gates; a medieval fortress known as the Venus Castle; scanty remnants of an ancient shrine dedicated to Venus dating from the 5th-4th century BC.
The Greek-Roman archaeological site in Gela mainly consists of the ancient city-walls located in the Contrada Capo Soprano. According to historians the city was founded towards the end of 7th century BC by Cretan and Rhodian colonists and was at its height under the Tyrant Hippocrates. It was destroyed by the Carthaginians in 405 BC and abandoned at request of tyrant Dionysius. The walls, 350m in lenght, excavated in the past century, are regarded as one of the finest specimens of the Greek defensive architecture. Unfortunately, they have partly decayed with the passing of time. The Park also houses relics from the 7th century BC, buildings and a ruinded shrine dedicated to Athena from the Doric epoch. The Museum collects relics ranging in date from 698 to 282 BC, when the city was destroyed by Akragas (today’s Agrigento). Other relics are scattered around the city countryside, ranging from the Prehistory to the Middle Ages. An ancient thermal bath dating from the 4th century is also enclosed within the park.
Megara Hyblaea was founded north of Syracuse by the Greeks in the 8th century BC. It greatly flourished and expanded as far as 483 BC, when it was destroyed by tyrant Gelon of Syracuse. Rebuilt in 340 BC by Timoleon, it never regained its former importance. Remains of fortified walls and a number of sarcophaguses were recovered from the necropolis. Enclosed within the walls are the remains of two temples; west of the agorà are those of dwellings and shops.
The ruined Heraclea Minoa, between Agrigento and Sciacca, by the Platani river, has a troubled history since it was located on the border between a Punic and a Greek area. Believed to be built by Minos, the town gained its freedom in 339 BC and was abandoned in the 1st century BC.
Some relics by the Platani River apparently refer to a settlement. They consist of a group of houses, dating from between the 4th and the 3rd century BC spread around a courtyard; a theatre from the second half of the 4th century BC; remnants of walls from between the late 6th century and the 4th century BC.
Solunto, Palermo and the Mozia – on the island of the same name – were the main Phoenician cities in Sicily.
Solunto, in the province of Palermo, destroyed by the Saracens, was discovered in the sixteenth century and excavations have continued ever since. The site is home to ruined houses of different sizes, retaining decorated pavings, mosaics, walls, floors, and columns. A few dwellings and public buildings are well enough preserved. There is even a small odeum (theatre) and a meeting chamber.
Mozia, now a well-known sea resort, dating from the 7th century BC, is among the Phoenician settlements in Sicily. It retains remains of an ancient shrine with three-naves dating back to the 6th century, a necropolis, a tophet (where children were sacrificed to Gods), and a house referred to as the casa dei mosaici (the mosaic-house) for its floor mosaics.
Palermo was founded by the Phoenicians in the 8th century BC, who kept close contacts with other peoples in Sicily, namely Sicels, Elymians and Greeks. Its harbor played a major role in its social and economic growth. The city was successively ruled by Carthaginians, Romans, Vandals, Lombards, Byzantines, Arabs and Normans. This is enough to explain its variety of architectural and artistic styles. Among its numerous relics and monuments, worth-mentioning are the remains of Paleolithic grottoes and a Neolitich village.
Cava d’Ispica is an interesting archaeologic site in the province of Ragusa. The Cava stretching along a riverbed, in a limestone valley, has a naturally defended location, with extensive views over the surrounding countryside. Running north-south over an area of some 13 kilometres, it can be splitted into two parts. To the north, stretching across a countryside between today’s Modica and Ispica, are numerous Paleochristian catacombs (4th-5th century) with notable inscriptions, traces of ancient cave-homes and oratories, a church dedicated to St. Mary, two small settlements known as Grotte Cadute and Castello, an impressing small cave-church dedicated to St. Nicholas going back to the Byzantine Age and housing well-maintained frescoes, ruins of the Byzantine church of San Pancrati dating from between the 4th and the 5th century, the Grotta dei Sant, (The Saints’ Grotto) with numerous frescoes depicting saints referring to Christian-Byzantine ages.
The southern side, named Parco Forza, lies in the Ispica territory; it offers numerous interesting sites such as the Chiesa dell’Annunziata, where are some sepulchral pits and a grotto-stable. Both were once connected to the neighboring Palazzo Marchionale, whose ruins retain some rooms with well-preserved floorings. Worth-mentioning is the site of Centoscale, consisting of a number of tunnels dug beneath the river, serving for the collection of water throughout the year.
Syracuse, founded by Greeks in the early 7th century, is one of the best archaeological resorts in Sicily. Indeed, it was the most powerful of all Greek colonies in Sicily. The colonists settled on the small Ortygia island and soon expanded to the surrounding territory. Afterwards, the city saw the rule of the Romans, the Byzantines and the Arabs, under whom it became the major city in the Noto Valley. Particularly outstanding is the Eurialo Castle, built by Dionysius the Elder between 402 and 397 BC to defend against Carthage attacks. Although undergoing several refurbishments throughout the centuries, the castle is regarded as a most remarkable specimen of the Greek military architecture. It is divided into two parts by walls of more recent constrution.
The 5th century BC theatre, on the Temenite Hill, offering a splendid view, is one of the best-preserved theatres in all Sicily. It underwent several changes during the Roman rule. Remarkable are the auditorium, divided into nine sections, and the semi-circular orchestra, where the chorus performed. Nearby stands the Latomia del Paradiso (Quarry of Paradise), a deep stone quarry, where especially noted is the Ear of Dionysius, an ear-shaped cave so named by painter Caravaggio because of its extraordinary acoustical properties, that was once used as a prison. Another cave, dedicated to Santa Venera, was turned into a garden. The Apollo Temple, the oldest doric temple in Sicily, was later successively turned into a Byzantine church, an Arab mosque and a Norman church. Also worth-seeing are the columns of a temple dedicated to Athena, enclosed within the city Duomo, and the Roman Gymnasium dating back to the 1st century BC.
Morgantina is a very interesting site in the area of Aidone, Enna. According to historical sources this small city was an outstanding commercial post thanks to its central location in the trade routes. Especially growing during the Greek and Roman periods, it preserves ancient relics excavated at the Cittadella hill, dating from the 13th century BC. The major remnants consist of the agorà, built on two levels connected by a staircase. At its centre there are ruins of shops from the Roman age, kilns, a shrine, remains of shops-walls and of a market. Most of the site’s relics are preserved into a Museum in the vicinity of neighboring Aidone.
The Villa Romana del Casale, in Piazza Armerina, dating from the 3th-4th century AD, certainly belonged to some important Roman figure; it retains such remarkable relics among which are mosaics depicting hunting scenes and mythologic figures. These are incredibly preserved in spite of a tremendous flood that devastated the area in the 12th century, inside a group of rooms and halls. Among them, outstanding is the Orpheus room, with a mosaic covering the entire room, depicting the mythologic figure as he entices wild animals with his music. Probably built on a former rural settlement built in Constantine’s time, it entered a period of decline at the time of the Vandals and Visigoths’ invasions.
Agrigento, the best preserved and, certainly, most notorious archaeologic site in Sicily, was founded by Greek colonists in 580 BC and named Akragas, after a river flowing nearby. It became one of the most powerful Greek colonies in Sicily, second only to Syracuse. Led by its earliest tyrant Phalaris, Agrigento subjugated the neighboring cities, and was successively conquered and ruled by Romans, Arabs and Normans. Today the Temples Valley stands as an outstanding and most amazing archaeologic attraction that, although injured by the passing of time and natural catastrophes, gloriosly attests to the Greeks’ presence and might in Sicily. The Temple of Zeus Olympian, built in honour of Zeus after the successful war against Carthage in 480 BC, was originally 113 metres long and 56 metres large. One of the most impressive of Antiquity. Remains of a group of buildings somehow related to a shrine dedicated to Demetra and Kore, date from between the 6th and 5th century BC. The 5th century BC Temple of Dioscuri (Castor and Pollux to Greeks), largely ruined, now retains four standing columns. Thought to have been ravaged by Carthaginians in the 5th century, it was rebuilt, as show some stylistic differences. The Temple of Concord, by far the best-preserved and attractive in the area, was built in the 5th century BC. It underwent several reconstructions and was even turned into a Christian temple as far as the mid-700s, when it was restored back to its ancient splendor. It remains as a priceless specimen of the Hellenistic architecture. Conceived as the habitation of a God, the peripteral temple derives its name from a latin inscription found nearby, probably having little to do with the temple itself. The Temple of Hera Lacinia, similar in shape to that of Concord, has well-preserved columns, especially on its north side. It was largely ravaged by the Carthaginians in 406 BC and damaged by an earthquake in the Middle Ages. Few columns are all that remains of the 6th century BC Hercules’ Temple, an hexastyle peripteral temple which is a precious specimen of the Greek architecture. The Hellenistic-Roman quarter, whose history spans 10 centuries of history – from the 4th century BC onwards – was laid out according to the hyppodamian urban plan and shows several noting dwellings such as the so called House of the Portico and the House of Dionysius. The Shrine of Demetra, set outside the walls, was built around the 7th century BC. It has a rectangular shape that recalls the Greek archaic architecture.
Santa Croce Camerina, in the province of Ragusa, is home to remains that testify to the pre-historic origin of this town built in 589 BC. After a period of great prosperity under Syracuse, it was razed by the Romans in 258 BC. Remains preserved into the Archaeologic Park are evidence of the numerous destructions and reconstructions that the city underwent throughout the centuries. The site comprises ruins of an ancient temple dedicated to Athena in the 5th century BC, three necropolises, and remains of a house. A museum displays all the relics found at the area.
Giardini Naxos, 50 kilometres from Messina, is the most ancient of Sicilian Greek colonies. Founded by Chalcidians in 734 BC, who successively expanded into other areas of Sicily, today it is a renowned tourism resort. It played an important role in the war between Athens and Siracusa, supporting the former and, for this, eventually destroyed by Dionysius I in 403 BC. The museum of the city displays innumerable relics that have been excavated in its territory. Worth-seeing are the Chalcidian Shrine dating from the 7th century BC, the remains of two temples, notably that dedicated to Aphrodite dated between the 7th and the 5th century, remnants of kilns from the 4th-5th century attesting to the Byzantine presence at the area. The Archaeological Park is home to relics of an early settlement with an impressive road-system. A 5th century urban settlement is also enclosed, retaining relics of quadrangualar houses.
In the Palermo area is Hymera. According to historical sources the city was founded around 649-648 BC and was long disputed by Carthage and Syracuse, the latter eventually winning led by Tyrant Hielon II. The Carthaginians would later ravaged the city. Remains of ancient dwellings dating back to the 5th century BC are scattered across the area. Also worth-mentioning are the ruins of a doric temple dating from between 470 and 460 BC.
Patti, in the province of Messina, offers numerous interesting sites. Numerous relics attesting to Greek and Roman settlements have been borught to light. The earliest reliable data on the city refer to a Norman settlement in today’s upper side of Patti, where a Benedictin Abbey was built by Count Roger in 1094. A Roman Villa, on the seaside, was discovered during the construction works of the highway Catania-Messina. The building, probably originating from the early 4th century AD, was later reconstructed due to an earthquake between the 5th and the 7th century. It has a large peristyle and quadrangular rooms, a portico and halls with beautiful mosaics depicting animals, geometrical figures and more. A thermal complex, situated on the eastern side of the villa, is worth-seeing. Relics of tombs were also recovered from this side.
The ancient Tyndaris (Tindari), in the Messina province, was founded by Dionysios, tyrant of Syracuse, in 396 BC. It was a Carthage military outpost during the First Punic War and conquered by the Romans in 257 BC. Located on a highly strategic area, close at hand to the Messina Strait, it was subject to raids by the Barbarians and ruled by Theodoric, king of the Ostrogoths, under whom the city enjoyed a remarkable prosperity. Under the Byzantines, it became a Bishop’s seat. Arab incursions, since 827, caused its inhabitant to abandon it and settle in another area where the city of Patti would be founded. Numerous historical and sacred relics have been discovered across the site. Worth-visiting is the Shrine of the Black Virgin, in the acropolis, well-known for the wooden statue of the Black Virgin, in the Byzantine style. The statue probably arrived in town around 750 on a vessel that doomed at Tindari harbor because of a storm. The antiquarium contains plenty of roman and greek remnants such as a sculpted Emperor Augustus’ head, objects, plates ranging from the Bronze to the Roman Age.
Other remnants consist of: a well-maintained Greek Theatre, from the 4th century BC, that underwent alterations during the Roman rule and is situated on a slope overlooking a dramatic coastal scenery; a thermal complex built inside a building of prior construction, consisting of two rooms with very interesting floor mosaics; the Basilica, also referred to as the Gymnasium, set by the agorà, dating from the 4th century BC and flanked by two staircases leading to its first floor; a settlement, at the very earth of the archaeologic area, with an octagonal plan, typical of the Greek western colonies. Thid includes ruins of two houses dating from the 1st century BC.
Pantalica, in the Arapo Valley – Siracusa province –, conserves the ruins of an ancient settlement, known as Hybla, that flourished between the 13th and the 8th century BC. The Anaktonon, a monumental royal construction, is among the site’s major attractions. Also worth-visiting are a large necropolis carved into the rock of the valley, a small church dating from the High Middle Ages, referred to as the Oratory of the Crucifix, remains of Byzantine houses.
An interesting archaeologic site is located between the mounts Sabucina and Capodarso, near Caltanissetta. The earliest relics discovered date from the Bronze Age; others span three centuries from the 12th to the 10th century BC. The village was subject to frequent raids and attacks, the worst occurring around 310 BC by Syracusan tyrant Agathocles. Worth-visiting are the sanctary and the Antiquarium, a museum that collects relics from the necropolises, and remains of an ancient defensive wall provided with towers.
In the area of the Jato Mount, is the city of San Cipirello, originating from the 1st millennium BC. It was successively ruled by Greeks, Carthaginians, Romans, Arabs and Normans, and eventually destroyed by Frederick II of Swabia due to religious reasons. It preserves remains of ceramics, a Greek Temple dedicated to Aphrodite dated 550 BC, a theatre from the 4th century BC altered in the 2nd century BC, remains of the so-called House of Peristyle, whose ground floor retains a banquet hall; the Agorà comprising a council-hall and a temple.
S. Angelo Muxaro, in the Agrigento area, is a settlement originating from the Bronze Age. It stands on a hill, where traces of a Sicel necropolis have been found. Believed to be Kamikos, the capital of the reign of king Kokalos, the site retains tombs and funeral outfits ranging from the 8th to the 6th century BC.
Archaelogical relics have been discovered in the Adranone Mount, Agrigento, allegedly referring to ancient Elym-Greek and Punic settlements destroyed around 250 BC. There remain the city walls, and remnants of the necropolis, huts, a 5th century settlement and a more recent religious site.
The area of Monte Lauro, a long-extinct volcano in the province of Ragusa, has plenty of sites that provide evidence for prehistoric civilizations in the Hyblean territory. Finds from ancient necropolises, tombs and other relics spanning centuries of history since the Bronze Age were recovered from the area. Worth-seeing are several caves, notably those known as The Lady’s and of The dead’s.
Natural or artificial caves of ancient origin, used as dwellings or burial places, are scattered across the entire Iblean territory: the grottoes of Cava d’Ispica, between Modica and Ispica, with symbols – unfortunately undecipherabled as yet – visible in the vaults; the Grotta Martello, in Rosolini, Siracusa, dating from the prehistoric age; the Grotta dei Morti, in Cava d’Aliga, Ragusa, where remnants of human skulls were discovered.
Sciacca, in the Agrigento district, shows signs referring to Neolithic-Eneolithic ages, notably the Fazello caves, abandoned in the Bronze Age due to vapor emissions. Many jars, vases (one was full of children’s bones) and copper objects were unearthed hereabout.
The city of Taormina, now worldwide famous resort, boasts an ancient history. Founded by the Sikels, it was then a refuge for survivors from the neighboring Naxos, destroyed by the Syracusans. The city entered into alliances with king Phyrrus of Epirus and with the Romans, under whose rule it later enjoyed a remarkable prosperity. Outstanding relics were recovered from several excavations. The Greek Theatre, on a hill overlooking a breath-taking landscape, altered in the Roman age, is a major attraction. It retains the auditorium divided into nine sections and a double portico with several niches and columns, typical of the Imperial style; the stairs originally comprised two orders of columns which are largely ruined today. The Antiquarium is a small archaeological museum with interesting marble statues and relics from a Roman Theatre dating from the 2nd century BC and from a Roman Villa from the 1st century BC.
Termini Imerese, in the province of Palermo, was founded by refugees from Hymera and later ruled by Punics, Greeks, Romans and Carthaginians. It is home to few ruins consisting of an amphitheatre, an ancient portico dating from the 2nd-1st century BC, an aqueduct from the same period, and a prehistoric settlement of the 6th century BC near the Castellazzo Mount district.
Leontinoi, a village situated south of today’s Lentini, was inhabited by the Sikels and by the Greeks. Most of the site’s relics are preserved into the Archeological Park including: walls of the Necropolis of S. Mauro, remnants of a Prehistoric village, a Greek Temple and a Swabian fortification.
In the vicinity of Palazzolo Acreide, Siracusa, were found relics of Akrai, a Syracusan colony founded in 664 BC. Most of the site’s relics are preserved into the Archeological Park including: remains of a Greek Theatre altered in the Roman age, stone quarries containing Greek necropolises.
Thapsos, in the province of Siracusa, certainly predated at the Greek colonization; it had a commercial importance and was inhabited by colonists from Megara and Athens, and probably by the Phoenicians. The relics consist of walls probably built in two different periods, and necropolises, where funeral outfits were found.
The antique Noto, destroyed by a terrible earthquake in 1693, was inhabited by Greeks and Romans. The old town preserves a large number of relics scattered all around the Alveria district, including sections of the city walls, the agorà, a temple dedicated to Demetra and a shrine dedicated to Demetra and Kore dating from between the 6th and the 4th century BC, interesting carved sculptures contained into caves and grottoes, relics from a gymnasium, dating from the 3rd century BC. Necropolises and remnants dating prior to the hellenization are located in the area of the Castelluccio.
Eloro is a small settlement that Syracusans established in the 7th century BC by the mouth of the Tellaro river. Remnants include: sections of 6th century BC walls refurbished in the 4th century and comprising two lateral gates; the agorà, a shrine dedicated to Demetra, a theatre and a funerary monument probably dating from the Hellenistic Age.
Centuripe, in the province of Enna, was colonized by the Greeks in the 4th century BC and later ruled by the Romans. It preserves a ruined castle, remnants of a Roman mausoleum and forum, a thermal plant, a hellenistic house and a Roman cistern.
In the vicinity of Castroreale, Messina, are the remains of a 1st century Roman villa with beautiful floor mosaics and a thermal plant. The city preserves numerous other relics.
The ruins of Halaesa, a Greek colony founded in the 5th century BC, afterwards destroyed by the Arabs, are scattered throughout the territory of Santo Stefano di Camastra. The walls, the basement of a temple, the agorà is all that remain of the ancient settlement that enjoyed a notable prosperity under the Roman rule, even becoming a Roman municipium. Its decline started with the Arab domination.
The Archaeological Park in the Morello Valley, in the province of Enna between the cities of Villarosa and Calascibetta, contains ancient relics spanning a period from the Neolithic to the Copper and Roman Ages. It is home to seven different cave-settlements, funerary places, sanctuaries and necropolises, that attest to the historical and scientific importance of this area.