Syracuse Top Tourist Attractions

The archeological site Artemision displays layers of 3-millennia old history of Syracuse, from remnants of the Temple of Artemis, to gruesome world of crypt San Sebastianello…

        Almost every stone in Ortigia have some historical value accumulated during nearly three millennia of uninterrupted and mostly glorious time.

It is then nothing surprising that under almost each of existing architectural monuments you can find an older layer of remarkable history. 

        This is the case of Palazzo Senatorio (City Hall). Build in 1633 and itself a great example of Sicilian architecture it covers the area where few meters below the ground level was the center of ancient Greek’s Syracuse. For centuries, standing side by side, two magnificent temples – the Temple of Athena (today “replaced” by the Cathedral) and the Temple of Artemis were focal points of the city.

Artemision: remnants of ancient structures

Fragments of columns that once upon a time were part of the magnificent Temple dedicated to goddess Artemis 

       The Ionic Temple of Artemis was built in the late 6th century BC.  It was dedicated to the mythological goddess of hunting, wilderness and wild animals, but also protector of virginity and young girls (in Roman culture known as Diana). 

The concept of the Syracusan temple was based on the similar structure (also dedicated to Artemis) in Ephesus (today Turkey). Its monumental form (about 60 x 25 meters / 195ft x 82ft)) was meant to underline importance of Syracuse as one of the most important Greek’s city-states (in fact Syracuse in terms of commercial importance and military power shortly became almost equal to Athens). Most likely however, the Temple of Artemis was never fully finished, may be due to “strong competition” from the nearby temple dedicated to Athena….

Major archeological works were carried in 60-ties: here original pictures of Greek columns from those times

Picture: Courtesy of the Artemisia Museum

        Unfortunately, time was not favorable for the temple, and at some time it started to serve as a quarry for “easily accessible stones” much needed to feed the “hungry” city with construction materials. No wonder, that when in 1910, the Temple of Artemis was re-discovered by one of the most renowned Italian archeologists – Paolo Orsi, the only testimony of its “once upon the time” existence and greatness were remnants of few columns. From this point of view, the fate of the nearby Temple of Athena was much better. Some of its crucial elements were integrated into the structure of the Cathedral and hence have their well-deserved place in the predictable future.

Obviously, the temple of Artemis occupied the “prime” area on the island of Ortigia, where almost all settlers starting from the Bronze Age and following successive conquerors left some footprints. As the result, Oritiga is an archeological treasure, the pile of layers covering achievements of past generations of inhabitants. Excavations under the Senatorial Palace brought to light pottery from 10th century BC, archaic walls and elements of “houses” (huts) from 7th century BC, traces of an ancient road, mentioned columns from the Temple of Artemis… and the list can go long. 

       Newly opened archeological site known as Artemision makes these “layers of history” available to the public. It’s probably more interesting to those interested in history than to the average tourist. Ironically, the best-preserved part of this underground exposition are remnants from the Crypt of the now demolished Church San Sebastianello. It’s ironic because the row of carved, perforated stone seats that were used to drain fluids from dead bodies of those waiting for their final step into “eternity” is quite gruesome. It is rather from the “World of Macabre” than from expected to be seen World of Marvels from the Ancient Greece.

After the death the bodies were placed in sitting positions to drain them from fluids. At the end of the process the "dried" remains of bodies (or just bones) were placed to ossuary... The crypt was part of Church San Sebastianello. 

An emblem on the facade of the City Hall

18th century carriage in the baroque style, richly carved and gilded displayed in the City Hall

      It is also worth to mention the entrance to the archeological site. This limestone structure with vertical cut on the side facing Minerva street was designed by an architect V. Lavina the way to blend with the “surrounding historical structures and at the same time highlight the historical value of the excavated “underground past”…. Indeed, it is an architectural  “marvel” on its own.

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