by Jeremy Dummett

A trip inland from Syracuse leads into completely different country from the coastal plain. The air is clearer and the heat less intense than by the sea and it is like a trip back in time to a more traditional way of life, lived closer to the land. Climbing slowly the road reaches the Hyblaean plateau, an area of open vistas, farmland divided by low stone walls, rocky hillsides and deep gorges along the rivers, before arriving at the Hyblaean Mountains, whose name comes from Ibla, a Sicel goddess. The Sicels, who gave their name to Sicily, inhabited eastern Sicily before the arrival of the Greeks. Under the Greeks, who rapidly dominated the Sicel population, the area became part of the Syracusan hinterland, established for defensive purposes as well as for supplying the city with agricultural produce and livestock, especially horses.

Palazzolo Acreide, a town of 9,000 inhabitants, lies on the plateau some 40 kilometres from Syracuse. The name Palazzolo comes from a castle built by the Normans, who established themselves here, and which was first mentioned by the geographer Edrisi. The modern town has a number of decorative churches and palaces built in the local baroque style introduced during the re-building that took place after the earthquake of 1693. Of particular note are the churches of the Immacolata (with a Madonna and child by Francesco Laurana), the Annunziata (with a marble altar by Antonello da Messina), S. Sebastiano and S. Paolo. Ornamental gateways and elaborate balconies, supported by imaginatively carved figures, are characteristics of the local architecture. Worth a visit is the Casa Museo, at 19 Via Machiavelli, a museum dedicated to local ethnic traditions, showing old working methods and implements, housed in an attractive old house with a courtyard. Near the entrance to the town stands an impressive modern cemetery, with large ornamental tombs, offering on a clear day a fine view of Mount Etna. Since ancient times this has been an area of strong religious beliefs, evident today in the popular celebrations of the local saints’ days. Like mountain towns elsewhere, Palazzolo Acreide is mostly neat and well kept, with a notable absence of the refuse that litters the coastal cities. The food takes on a different character here, with hearty pasta and meat dishes on offer, as well as the famous Sicilian sweet pastries.

The site of ancient Akrai lies just outside the modern town. It was founded by the Syracusan Greeks, according to Thucydides around 664 BC, seventy years after the foundation of Syracuse, the first of the Syracusan colonies. The name Akrai comes from akros, the Greek for edge or extremity, referring to the town’s position dominating a hilltop. Its role, according to the Sicilian archaeologist, Luigi Bernabò Brea, who carried out excavations here in the 1950s and early 60s, was as follows.

The site was chosen for strategic reasons. A comparison can be made with the Castello Eurialo, the great fortress of Dionysius. Just as the Eurialo dominated the ridge of hills behind Syracuse, protecting the city’s back, so Akrai, at the high point of of the city’s hinterland, gave Syracuse protection in depth. Possession of Akrai provided the Syracusans with access to the inland routes to the Greek cities on the south coast, Gela, Agrigento and Selinunte, as well to the Sicel cities of the interior.

Ancient Greek theatre, Sicily

Greek theatre

Akrai was at its most prosperous under Hiero II, who ruled Syracuse from 269 to 216 BC. The site contains a well preserved Greek theatre, in miniature compared to that in Syracuse, with seating for around 700, dating from the time of Hiero II. It lay forgotten until unearthed by Tommaso Fazello, who published a history of ancient Sicily in 1558. It was rediscovered in 1824 by the local archaeologist Gabriele Judica. The semi-circular cavea contains tiered seating cut from the rock of the hillside and is divided into nine segments by eight staircases. The theatre was remodelled by the Romans when the existing paving of the orchestra was laid.

Adjoining the theatre is the bouleuterion, a small council chamber for the senate which governed the city, consisting of a semi-circle of seats in three tiers. Originally it faced the agora, centre of political and civic life.

A temple to Aphrodite, the main deity of Akrai, stood on the top of the hill overlooking the city. Only fragments of its foundations remain today. The ancient walls, which date from between the fourth and the second centuries BC and contain huge blocks of stone, originally held a Syracuse gate to the east and a Selinunte gate to the west from where the road leads towards the centre of Sicily (via the modern city of Caltagirone) and on to the south coast at Gela.

Catacombs of ancient Akrai in Sicily

Catacombs

The site also contains extensive, and elaborately worked, caves and catacombs, first used by the Greeks for religious cults. They were extended in the early Christian period, for in the fourth and fifth centuries, this area became the most important Christian centre on the island after Syracuse. These catacombs were further developed by the Byzantines after the arrival of the Arabs in 827. At different times they were used both as living quarters and burial sites. There is a Roman relief carving, from the first half of the first century BC, showing a soldier making a sacrifice. The site also contains two latomie, or quarries, known as the Intagliata and Intagliatella, which supplied the stone to build the city.

The Santoni or Sanctuary to the Greek goddess Cybele

About one kilometre from the archaeological site of Akrai, next to the old road to Noto, can be found a unique monument. Known locally as the Santoni, having been mistaken for saints, the monument consists of twelve statues representing the ancient cult of the Greek goddess Cybele. They are the remains of a sanctuary for one of the most mysterious cults of antiquity, that of the Magner Mater, the Great Mother. It is thought to have been the principal centre of this cult in Sicily. Visits can only be made accompanied by official guides and need to be booked at the entrance to the archaeological park. In autumn 2015, timing for these visits was 17.30.

The cult of Cybele came originally from Phrygia in Anatolia where it represented the state goddess. Comparable to the Harvest-Mother goddess, Demeter, revered in Sicily, Cybele added some exotic traits of her own which included orgiastic rituals, a lion-drawn chariot and a following of eunuch priests. Her cult spread to mainland Greece and then to the Greek colonies in the west, including Sicily. Here she was associated with mountains, city walls, fertile nature and wild animals, especially lions.

The large sanctuary is located on a rocky hill overlooking a path with two flat, semi-circular areas at each end. Circular stones, which probably formed the foundations of altars, can be made out. The sculptures are found in twelve, wide niches carved into the rock, eleven at one level, and one on a lower level. Most of the niches contain a similar, seated female figure, the goddess Cybele, with various accoutrements such as lions, a panther and a drum, in different states of preservation. One of them contains a life-sized statue of the goddess. A number of other figures associated with the cult also appear, such as Hermes and Attis, the latter being a younger priestly attendant.

Identification of the goddess in the niches as Cybele comes from comparisons with representations of her elsewhere in the Greek world, especially in Athens.

It remains a mystery why the sanctuary was built at Akrai. A possible connection lies with Corinth, the mother-city of Syracuse, which had a temple to Cybele. When Dionysius II, ruler of Syracuse, went into exile in 344 BC he moved to Corinth where he became a priest of the goddess. According to Bernabò Brea, Dionysius may have introduced the cult to Syracuse. The sanctuary itself, however, was created at a later date, at sometime towards the end of the fourth century or during the third century BC.

To date this sanctuary, with its many figures and detailed carvings, is the most comprehensive presentation of the cult of Cybele to have been discovered.

Sources

Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War (Penguin Classics, Middlesex, 1954) Book 6.

Salvatore Maiorca, Guida di Akrai (Comune di Palazzolo Acreide, 2005).

Raleigh Trevelyan, Companion Guide to Sicily (Boydell & Brewer, Woodbridge, 1966).

www.palazzolo-acreide.it provides further information on the sites.