Alexandria's founded by Alexander

Alexandria's founded by Alexander the Great (by year BC): 334 Alexandria in Troia (Turkey) - 333 Alexandria at Issus/Alexandrette (Iskenderun, Turkey) - 332 Alexandria of Caria/by the Latmos (Alinda, Turkey) - 331 Alexandria Mygdoniae - 331 Alexandria (Egypt) - 330 Alexandria in Areia (Herat, Afghanistan) - 330 Alexandria of the Prophthasia/in Dragiana/Phrada (Farah, Afghanistan) - 330 Alexandria in Arachosia (Kandahar, Afghanistan) - 330 Alexandria in Caucasus (Begram, Afghanistan) - 329 Alexandria of the Paropanisades (Ghazni, Afghanistan) - 329 Alexandria Eschate or Ultima (Khodjend, Tajikistan) - 329 Alexandria on the Oxus (Ai-Khanoum OR Termez, Afghanistan) - 328 Alexandria in Margiana (Merv, Turkmenistan) - 326 Alexandria Nicaea (on the Hydaspes, India) - 326 Alexandria Bucephala (on the Hydaspes, India) - 325 Alexandria Sogdia - 325 Alexandria Rambacia (Bela, Pakistan) - 325 Alexandria Oreitide - 325 Alexandria in Opiene (confluence of Indus & Acesines, India) - 325 Alexandria on the Indus - 325 Alexandria Xylinepolis (Patala, India) - 325 Alexandria in Carminia (Gulashkird, Iran) - 324 Alexandria-on-the-Tigris/Antiochia-in-Susiana/Charax (Spasinou Charax on the Tigris, Iraq) - ?Alexandria of Carmahle? (Kahnu)

Monday, June 9, 2014

Syracuse rivaled with Athens to be the most powerful city

Syracuse always had a magical sound, tucked away down south of Italy on the island of Sicily that like no other was and still is at the cross-roads between east and west, between north and south.  This strategic location not only shows on the map of the Mediterranean but more so when you actually visit the island. That is exactly what I finally did after dreaming about it since my teenage years. Finding myself in the very heart of Syracuse, it is hard to describe what I feel or expect. I’m totally overwhelmed as if I were floating on some imaginary sea, the currents taking me to the core of its great past.

It may come as a surprise to learn that Syracuse at one time rivaled with Athens for the power over the Greek world, but as part of Magna Graecia, this was Greece away from Greece which we have to approach from a totally different angle. Syracuse was the very first city to be settled in Sicily and it were the Corinthians who in 733 BC disembarked on the small island Ortygia just off the coast. Pretty soon it was attached to the mainland by a causeway, creating two practical harbors, one on the southwest and one on the northeast side. Syracuse grew quickly and then created colonies of its own like Akrai, Kasmenai, Heloros and Kamarina.

With its expansion came the need for some form of government and not being happy with the Corinthian aristocrats who imposed themselves from the onset, Syracuse turned to Gelon, tyrant of neighboring Gela, a colony of Rhodians and Cretans that had settled as early as 688 BC. Gelon took his task seriously and moved the larger part of Gela’s population to Syracuse, which became his capital in 485 BC. The Syracusans must have felt they made the right decision for Gelon was able to defeat the Carthaginians at nearby Himera five years later, though it must be said he did so with the help of his father-in-law, Theron of Akragas (modern Agrigento). This at least kept the matter in the family. The victorious Gelon had taken thousands of prisoners of war which he now used as slaves and the finest craftsmen among them were employed to build a temple at the summit of Ortygia, dedicated to Athena to thank her for his victory. It probably was finished in 480 BC.

This is the temple we can still admire in the old town of Syracuse as an integral part of the cathedral (Duomo), whose façade was rebuilt in 1728-1754 in Sicilian-Baroque style after several earthquakes had damaged the Norman entrance. Isn’t it amazing that a place of worship is being used and re-used continuously for 2,500 years? This temple was erected in the Doric style, six columns wide and fourteen deep, with doors inlaid with ivory and gold. The larger than life statue of Athena would have ruled over the inside, an imposing figure made of Paros marble with her face, hands, feet and weapons of pure gold. The tympanum of the temple was enhanced with a golden shield that reflected the sunlight, serving as a landmark to the sailors. A pure statement of the city’s wealth, no doubt, till it was taken down by a too greedy Roman politician, Caius Verres some four hundred years later.

In Byzantine times the temple was converted into a church and the cella-walls were pierced to create open arches while the space between the columns was walled up. Under the Arabs the church became a mosque, and traces of this period can be seen on the outside walls where the Muslims added crenellations above the Greek triglyphs and metopes. With the arrival of the Normans, the roof was raised and narrow windows were inserted. The chestnut ceiling is a later Spanish addition (using the hard chestnut wood from the Etna region). I read all this information but still have no idea what to expect from this sanctuary that actually is right around the corner of my hotel.

The Baroque façade flanked by statues of the apostles Peter and Paul carved in pure Carrara marble doesn’t betray what the inside has in store for me. Once I cross the threshold of the Duomo, I am stepping into another world. It literally takes my breath away as I’m immediately confronted with the interior of a Greek temple – or at least as close as one can come to it. I’m actually standing in the temple’s opisthodomos, looking into the north apse between the outer columns (now walled) and the wall of the cella that has been opened up by the Byzantines to let the light flow through the inner sanctuary. The narrow windows the Normans inserted near the capitals of the Doric columns filter the late-afternoon sunlight. There are more windows above the vaulted walls of the inner cella where stylish chandeliers add to the eerie atmosphere of this church. It is hard to figure out what is Greek, Byzantine or Norman but the end-result is absolutely superb and harmonious. Along both sides of the modern nave we can read the Latin inscription “Ecclesia Syracusana prima Divi Petri filia et prima post Antiochenam Christo dicata”, meaning “The church of Syracuse is the first daughter of divine Peter and the first to be dedicated to Christ after Antioch”, in other words a confirmation that this is the oldest Christian community in Europe.

Two columns from the original opisthodomos of the cella are flanking the entrance door, and another twelve columns on the north side and nine on the south side are still in situ, sturdy Doric fluted columns almost nine meters high and two meters in diameter! On the Via Minerva, around the corner of the piazza, the twelve columns of the north side are also visible from the outside including their architrave and triglyphs above which the Muslim crenellation has been added.

The floor of the Duomo is covered with colored marble and I wonder about the dating of the different designs, interrupted by colorful tombstones that carry coats of arms. The main altar is typical 16th century with a painting of the Nativity of the Virgin, which I find somehow out of place, as much as I am absorbed by the antique Greek remains. In the eastern corner is a chapel, the Cappella del Crocifisso, with ceiling fresco’s that remind me of the Sixteen Chapel at a very early stage. There are two more chapels along the south wall, but these are unfortunately closed at the time of my visit.

Walking back to the entrance, I get an unexpected glimpse of the north aisle and notice three commanding statues optically in the perfect place between the columns and the openings in the cella-wall. They could well be antique gods or goddesses as far as I am concerned but on closer look they are 15th century’s statues of St Lucy, a Madonna with Child, and St Catherine of Alexandria, made in pure white Carrara marble.

Amazing how the eye and the mind can be tricked by this amalgam of architectural styles and religions. A true jewel though …


  1. Thanks for your post. Very helpful whilst visiting the church. Also amazed that this structure is still sitting after so many years even if modified a few times. However, this is the only way olden structures remain for us to see in a standing fashion

    1. Yes, isn't this church something special? As no other, it gives the true feel of what an ancient temple must have looked inside, don't you think so?