Ortigia Island is the oldest part of the city of Syracuse. Its name comes from the ancient Greek “ortyx” which means quail. It is the heart of the city, the first to be inhabited in ancient times, thanks to its geographical position and the presence of waters and springs.
Like the whole of Sicily, Ortigia is also a proof of past centuries and of the populations that have succeded. Its territory tells of an ancient history that saw the arrival of the Greeks succeeded by the Romans, the Swabians, the Aragonese and the Arabs.
History of Ortigia Island
It has been inhabited since the Bronze Age (from 3500 to 1200 BC), given the presence of circular huts belonging to the culture of Thapsos. When the Greeks arrived they found it uninhabited probably ancient people left it to seek refuge in the hinterland) and settled there. From that moment Ortigia played an important political and administrative role till centuries to come.
From the Middle Ages until the 1800s it was protected by massive walls and used as a parade ground. The walls were destroied at the end of the 19th century and in the second half of the following century began a slow and gradual abandonment of the historic center. This allowed the increase of crimes and degradation fought with a series of redevelopment projects. These redevelopment projects have foreseen, over the years, the Sea Museum, the construction of a 5-stars hotel, the revaluation of the waterfront and the reopening of the two theaters, the municipal one and the one dedicated to Giovanni Verga.
Today visiting Ortigia is like walking through history and admiring its splendor, getting lost in its small neighborhoods, which reveal wonders, is enchanting. The most famous districts of the island are: Bottari, Cannamela, Castello, Duomo, Gancia, Giudecca, Graziella, Maestranza and Marina.
Among the most beautiful things to see in Ortigia we remember:
the Maniace Castle, the Temple of Apollo (6th century BC), the Cathedral (Ionian temple 8th century BC), the Fountain of Artemis (1906), the Fonte Aretusa, Porta Urbica (6th-5th century BC), the Archbishop’s Palace , the Church of San Martino, the Church of Santa Lucia alla Badia, the Church of the Holy Spirit, the Palazzo Beneventano-Del Bosco, the Palazzo dei Mergulensi-Montalto, the 16th century Porta Marina, the Church of S. Pietro Intra Moenia and the Church of S. Giovanni Battista.
Some small description of some of these can be used to fully understand what we are talking about, how ancient the monuments and palaces of this “piece” of city are.
Castello Maniace is located in the southern part of the island and was built at the time of the Swedes at the behest of Frederick II in the first half of the thirteenth century. This castle was used both as a residence and as a defensive structure. In the 1500s it underwent some changes by the new inhabitants, the Spaniards, who fortified it as they were doing with the whole city. During the violent earthquake of 1693 it suffered some damage.
Today there is only one tower out of the four that existed at each corner of the square plan castle.
The temple of Apollo is located in the northern part of the island of Ortigia and is considered the oldest temple in the whole of Sicily. It was built in the 6th century BC. C. Over time it has undergone various changes becoming church, mosque and still church, depending on the religion of the rulers. Under the dominion of the Aragonese it was transformed into a barracks
Continuing on our walk we find the Duomo which was built in the 5th century BC. C. as Temple of Athena. Later it was modified and transformed into a Christian basilica. The changes it has undergone over time have been manifold. During the Norman era the central nave was modified, after the 1693 earthquake the entire Baroque facade was rebuilt and during the fifteenth century the new polychrome floor was laid out. The interior of the Cathedral is divided into three naves and at the end of the right one there are 4 chapels: that of the Baptistery, that of Santa Lucia, that of the Sacrament and that of the Crucifix. Inside these chapels there are several works of art. At the end of the left aisle there is a wonderful Byzantine apse where the statue of the Madonna della Neve has been placed.
In the southwestern part of the island is located the Fonte Aretusa. This place is surrounded by a incredible legend that tells of the nymph Arethusa fleeing from Alphaeus, madly in love with her. The nymph asked Artemis for help, who turned her into a source to save her.
From this enchanting place, near the sea, you can also admire a beautiful landscape that reaches up to the Iblei Mountains. Near the Duomo is the Archbishop’s Palace built in the seventeenth century by the will of Bishop Torres. Currently inside there is the Archiepiscopal Library Alagonia of 1780.
Other information about Ortigia
Besides the artistic beauties Ortigia offers much more. The island has followed the times and has also been filled with restaurants, pizzerias and different places where you can spend some time with other people to enjoy the excellent Sicilian cuisine. Even a walk on the waterfront is an experience not to be missed.
Some pics from Syracuse and surroundings