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Akrai

Davide D’Orazio
May 2, 2021
JUSU E SUSU
June 4, 2021
© Regione Siciliana Ph. Giuseppe Mineo

Akrai

Palazzolo Acreide

 
Set in the splendid setting of the Hyblean Hills in the Syracusan hinterland, the fascinating town of Palazzolo Acreide is like a chest for visitors to look for treasure in. Included both in the Unesco World Heritage List and the most Beautiful Villages of Italy, (i Borghi più Belli d’Italia) this amazing place has a wealth of history, presented in a series of multiform and complex architectural layers, set against a background of green hills and lush nature untouched by intensive agriculture.
Akrai © Regione Siciliana Ph. Giuseppe Mineo
 
The city began life as a colony of Siracusa, founded around 664-663 with the aim of controlling the road to Selinunte which connected Siracusa to the cities of the southern Sicilian coast.
«Acre and Casmene were founded by the Syracusans: Acre seventy years after Siracusa, Casmene about twenty years after Acre. The oldest colonisation of Camarina can also be ascribed to the Syracusans, about one hundred and five years after Siracusa was founded; the founders were called Dascone and Menecolos.»
(Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War, Book VI, 5)
As for the modern name “Palazzolo”, this is a later addition of the middle ages. It clearly derives from the Latin palatium with the addition of the suffix -olum thus becoming “Palatiolum”, and then “Palazzolo di Ákrai”. Today one of the highest parts of the city is still called “palazzu”, probably because it was where a fortress or castle once stood.
Greek theatre, Akrai © Regione Siciliana Ph.Giuseppe Mineo
 
Built on the top of a hill, Akrai was difficult to attack and also provided an excellent place from which to guard over the surrounding countryside. Thanks to this strategic position (testified to by traces of settlements dating back to the Paleolithic), the city grew to reach its greatest splendour under Hieron II (275 B.C.-215 B.C.E). It remained a faithful ally of Siracusa, and its army intercepted Nicia and his forces in 421B.C. in the Val di Noto or the Anapo Valley and helped to defeat him.
During the Greek period, the city built important civic buildings which under Hieron II took on the layout we can still see today at the archaeological site.
In 211 B.C after the fall of Siracusa, Akrai became part of the Roman province, taking the Latin name Acrae and becoming “Civitas stipendiaria” (Pliny, Naturalis Historia, III 8); it flourished until at least the paleochristian period, as is evident from the numerous catacombs and hypogeums excavated into the rock-faces of the latomia or quarries. The city then dwindled slowly, possibly destroyed by the Arabs, until the site was abandoned and slowly disappeared under earth and spontaneous vegetation until it became invisible and forgotten for almost eight centuries. In the meantime, the settlement had shifted downhill towards the east, and after the earthquake of 1693 it moved again to occupy the area which is now the historic centre of Palazzolo Acreide.
The first scholar to identify the site of the invisible city was the Sicilian historian Tommaso Fazello in the 16th century, but it was the baron, Gabriele Judica, who started the first excavation of the site of Akrai in the early 19th century. He described his studies of the antiquities found there in the volume Le antichità di Acre, published in 1819.

Akrai intagliata © Regione Siciliana Ph.Giuseppe Mineo

 
Successive excavations of the city brought to light the theatre, small in scale but in an excellent state of preservation; its discovery was announced in 1824 by Gabriele Judica. The stage lies parallel to the decumano, a main road discovered in the second half of the 20th century, so the theatre building must already have fitted into the urban plan and can probably be dated to the third century B.C. Carved into the slope of the hill with a great view over the Anapo Valley towards Mount Etna, its cavea has nine sectors divided by eight stairs: Gabriele Judica hypothesised the existence of twelve rows originally, and probably only the two end cunei or sectors were actually constructed.
Apart from its small size, the theatre has some other unusual characteristics: both the cavea and the orchestra are semi-circular, without extensions; there are no parodoi or corridors between the cavea and the stage building and access to the stage was probably from the two sides of the stage. Not much remains of the stage building, just as there are only a few traces of a pulpitum di of the Imperial age which used to stand in the orchestra.
The excellent state of repair of the theatre has permitted modern usage of the building; since 1991, it has hosted the International Festival of Classical Theatre for Young People organised by the National Institute of Ancient Drama, INDA.

Teatro greco, Akrai © Regione Siciliana Ph.Giuseppe Mineo
 
To the west of the theatre lie the agorà and the bouleterion of the city, both reused in the Roman period: the bouleterion, also discovered by Iudica in 1820, was a meeting place for the citizens’ council and traces of a rectangular room have been found within which a small theatre was built with three cunei and 6 rows of seats divided by two stairs. The main road of the city, identified as the decumano, is perfectly preserved; it is four metres wide and paved with large polygonal blocks of basalt. Secondary roads running north and south branch off from this central axis in an irregular way, and the roads to the north are not naturally aligned with those to the south of the decumano.
 
Rilievo © Regione Siciliana Ph.Giuseppe Mineo
 
To the south-east of the theatre lie two latomie or quarries, called Intagliata and Intagliatella, which from the middle of the IVth century B.C. probably housed cults to the dead who were venerated as heroes. Later the area became a burial ground in the Christian-Byzantine period and later also under the Arabs. On the open area above the latomie of the Intagliata are traces of the foundations blocks of an archaic temple dedicated to Aphrodite, an Aphrodision built in the VIth century B.C.. The few surviving fragments seem to indicate that the temple was of the Doric order, although there are some decorative elements that show signs of the Ionic style.
 
 
The extra-urban sanctuary of Cybele, the so-called Santoni, is of particular interest. It was identified by the marquis Paolo d’Albergo, and then the French painter Jean Houel saw the site when he visited Palazzolo in 1777.
«In a space of 10 or 12 tese, one sees a large number of bas-reliefs; most of them are extremely mutilated, and all of them are to some degree. Some have been cancelled more by the hand of man than by that of time. The shepherds of the surroundings sometimes take stones and as a pastime, with no ill intentions, try to hit the heads of the figures without realising the damage they are doing. They destroy to destroy, as children do their toys and then they regret their actions when they no longer have any. The bas-reliefs are curious, mainly because they are carved into the bedrock and this is a very rare circumstance. They impressed me so much that I thought it was a good idea to draw some of them so my readers could see them.»
In modern times, the city has once more been the object of excavations and studies which have given us a better understanding of the history of the ancient settlement; these were carried out by the Soprintendenza ai Beni Culturali of Siracusa and more recently by an Italian-Polish team.
Gennaio 2021
Akrai è un sito del Parco archeologico e paesaggistico di Siracusa, Eloro, Villa del Tellaro e Akrai. Foto su concessione dell’Assessorato dei Beni Culturali e dell’Identità Siciliana con divieto di duplicazione, anche parziale, con qualsiasi mezzo.
 
NICOLETTA LONGO

Dopo gli studi e una breve ma intensa esperienza nel campo dell’Archeologia, la sua carriera professionale si è orientata all’insegnamento. Oltre alla passione per la musica e per il fumetto, in lei l’amore per l’archeologia, l’arte e il territorio non è mai tramontato e, attualmente, dedica il suo tempo libero all’associazionismo culturale e scrivendo per SiracusaCulture.