Thursday, January 12, 2017

Syracuse + Cats

This morning we woke to beautiful crashing waves right outside our hotel! We began our day by strolling through the oldest of the five sections of Syracuse, Ortygia, making important stops along the way. At the temple dedicated to Apollo, we noted the Doric-style pillars (simple and straight aesthetic) and the variety of types of bricks evident in the structure. The inconsistency in materials as well as the misplaced alter (it was moved to touch the side of the steps while usually it is situated a distance in front) indicated that this space had been repurposed by regimes after Carthage and the Greeks.

We took a moment to discuss the key points in the history of Syracuse which followed the regimes of Gelon from Carthage, Heiro, and Heiro the second (surprisingly not blood related). After a siege by the Athenians in the 3rd century CE, Syracuse became a Roman naval base which ultimately led to a golden age. Arts, poetry, and math (with the help of Archimedes, the super smart math science guy who invented the catapult and a fancy volume formula) thrived as the city expanded. When Syracuse later turned against Rome in the 2nd Punic War, the city was devastated, producing many the ruins we saw today. We passed the city’s park, which used to be a Roman forum, and before that a Greek marketplace. The sheer distance from the forum to the theater, two main hubs of Roman life, indicated the large size of the ancient city.

Our visit to the archaeological park gave us the chance to see further elements of this complicated history left behind. Our time in the park was guided by a multitude of kitties, including one tabby from the theater who was extra friendly. Feline friends were literally everywhere, from shop windowsills to sunny spots on the steps and benches. We started with a 3rd century CE temple dedicated to Hiero the second, a political leader of Syracuse. Seeing a religious temple dedicated to a human figure caused us to think about the blurry lines between a patron god and a political patron. We then moseyed our way to the picturesque Greek theater. The 67 rows, originally separated into 9 sections named after Greek gods, made a horseshoe half-ring that faced the sea (theoretically for better acoustics). We discussed the development of Greek tragedies and comedies as well as the role of the shows in the lives of the people. Shows, which had both social, religious, and political function, would shape the values learned by its audience, giving a lot of prestige and power to the playwrights. Next to the theater was the giant cave shaped like a goat ear that the people carved out because they thought it would look cool and please the god Dionysus. JUST KIDDING. The giant crevice was actually a quarry the Syracusans used to retrieve their unique marble, found nowhere else in the world. Once we convinced everyone that the flying creatures in the cave were pigeons and not bats, we entered inside to find the chisel marks left from the excavation of marble. The area is currently used as a prison; yet another example of converted space throughout time. We ended our time in the park at a Roman amphitheater, which featured a full circle of seating around a stage that had all the goodies from trap doors to channels underneath. We learned that shows here were often elaborate and used to gain the favor of the people. On our way out we made time to explore the trinkets for sale; I myself was super excited to finally buy some postcards!

Our next stop was the church of St. Lucia, the duomo, of Syracuse. The church itself was a confluence of culture, featuring both Norman style pillars and a baroque style front area. There were also modern components, such as the display of the gifts that the people left for St. Lucia, many of which were figurines or valuables in the shape of eyes (St. Lucia is known for her eyes being poked out during her prosecution). Even before the structure was a church, the building was a temple dedicated to Athena, further demonstrating the repurposing of space.

After some free time for exploring and lunch (and gelato of course), we walked to the guidecca, the section that Jews were confined to, to see the oldest known mikvah in Europe! It was originally chiseled out in the 1st century. This was so cool. Like beyond cool.
Quick overview: A mikvah is a place where Jews, both males and females would separately go for spiritual or ritual cleansing. Typical uses for females would be before marriage, after childbirth, and after every menstruation period. In the Orthodox tradition (which was all that existed at that point because other movements hadn’t come about yet), a woman was considered “impure” during her period (in this sense impure does not retain a negative connotation), and then could become pure again by immersing in the bath of natural flowing spring water. Other instances of impurity that could require a mikvah would be after dealing with death. Men would use the mikvahs whenever they wanted, usually before weekly Shabbos prayer and before marriage.
After the Spanish Inquisition, Jews were forced to leave or convert, so this mikvah was hidden away in hopes it would not be desecrated. This place was hidden for CENTURIES, and was only discovered 28 years ago when the modern building above made a well for water that went through the mikvah. It was excavated and has been used in recent months. It is just SO amazing that something could be so perfectly hidden and preserved for so long and then stumbled upon by accident.
When we followed the steps down into the subterranean mikvah to find five personal pools with steps, two of which were separate private mikvahs. Due to unexpected circumstances the entire floor was flooded a couple inches. This was actually the best mishap ever, as it gave us the most unique experience I could ever ask for. We were able to take our shoes off and explore the space wading in the same water that flows through the baths themselves, the same water source that Jews thousands of years ago, and still today, immersed themselves in. As soon as you entered the space, wiggling your toes in the shallow water and pressing your heels into the rough stone floor, you felt that you were crossing a boundary into sacred space. Even some of my fellow peers, regardless of whether they were Jewish, spoke to me of this internal feeling in some form or another. Sadly leaving the mikvah, I thought of the twinkling droplets of water that had condensed on the low ceiling of the private baths, creating a sparkling scene similar to a crystalized cave or a starry night.

The rest of the day we explored the beautiful city of Syracuse, the last we will see of Sicily! Many people (including myself) took the opportunity to shop, take pictures down on the rocky coast speckled with sea glass (also me), and visit the gorgeous nearby castle looking structures near the water (unfortunately not me, though it gives me a reason to come back!). It will be hard to say goodbye to beautiful Sicily tomorrow morning, but there is so much more in store for us as we make our way to Naples. And I can’t wait!


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