Built for Athena
No building in Syracuse tells us more about the city's history than the Duomo. Standing on ground that has been held sacred since the earliest days of settlement, it saw pagan Greeks, Roman and Byzantine Christians and Muslim Arabs pass through in a thousand year-long parade of worshippers and supplicants before it began to take on its current form as a Catholic cathedral.
Stepping up to its ornate Bararoque entrance and passing through the grand Spanish portico, all carved marble and Christian symbolism, it gives little away of its Greek origins. Once inside however, it's a different story. Ten massive Doric march down the left nave of the cathedral, supporting the roof and framing the side chapels of the cathedral. What was once a temple to the goddess Athena is now a church dedicated to the Virgin Mary.
Built in the 5th century BC, Athena's temple was not the first on the site however, it replaced an earlier temple that was built here in the 7th century BC and it's more than likely that there was an even older temple to a local deity of the original inhabitants - the Siculo tribes - before that. Fabled across the Mediterranean for its splendour, the temple was to remain a centre of pagan belief for some 1200 years until it was converted to a Christian basilica in about 640 AD.
13 centuries later the cathedral's history is written in stone and marble for all to see. The floors and northern apse are Byzantine as is the masonry filling the gaps between the Greek columns. Nothing remains to tell of the Islamic years but the Normans left their mark in the massive stucture of the inner aisles though only a few scraps of the mosaics they used to decorate the apse survive. The earthquake of 1693 did huge damage and brought about the Baroque rebuilding that saw the cathedral assume most of the interior we see today - elaborate chapels, the magnificent silver altars, the frescoes and wrought iron chapel gates and - most spectacular of all - the grand facade and portico.
As with so many of the buildings here in Ortygia, scaffolding hides the exterior side walls so you can't see the columns from the outside at present.