May 4, 1933, was a solemn occasion for Pantalica. That day, in fact, its little station received an absolutely high-ranking guest. No less than the Italian king Vittorio Emanuele III.

King Vittorio Emanuele III boards the train in Pantalica (ph. courtesy of A. Randazzo)

A rare photo shows the tiny figure of the king as he boards the train which is waiting for him, under the deferential gaze of a stiff stationmaster. I wonder what that man thought, seeing none other than the king pass by in that very remote Sicilian station of his. He stands motionless, making a military salute, without daring to look down on that penny of cheese that was the king. He probably wondered why the king, and with him all the nobles, professors, and lords he had seen pass by at the station, took it upon themselves to come down there. What could they ever see in those pierced stones of Pantalica.

The necropolis in Pantalica

Since the narrow-gauge line started the connection between Syracuse and the Iblei highlands, reaching as far as to Vizzini, the excursion to the mysterious necropolis had become quite fashionable. In 1939, it was so popular that the company that managed the railway line published a brochure on Pantalica and the Anapo River that flowed at the foot of the necropolis and whose route had been followed for the construction of the railway line.

In truth, at the time, not much was known about Pantalica, despite the long commitment of the archaeologist Paolo Orsi, the first to explore these fascinating places, and even today the information is poor. We know that the Sicans settled here, in the Bronze Age, and after them the Sicels, but we do not know where their village (possibly the mythical Hybla) exactly was. We have no idea of how it was either, given that only the basement of a building has survived time, the so-called Anaktoron (prince’s palace), dating back to twelve – thirteen centuries BC.

The places of worship and the customs of the people of the village are only known in broad terms. It is not known how they lived, although it is assumed that they cultivated the land and raised bees, an activity in which they must have been particularly skilled. Hyblean honey is mentioned with ardent gluttony by Pliny, Theocritus, and other famous authors, and even today honey is an excellent product of these areas, so much so that nearby Sortino is one of the Italian “cities of honey”.

Prehistoric tombs

Above all, it is not known how the ancient inhabitants of Pantalica / Hybla managed to dig 5000 cave tombs in the rock without the help of metal tools, creating the largest necropolis in Europe, a unique environment of limestone walls overlooking the Anapo River, pierced by thousands of cavities, solid black orbits standing out in the whiteness of the stone and the tufts of vegetation.

This necropolis is today the most important testimony of the small Sicel kingdom of Hybla, of which we know the name of a single king, Hyblon, who in the eighth century, granted Greek colonists a strip of his territory to build a polis, Megara Hyblea. At the time, the Greeks must have seemed harmless to this Hyblon, and certainly, he must have been happy that the name of his kingdom was celebrated in that of the village of the newcomers, but his assessment proved to be sensationally wrong. Not even a hundred years later, it was precisely Greek colonists, coming from Syracuse, who founded Akrai and thus decreed the end of Hybla. A definitive and traumatic end. Nothing remained of the Sicel settlement and no one lived in this area for a long time.

Only much later, during the Byzantine era, some groups of people settled here. This is testified by the remains of houses and small rock churches (the oratories of San Micidario, San Nicolicchio, and Crocifisso, with some traces of frescoes) made by enlarging some tombs of the Bronze Age, but after them, the place was gradually abandoned. In the thirteenth century, there was no one left and the area remained more or less deserted until, in 1915, work began on the railway I have written about (decommissioned and dismantled in 1956).

Today the route of the train is a long white road that winds along the course of the Anapo, a very bright ribbon of water flowing in pools and waterfalls, winding among plane trees, poplars, willows, and bushes. It is the main hiking route for those who want to know this area which today is one of the largest and most interesting natural reserves in eastern Sicily. The necropolis is just a little further up and to see it well there is the easy road that winds halfway up the quarry. Among euphorbias, oleanders, and prickly pears, the gaze sweeps freely over the many artificial caves of the necropolis and it is easy to understand why UNESCO has established that this place should be one of the World Heritage Sites.

All the photos of this article, except the b/w one, are by Luca Scamporlino