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The Catacombs of St. John are on view in Sicily

By Cathoic Online
March 29th, 2011
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

The Catacombs of St. John in Siracusa contain some 20,000 Early Christian tombs. However, all that remains today are the honeycombed tunnels of empty coffins that were looted by grave robbers long ago. They are entered through the evocative ruins of a Norman church.

LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic Online) - In Roman times, Christians were not allowed to bury their dead within the city limits, and had to go to the boundaries of Syracuse to create their own burial chambers in what had been previously used by the Greeks as underground aqueducts. The early Christians recycled these into chapels.

The Catacombs of St. John are the only ones open to the public of the other subterranean burial grounds still in Syracuse. Visitors enter the "world of the dead" from the Chiesa di San Giovanni, now a ruin. St. Paul is said to have preached on this spot.

The church's roots go back to the 6th century, when a basilica stood here, but it was eventually destroyed by the Saracens. The Normans reconstructed it in the 12th century and it served as the cathedral of Syracuse, but in 1693 an earthquake destroyed it.

A baroque church was then built, but was later abandoned in the 17th century and left in ruins by the earthquake of 1908.

All that remains of the church today are roofless Norman walls and about half of the former apse, both overgrown. A beautiful rose window is still visible.

Underneath the church is the Cripta di San Marciano, or the Crypt of St. Marcian, constructed on the spot where the martyr is alleged to have been beaten to death. His Greek-cross chamber is found 16 feet below the ground.

Some faded frescoes and symbols etched into stone slabs can still be seen in the catacombs.

Visitors should be aware that the site is closed from the month of February. It is located at Piazza San Giovanni, at end of Viale San Giovanni, Syracuse, Sicily. Children less than the age of 15 are free.

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