Fire-fighting: A Losing Battle
Wildfires are a big problem in southern Italy. Every year they sweep the tinder-dry countryside and often threaten forests, farmers’ land and human habitation. In Sicily and Campania in particular, ancient heritage sites can also be in danger from summer fires. Despite state publicity about not throwing cigarette butts out of car windows and well-publicised hot-lines (no pun intended) for reporting local fires, it seems that the authorities are fighting a losing battle.
This year looks like it will be no different, with the countryside around Palermo in Sicily being one of the first to suffer. This week, on 21 June, a blaze tore through scrub land near the town of Bagheria, 10 km east of Palermo on the north Sicilian coast. Despite efforts from a fire-fighting plane and helicopter, it took many hours to get the fire under control and during that time it unfortunately spread to the valuable archaeological area of Solunto. The extent of the damage to the Roman ruins is not yet known.
The Roman Ruins of Solunto
While Solunto may not be the most important archaeological site in Sicily, it would still be a sad loss if it has been seriously damaged by fire. Its ruins amount to no more than some mosaics and the lower part of buildings and columns and it is certainly no match for the grandeur of the temples at Agrigento or the impressive expanse of mosaics at the imperial villa at Piazza Armerina.
But what Solunto lacks in well-preserved ancient architecture, it makes up for in its history. As one of only three main Phoenician settlements in Sicily (the other two being Zis in present-day Palermo, and Motya, now Mozia on Sicily’s west coast), Solunto certainly deserves some respect, dating back as it does to 700 BC when it was called Kfra by the Phoenicians. It would later be known as Solus by the Greeks when they conquered it in 396 BC, and Soluntum by the Romans after they took it in 254 BC. Later that century the town was abandoned and was left uninhabited and undiscovered until the sixteenth century. Almost all of its buildings are Roman and the ruins of a small theatre are still visible.
According to local news sources, the local fire brigade has not yet ruled out the possibility that the fire was started on purpose. It would be sad indeed if Italy’s cultural heritage had arsonists, as well as time, against it.