Beneath a small church in Southern Italy, an intricate tunnel system pristinely encapsulates remnants of Sicily’s complex history.
Tucked away in a back corner of Syracuse, Sicily, La Chiesa di San Filippo Apostolo is entirely unassuming from its crumbling whitewashed exterior, but deep beneath its surface, the Baroque church is a remarkable historic shrine housing relics from the Medieval Period through World War II. Built upon the remains of a medieval synagogue, the church conceals a burial crypt, a tunnel system used as a World War II bunker, and a Jewish ritual bath under stories of ancient stairs beneath its main level.
The descent into the church’s otherworldly lower levels is clandestinely concealed by a trap door within the nave floor, which opens into a narrow frescoed stairway that leads deep into the lower caverns. A skull and crossbones mark the entrance to a Christian tomb where wealthy congregates are buried within the walls of three altars decorated by faded, ghostly paintings. The church’s quiet underground crypt serves as a chilling threshold into the sacred labyrinth harbored below, where more remnants of history are eternally preserved and concealed
The second level under La Chiesa di San Filippo Apostolo is an elaborate tunnel system branching out for miles beneath Syracuse and its neighboring island of Ortigia, where pathways lead to other churches and landmarks stretching all the way to the sea. During World War II, these passages provided shelter for over 10,000 Sicilian citizens as bombs dropped by the Allied forces ravaged the buildings above. Drawings on surrounding walls depict British planes along with messages in Italian written by civilians who once sought refuge in the underground bunker 80 years ago.
The preservation of the cavernous tunnels teleports visitors to a monumental period of history when the same chilly air and damp tunnel walls painted a very different setting for thousands who waited anxiously for relief from the horrors above ground. Walking through its maze of passageways, visitors can appreciate the rich history within the old catacombs before venturing back to the main level to tour the restorations outside for a full-circle glimpse of the devastation inflicted by WWII.
In the third level of the church’s subterranean cavern, an authentic Jewish mikvah still holds crystal clear water from an underground spring 60 feet below the streets of Siracusa. The perfectly preserved ritual bath dates to the 1400s before the Inquisition drove large Jewish populations out of Sicily. At the time, the purification bath was used mostly by women for ritual immersion in Judaism before marriage and after menstruation and childbirth for renewed piety. Such lasting artifacts of Italian Judaism are important reminders of the country’s historic religious and cultural diversity.
The multi-layered history hidden in the depths of La Chiesa di San Filippo Apostolo paints a fascinating picture of Italy’s complex and storied culture in bygone days. The wonders of Syracuse’s history lie only a few dozen feet beneath the surface of its winding streets, where a maze of catacombs intersect with ancient archives that bridge contemporary Italy with reminders of its rich past.