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This tiny island in the middle of a lagoon is so small as not to arouse the least suspicion that it might have played any role in the history of its larger neighbour Sicily. Yet, San Pantaleo – its modern name, was chosen by the Phoenicians as a suitable site for a vital and later prosperous colony. Its strategic position, surrounded by the shallow waters of the Stagnone Lagoon (see Saline dello STAGNONE) and naturally protected by Isola Longa on the seaward side, meant that it was coveted as a strategic trade-post as much by the Carthaginian as by the Syracusan antagonists. In the end, this was to be its undoing: besieged by the Syracusan forces, Motya was completely destroyed and left to abandon until it was rediscovered at the end of the 19C.


The ancient Phoenician colony therefore, was founded in the 8C BC on one of the four islands of the Stagnone Lagoon now known as the Island of San Pantaleo (the name it assumed in the Middle Ages when a group of Basilian monks settled there). Motya, the Phoenician name by which it came to be known before, is alleged to translate loosely as “spinning centre” after wool carding and spinning cottage-industries were instituted on the island. Like most other Phoenician colonies, the island became a commercial trade-centre-cum-staging post for Phoenician ships plying the Mediterranean. The 8C BC also saw the beginning of the Greek colonisation of Sicily which, for the main, was concentrated on the east side of the island. It therefore seemed appropriate for the Phoenicians to consolidate their activities in the west enabling Motya to grow in importance and to evolve into a small town. In the 6C BC, the struggle for Greek or Carthaginian supremacy over Sicily gained momentum, and Motya was forced into taking sides. Hefty defensive walls were erected around the settlement to provide better protection. In 397 BC, the tyrant of Syracuse Dionysius the Elder, laid siege to the town until at last it capitulated, snuffing out every last will to continue. Its surviving inhabitants sought refuge on the mainland, and soon integrated themselves among the people of Lilybaeum, modern-day Marsala.

The rediscovery of Motya is associated with the name of Joseph Whitaker, an English noblernan living in the 1880s related to the family that owned a well-established and flourishing business producing and exporting Marsala wines. The house on the island built for Whitaker now accommodates a small museum.

Access – Leave the car at the landing-stage. Local fishermen assure a regular boat service to and from the island. As recently as 1971, it was still possible to ride in a horse-drawn cart across the old Phoenician causeway linking the island to the mainland. Given that the causeway lay just below the surface of the water, passengers had the strange impression that they were “walking on water” (see Porta Nord below). This was also the usual means by which the Grillo grapes grown on the island since the 19C were transported for use in making Marsala. As the island is approached, a profusion of colour and smells seems to emanate from it like a warm welcome: in spring the typical Mediterranean vegetation is especially lush, a perfect excuse in itself for inspiring a visit. In the centre stands the lovely 19C house built by the Whitakers, now a museum.

Excavations – Footpaths run along the perimeter of the island and lead in and among the vestiges of the Phoenician town (allow 1hr 30min; furthermore, it may be well to advise following the path in an anti-clockwise direction).

Fortifications – The island lies in the lee of what was once a peninsula – modern day Isola Longa, naturally protected from attack therefore by the mainland and the shallow waters of the lagoon. In order to increase its natural defences, Motya was enveloped by an enclosure wall with watchtowers in the 6C BC.

These fortifications were later modified and reinforced. The footpath skirts past the remains of several towers, notably the east tower (with a rectangular base) with its staircase up to the ramparts.

Porta Nord – The North Gate is the more important and better preserved of the town’s two entrances. The remains of the towers flanking the gateway are still clearly in evidence. Inside, a section of the original main street shows signs of wear, its surface rutted by ancient cart-wheels. On the seaward side, just below the surface of the water, extends a paved causeway linking Motya to Birgi on the mainland. It covered a distance of some 7km and was just wide enough to accommodate two carts abreast. Today, the way is “way-marked” above the surface allowing the keenest visitors to walk the causeway (although the wearing of rubber flip-flops or plastic sandals is highly recommended). Enter through the gate and proceed along the main street.

Cappiddazzu – This alludes to the area that lies just inside the North Gate: among the various buildings, the one divided into three aisles may have served a religious function. Make your way back towards the shore.

Necropolis – A series of stelae and urns indicate the area used for Archaic cremations and burials. A second necropolis was located on the mainland at Birgi, at the far end of the submerged causeway directly opposite.

Tophet – The sacred area consists of an open-air sanctuary where urns containing the remains from human sacrifices to the goddess Tanit and the god Baal Hammon were deposited. At that time, the immolation of firstborn male children was widespread. A little further along the track, the little island of Schola comes into view: this is the smallest of the Stagnone Lagoon islands, and is distinctively recognisable by its three pink roofless houses.

Cothon – The small rectangular man-made harbour is linked to the sea by a narrow channel. Its exact purpose is not known. Some experts believe it to have been built as a harbour for the smaller, lighter craft that might have plied between the island and the ships moored in the lagoon, ferrying passengers as well as merchandise.

Porta Sud – The South Gate is situated beyond the harbour: like the North Gate, it too is framed by towers.

Casermetta – As its name suggests, this building was reserved for the military: the vertical stone shafts are a typical feature of Phoenician constructions.

Casa del Mosaici – The house with the mosaics is so called because it preserves two fine black and white pebble panels with a winged griffin chasing a deer, and a lion attacking a bull.

Museo – The museum is devoted to displaying artefacts recovered from the island itself, from Lilybaeum (Marsala) and from the necropolis at Birgi, on the shore opposite Motya. In the front courtyard, are arranged a series of stelae from the Tophet. The Phoenician and Punic pottery is simple in shape and devoid of any decoration: the imported Corinthian, Attic and Italiot vases, meanwhile, are decorated with black or red figures. The sculpture collection includes allegorical statuettes of motherhood, like the figurine of the Great Mother terracotta heads betraying a Greek influence; without forgetting the superb Ephebus of Motya, a noble, proud-looking figure wearing a long, pleated garment, most evidently influenced by Hellenistic prototypes.

Casa delle Anfore – The House with the amphorae is located behind the museum, beyond the houses. It owes its name to the simple fact that a considerable number of amphorae were found there.


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