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Religious bond stretching from ancient Antioch to Taormina

Gabriele Martino- Sicily’s pearl in the sea, the celestial star, Taormina, unexpectedly connects the most important date to the East is 40 AD, marking the arrival of the Bishop of Antioch, San Pancrazio. Let’s focus on the figure of San Pancrazio di Antiochia, because the first bishop of Taormina was truly a “Turk”!

Named as one of the most beautiful cities of Eastern Sicily, Taormina, the pearl of the Ionian Sea, has been a center of attraction for centuries due to its historical, natural and cultural beauties. Today, we know it for its place and importance in global tourism. So much so that the data tells us that one million seventy-two thousand people stayed in a year only in 2019, “before the Covid-19 pandemic”! The city of Taormina today unites many different identities, from Germans to Americans, from Russians to Arabs. At the time it was founded, tourists were different, there was no tourism as we know it today. One of the first tourists was a Christian. More precisely, he was the first Christian bishop of Sicily and Taormina, his name was San Pancrazio di Antiochia. And he had united the west and east, that is, Taormina and the city of Antioch, by tight ties.


                                                  History of Taormina and San Pancrazio


Although previous studies refute it, those who founded the current Giardini Naxos in 413 BC, thought to be the first Greek colony in Sicily in 358 BC, also founded Taormina as a small village. Taormina has witnessed glorious and dark times, from the Greeks who laid the first foundations of the famous Ancient Theatre, to the Romans who completed the Ancient Theater and adorned Taormina with magnificent villas and streets, from the Byzantines to the Arabs, from the Normans to the reign of the Bourbons. But the most important date that unexpectedly connects Taormina to the East is AD 40, marking the arrival of Bishop San Pancrazio of Antioch. Let’s focus on the figure of San Pancrazio di Antiochia, because the first bishop of Taormina was truly a “Turk”! Today the city of Antakya no longer exists, the modern city nearby got its name with the reconstruction of the old city and is today known as Antakya. San Pancrazio was a young man who came to Taormina to fight paganism in 40 AD under emperor Caligula. San Pancrazio went to Jerusalem and saw Jesus, was appointed bishop by San Peter himself on his return from Jerusalem, and became the first bishop of Sicily and Taormina. He was then killed by a pagan “Artagato” on July 9 in AD 98, and from then on the figure of San Pancrazio became an important element of Christianization in Sicily. Today, San Pancrazio is known as the patron saint of the city of Taormina, and each year locals commemorate San Pancrazio’s death with a grand and solemn ceremony and parade on 9 July.

                                                 Taormina’daki San Pancrazio Kilisesi

Let us now dwell on the construction and development of the Church of San Pancrazio. The foundations of the present church are based on large local limestone blocks belonging to the ancient foundations of the previous pagan temple dedicated to Jupiter-Serapis, according to data from numerous archaeological discoveries found during excavations. After the death of San Pancrazio, his bones were placed in the ancient temple, which became an important reference point during the Byzantine period, which led to the construction of the Christian church. It should be noted that Taormina and Sicily were conquered by the Byzantines, and the city of Taormina, in particular, remained in Byzantine hands until the Arab conquest in 902. We must remember that the Byzantine Empire, whose capital was Constantinople, that is, present-day Istanbul, was still a Christian kingdom at that time. The city of Constantinople was the capital of the Roman Empire and the Western Roman Empire ended with the dethronement of Romulus Augustulus in 476, thanks to the Emperor Constantine, who gave the Christians freedom of worship with the Edict of Milan in 313 AD, that the Eastern Roman empire survived for more than a millennium. It’s good to remember.

Therefore, the church of San Pancrazio in Taormina was built thanks to the Byzantine domination of Sicily. The original Byzantine Christian church was smaller in size, as we can tell by the presence of small walled windows, for example; instead, the current church dates back to the Baroque period, in fact it was decided to extend the previous church, but the ancient foundations of the Greco-Roman temple remained unchanged, still visible from the outside. In front of the small church there is a small courtyard with a pointed arch outside, a bell tower outside and a very beautiful entrance gate decorated with local marble inlaid stones. However, the interior is truly Baroque splendor, marble inlays and large canvases depicting the life of successive pre-Taormina bishops enrich the great nave, a large round arch opens into the rectory with the Taormina altar of red marble. So, we can say that, despite the distance that separates the pearl of Ionia from Turkey, the distance of thousands of kilometers, the bond is stronger than ever and this bond will bring the desire to discover and carry the cosmopolitan culture to Taormina forever.

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