The Catacombs of St. John

Are you passionate about history, curious about anecdotal stories or simply a lover of ancient culture? Here is a site that you must visit in Syracuse: the Catacombs of San Giovanni (St. John, the park adjacent to the Archaeological Museum “Paolo Orsi”).

The Catacombs of St. John of Syracuse are an important historical testimony of the Christian period: they were built between the fourth and the sixth century AD, on the remains of an old Greek aqueduct; these were never used as a shelter for the first Christians hiding from persecutions, as their first documented use dates to later than the Edict of Constantine, which established freedom of worship of Christianity. At that time they were used as an early Christian cemetery.

The catacombs of St. John are, for size, the second largest in Italy after those of Rome. They were also used as air-raid shelter during the Second World War, which is why currently there are no bones to be found in the site.

The shape of the catacomb, running underground over 10,000 square meters, is similar to that of a castrum, which is the Roman military camp: in fact, the interior plant is composed of a “main street”, the “Decumanus Maximus” and ten secondary passages, the “Cardines” .

Related to the presence of the former aqueduct, the old water tanks were transformed in the Christian period into private funerary chapels reserved to the powerful, the clergy and the Roman patricians. One of the most important chapels is the whole Catacombs network is the one dedicated to Adelphia, wife of Valerius, a well-known Roman patrician. This chapel owes its name to the discovery, in 1872, of the so-called “sarcophagus of Adelphia”, unearthed thanks to the work of the archaeologist Saverio Cavallari and now housed at the archaeological museum Paolo Orsi in Syracuse. This is a sarcophagus of great importance, owing to the fact that in the centre of it, a shell was found (symbol of eternity) which depicts Adelphia and her husband; all around it are 62 scenes from the old and the new testament.

Within the catacombs we find three types of tombs: niche, arcosolium and formum. The niches were used as graves for babies or as ossuaries; the arcosolia were instead destined to famous people, to church or to the Roman patricians; the forma, however, were the typical tomb of the plebe.

Overall in network of tombs of St. John’s Catacombs there are about 10,000 graves, but archaeologists claim that the bodies buried within were many more: many graves, in fact, were used more than once.

Opening Hours

Morning: 10.00 – 12:00

Afternoon: 14.30 – 17.30

Ticket prices

Full price: 8 €

Reduced (under 12 and over 65): 5 €

Fun Facts
Getting Around
Sicily guide
Survival Italian
Things to Do