Marsala, which the Arabs called "Marsa Allah" (i.e. "the port of Allah"), has a very ancient history with its roots in the Phoenician-Punic age.
Explore Marsala and its archaeological treasures
Your visit to Marsala can start in the Piazza della Repubblica with a visit to the main Church in Massala, dedicated to Saint Thomas of Canterbury and with a mannerist-baroque style façade - it is of Norman origin but has been rebuilt over the centuries.
The church façade is decorated with statues and flanked by two bell towers., while the interior has three naves and a number of 16th century sculptures, among them the "Madonna of the People" by Domenico Gagini (1420-1492).
Marsala old town
The Old Town in Marsala is part of the so-called "Cassaro", an area once enclosed by walls, some of which remain and date back to the time of Spanish rule. Among the most significant monuments of the city, first visit the 12th century Monastery of the Annunziata dei Carmelitani.
The bell tower of the Carmine church was built in the 16th century and rebuilt in the 18th by Giovanni Biagio Amico (1684-1754), royal architect of Trapani, who retained the original structure and the old proportions. The bell tower is very famous for its spiral staircase in yellow tuff.
The monastery annexed to the Church probably dates from the 14th century and is rich in frescoes - the authors are unknown, but is in a local style of painting, characterised by its subjects of a religious character. The church, with a nave, includes both renaissance and baroque style motifs.
Marsala is also very proud of the 16th century Church of St. John. The church is well known for its underground vaults where there is a spring, the "Cave of the Sibyl.” The Cave of the Sibyl is located underneath the church and iwas built in the mid-16th century by the Jesuits on the “Capo Boeo”, near the coast.
The cave consists of a central hall, circular in shape and connected with two other rooms. The central room, carved into the rock, is covered by a low dome built in masonry. At its center there is a square basin full of water and in front of the cave is a large stone altar with the marble statue of Saint John the Baptist, dating from the 15th century.
An important museum in Marsala is the Archaeological Museum, which houses interesting prehistoric finds from Marsala and the surrounding area - and the remains of a Punic ship. The wreck, of which part of the stern and the port side are preserved, was originally about 30m long and 4m wide.
In the other rooms of the museum, of particular importance are a large jar of fruit found in Mozia which, according to critics, dates back the so-called "culture of Thapsos", and various stone tools of the Upper Paleolithic era.
There are also various objects found at Mothya from the Phoenician age, such as a funerary urn and a pair of jewels.
The finds from the necropolis consist of a 3rd century BC "lekythos" [a vessel with a narrow body, used for oils and ointments] with a Punic inscription; a bronze mirror (3rd century BC); and two Punic stelae* (4th-3rd century BC).
Stelae are slabs that were erected at funerals depict human figures and generally mention the name of the deceased and his genealogy or profession.
There are also some items of pottery decorated with the figure of a swan, some funerary finds from the 3rd century AD, and some important floor mosaics on the floor, perhaps representing an ibex (early 5th century AD).
Behind the Cathedral Church you can also visit the Tapestry Museum, which houses some 16th century Flemish tapestries depicting scenes from the Bible.
Archaeological sites near Marsala
Outside the city there are two important archaeological sites: the excavations of the ancient Lylibaeum and of the so-called "Insula Romana", and those of Mozia, on the island of San Pantaleo.
At Lylibaeum, note that in the area of Capo Boeo the remains of many houses were found in 1939, of which the most important is the so-called insula*, dating back to the 2nd - 1st century BC. Next to the insula a Domus* was found which has a tessellated floor, atrium, peristyle and thermae.
* The Latin term "insula" designated adjacent houses, a sort of ancient Roman apartment complex, whose residents were known as insularii. A "domus" was the private residence for citizens of high rank.
Other buildings here date from the Imperial Age, and were abandoned in the 4th century AD because of an earthquake and invasion by the Vandals.
The ancient Punic and Medieval fortifications at Lylibaeum are particularly interesting, and show that the city was almost impregnable.
During the Punic age there was also a wide moat next to the wall - the moat and the walls are coeval (existed at the same time) and probably date from the 4th century BC
The medieval castle of Marsala stood at the point where the Punic ditch formed a right angle and had a courtyard with three square towers and one circular tower. The castle of Marsala is presumed to be of Norman origin, although it was restored by Frederick II of Swabia [1194-1250).
The necropolis of the ancient city, dating from the 4th century BC, presents various archaeological finds. Among the most interesting stelae is one dedicated to the god Ba'al Hammon which bears various symbols relating to Punic religion, such as a priest who prays before a thymiaterion*.
* A thymiaterion is an incense burner, formerly used for Spiritual and Religious Purposes and the symbol of the god Tanit.
Another group of stelae, dating from the I-II century AD and in the shape of a small building with columns and pillars, are made of limestone and covered with a thick layer of white plaster on which banquet scenes, flowers, Greek inscriptions and the symbol of the god Tanit are painted in bright colors.
This presence of Punic symbols proves that the ancient Punic religious culture survived up to the late Roman period.
Mozia and the island of San Pantaleo
Among the Phoenician-Punic cities of Sicily, Mozia contains many important archaeological finds, such as the so-called "Tophet", where, according to tradition, the Phoenicians practiced the sacrifice of children.
Several stelae have also been found in Mozia, which together form a unique range of Phoenician-Punic sculpture. Interestingly the icons used are derived from various subjects used in the Syro-Palestinian area and the Middle East.
Marsala: nature, tradition and cuisine
Note that the island of San Pantaleo is also part of a nature trail known as the “Laguna dello Stagnone”, in which you can see the salt-works and old mills.
For wine lovers and gourmets we recommend a visit to the wineries of Marsala, and a tasting of some local specialities such as couscous, which originated from the Arab cuisine, the "eggplant caponata”, "carpaccio of swordfish," "Sicilian Cassata," and finally "pasta alla Norma" and "pasta with sardines."
See also Marsala history and etymology.
Selected places to visit near Marsala, Italy
See the Sicily guide for more travel ideas...