Guide to the ancient and wonderful Phoenician city of Mozia

Mozia (or even Mothia, Motya) was an ancient Phoenician city, located on the island of San Pantaleo, in the Stagnone of Marsala. The island is located in front of the western coast of Sicily, between the Isola Grande and the mainland, and belongs to the Whitaker Foundation.

Motya was probably interested in the explorations of the Phoenician merchant-navigators, who went to the western Mediterranean Sea, starting from the end of the XII century BC: it had to represent a landing point and a commercial base morphologically very similar to the Phoenician city of Tire. The ancient name in Phoenician was Mtw, Mtw or Hmtw, as shown by the monetary legends; the name reported in Greek, Motye, Μοτύη, is also mentioned by Thucydides and by Diodorus Siculus. Around the middle of the 8th century BC, with the beginning of Greek colonization in Sicily, Thucydides reports that the Phoenicians withdrew to the western part of the island, more precisely in the three cities of their foundation: Mozia, Solunto and Palermo. Archaeologically a settlement from the end of the 8th century BC is witnessed, preceded by a sporadic and somewhat modest protohistoric phase. The fortifications surrounding the island may be connected to the Greek expeditions of Pentatlo and Dorieo in western Sicily in the 6th century BC.

Thanks to its particular and positive strategic position, it has always been an ideal place for the exchange of goods. The first to land on the island were the Phoenicians, in the eighth century BC, who transformed it into a thriving town. To defend themselves from the attacks of the enemies, high walls were built which made the island impregnable for a long time, resisting the attacks of the Greeks before and of the Carthaginians after.

But in 397 BC the city of Mozia was invaded and destroyed by the Syracusan troops led by the cruel and despotic tyrant Dionysius the Elder. The inhabitants fled and took refuge on dry land and the island was abandoned for several centuries.

In the 11th century AD during Norman domination, Mozia was donated to the abbey of Santa Maria della Grotta di Marsala and became the seat of the Basilian monks of Palermo, who then gave themselves the name San Pantaleo to the island, dedicating it to their own holy founder of the order.

In the 16th, century the island passed to the Jesuits, and in 1792 it was given as a fief to the Notary Rosario Alagna of Mozia awarded with the title of Baron of Mothia, who began archaeological excavations in search of historical finds from the past.

Mozia experienced a period of splendour when, in 1902, the English nobleman Joseph Whitaker decided to build his home here. The Whitaker family had settled in Sicily in the late 1800s, starting a thriving export of Marsala wine. When Joseph discovered the island of Mozia, he was struck by it, both for its beauty and for its extraordinary archaeological value. He then purchased the island and, with the collaboration of his faithful above, Colonel Giuseppe Lipari Cascio, explored Mozia far and wide, bringing to light the remains of the ancient Phoenician city, as well as a vast series of finds that today are visible in the Withaker museum (Joseph’s old home).

Let’ discover together this wonderful city!

Museum of Joseph Withaker

The Museum “G. Whitaker”, located in the building built by Giuseppe Whitaker on the island of Mozia as country house, welcomes finds from mostly from the ancient Phoenician city of Mozia.

In addition to the historic Whitaker Collection, exhibited in the Wing Whitaker, in the same painted wooden showcases by white of the early 1900s, the museum houses a vast selection of materials from modern excavations carried out in different parts of the town of Mozia starting from the sixties of the twentieth century, located on the premises obtained from the renovation of service areas of the Apartment house itself.

Visitors will find a room entirely dedicated to didactic: a model of the island of Mozia with the indication archaeological areas and numerous illustrated panels concerning the history of the Phoenicians and their civilization.

In the hall with the skylight, the old service courtyard of the Palazzina Whitaker, the statue of the “Auriga di Mozia” is exhibited; behind the statue two doors introduce the new exhibition.

The large room with a trussed roof, the ancient Whitaker kitchen, houses the showcases and panels relating to prehistoric finds, fortification materials and those from different areas of the town of Mozia.

The industrial activities carried out on the island, mostly consisting of realization of vases, are illustrated by the objects coming from “Industrial Zone south of the necropolis” and in the “East K / K Zone”.


The necropolis is undoubtedly one of the most fascinating finds in Mozia. It stands on the northern coast of the island and is crossed by the old city walls, so much so that some tombs have remained outside. Inside, numerous objects belonging to the funeral equipment have been found, such as ceramics, weapons and jewellery.

The Necropolis is located in a vast flattened rocky area, where most of the tombs found are incinerated and consist of small pits dug in the earth or in the rocks that contain the cinerary and on the sides the objects of the funeral kit.

The cineraria were of three types: amphorae of various types; a monolithic block with a dimple carved in the center destined to contain the remains of the deceased with a lid always in stone; finally, the itinerary was made up of six raw tufaceous slabs, four on the sides, one as a bottom and one as a lid.

The funerary kit, generally quite modest and undifferentiated, consists of Phoenician-Punic pottery, which is accompanied by examples of imported Greek-Corinthian pottery, which allow to date most of the burials between the end of the VIII and VII century BC, while the tombs of the 6th and 5th centuries are rarer. Some tombs also contained iron weapons (daggers and swords) or gold, silver and bronze ornaments (pendants, bracelets, earrings, rings, etc.).

A richer tomb featured fifteen ceramic vases, including six imported Corinthian vases, and a Phoenician terracotta statuette, reproducing a female figure squeezing her breast, as a symbol of fertility and fertility. A set of sixteen tombs was delimited by a wall made up of rough stones between the city wall and the industrial area.

These tombs presented extraordinarily homogeneous outfits consisting of archaic Phoenician-Punic ceramics, and perhaps belong to the first group of colonists.

At the beginning of the 6th century BC the area was crossed by the construction of the city walls and the necropolis was moved to the mainland, on the promontory of Birgi.

The Auriga (the young man of Mozia)

It is undoubtedly the main attraction of the island of Mozia. The statue was found, almost by accident, on October 26, 1979, in the “K” area next to the Cappiddazzu sanctuary, just on the last day of that excavation campaign, when a worker’s pickaxe hit something different. The excavations were thus prolonged by about ten days, the time to bring to light this splendid masterpiece of Greek art.

Commonly known as “the young man of Mozia”, ​​Auriga has been defined as the statue of mysteries, because it is a Greek find found in a Punic province and then because its origin, its symbolic representation, the artistic style and the century where they can be placed are shrouded in mystery. For this reason, various hypotheses have been formulated, none of which has had a certain response also because the statue is unique in its kind.

Most scholars plausibly believe that the statue represents a charioteer, that is, a winner athlete in the chariot race, or at least a victorious athlete. Other hypotheses, however, have been advanced: according to some, the particular guise would lead to a Sufeta, Punic magistrate, for others it would be the Punic god Melqart, corresponding to the Heracles of the Greeks.

It is a Greek find found in a Punic area, a circumstance most likely explained by the fact that the statue was brought to the small island after the Carthaginians sacked Selinunte in 409 BC.

The provenance is certainly oriental, a hypothesis confirmed by the geochemical analysis of the material which revealed that the marble contains strontium, an element present only in the quarries of Ephesus and Thessaly, requested in large quantities by Magna Grecia which did not have marble.

According to most scholars, the statue dates back to the 5th century. BC, more precisely between 475 and 450 BC, and it is realistic to believe that this masterpiece was made in a Greek city in Sicily, Selinunte or Agrigento.

The charioteer has a slightly tilted head and a face wrapped in a curly hairstyle. The missing arm is facing upwards and probably was supposed to hold a riding crop. The athlete wears a chiton, a common garment in ancient Greece, light, very long and with very fine folds, tightened by a belt at the height of the pectorals and which highlights the splendid anatomical shapes and its musculature, especially in the back.

Cappiddazzu Sanctuary

At a short distance from the North Gate stands, the sacred area of the Cappiddazzu sanctuary, which in Sicilian means “broad hat”, appears. It was built at the beginning of the seventh century BC and it later became a stone building destroyed in the siege of 397 BC.

The best visible remains date back to its rebuilding in the 4th century. B.C. in a large building set in an enclosure measuring approximately 27 x 35 meters.

The oldest wall structures, made of dry stones, date back to the second half of the seventh century BC. The discovery of pits dug into the rock containing the bones of cattle and sheep suggests that the area was a place of worship.

In a first phase (early seventh century BC), a series of pits dug into the rock are dated and about 30 cm deep, arranged inside a larger pit, in which bones of sheep and cattle were found, therefore probably used for sacrifices. In the second phase, attributed to the second half of the seventh century BC. a first building was built with rough stone walls, flanked by a cockpit built in the same technique. A third phase of the fifth century BC architectural fragments of Egyptian-gabled door capitals belonging to a stone building that had to be destroyed in the siege of 397 BC are referable and whose materials were then reused in the foundations of the rebuilt building.

The remains that are currently better visible refer to the fourth phase, the reconstruction of the fourth century BC, which consists of a large building with a tripartite plan to the north, inserted in a large enclosure measuring 27.40 x 35.40 m. In front of the sacred building there is a structure consisting of a rectangular stone slab with a large hole in the center and two semi-holes on the sides, placed within an enclosure made of roughly shaped stones and probably destined to contain three conical betils.

The remains of a large oval cistern and traces of plaster and floors from different eras are also preserved (recent essays have identified traces of interventions between the first century BC and the fifth century AD. The remains of a small Byzantine basilica were eliminated in the excavations of the beginning of the twentieth century and are known only by a sketch.

The Tophet

The tofet (or tophet) is the typical open-air Phoenician-Punic sanctuary consisting of a consecrated area where the burnt remains of sacrifices and infant burials were ritually laid and buried. That of Mozia is located on the north-western coast of the island, probably dating back to the origins of the settlement, VIII-VII century. BC, and remained in operation from then until the destruction of the island in 397 BC.

This sanctuary is characterized by a field that occupies an area of ​​about 800 square meters, surrounded by high walls within which urns containing the remains of the sacrifices were buried: the children were in fact killed and burned. Often the cineraria were accompanied by votive markers, the steles: more than a thousand come from the excavations which testify to the wide and varied activity of various local shops.

Mozia’s tofet was dedicated to the god Baal Hammon. Seven layers of cinerary urns have been distinguished containing the remains of sacrifices, usually infants, but sometimes replaced by animals. In the first two layers, the depositions present simple or painted urns, placed in the ground without protections or with a single covering stone; in the third layer there are cases of slabs and coronations of the tombs with stones and steles, found then piled up for a restructuring of the primitive sanctuary.

The oldest level dates back to the end of the 8th century BC while the most recent occupies the advanced fourth century up to the third century BC.

In a first phase, the sanctuary occupied a restricted area. The urns, made of locally produced impasto ceramic, were placed on the rock, sometimes covered with mounds of stones which rarely have a standing stone on the top. Subsequently the depositions thickened and began to be often enclosed by slabs embedded in the ground and marked by stones or steles.

In a second moment, from the middle of the VI century. BC, the sanctuary was extended to the east for the depositions and to the west with the construction of a small rectangular temple of 10 meters by 5, equipped with a small podium, perhaps an altar. There are large steles and memorial stones with inscriptions and symbolic representations.

Investigations in this important area have resumed in recent years by the La Sapienza University of Rome. The archaeology of the sanctuary, with its stone steles, its inscriptions regarding the names and genealogical origins of the inhabitants, its terracotta vases, can be considered the largest source of information and news of the city and technical art of sculpture and drawing, of divine iconography, of customary elements and of craftsmanship.

The House of Mosaics

The House of Mosaics is a housing complex with a portico and colonnade and the floor decorated with a mosaic of white and black pebbles.

The mosaic banded with a border bearing the motif of the hooked meander of the lotus flower, the palmette and the wave, represents real and fantasy animals, isolated and fighting animals.

It is difficult to date with certainty but from an excavation in 1995 it was possible to establish the oldest phase dating back to the sixth century and the most recent to a period after 397 BC.

Mozia, after the destruction by the Syracusans in 397 BC, was not completely abandoned.

In fact, during the excavations conducted by Whitaker, a house was found, called the house of mosaics, dating back to the fourth century BC.

The name of the house is due to the presence of a mosaic floor made with black, white and gray river pebbles.

When this house was discovered by Whitaker, it was initially referred to as the “House of the capitals” due to the presence of a large number of these architectural elements. The house is in fact a building consisting of a large courtyard, where there are many capitals made in the Doric style.

In the peristyle there are mosaics depicting struggles between animals, real and fantastic; in one panel the figure of a winged griffin stands out, in another that of a lion that bites a bull.

The mosaics date back to a period that oscillates between the fifth and third centuries BC.

The “House of mosaics” is a residential complex probably born from the union of two buildings.

The oldest, towards the sea, built with the frame construction technique, can probably be dated to the 6th century. B.C. and in the last phase of its use it had to perform functions of service area, in fact there are large clay containers, fixtures in the ground (pithoi) and a well.

The most recent building, upstream, is characterized by the peristyle with the floor decorated with the mosaic already mentioned.

It is probable that the House of Mosaics was a luxurious residence with prestigious spaces and decorations and that the rooms of the house were intended for the banquet and reception of guests.

The Eastern Tower

The large Eastern Tower, equipped with an external staircase that probably led directly to the Stagnone, clearly highlights the construction technique of the fortifications used by the Moziesi: a continuous line broken by several towers of various sizes arranged at a fairly regular distance.

To our eyes, the walls of Mozia appear today as a massive plant consisting largely of squared blocks of limestone, large limestone chips and large masses of raw bricks; this presupposes in the past large displacements of materials from the nearby coast as well as an intense construction activity that took place between the mid-sixth and the end of the fifth century BC.

The stone base provided for plastered raw brick risers, powerful crenulations with a semi-circular profile crowning the parapet of the patrol path and large drips for the drainage of rainwater

On the east coast of the island, and near the North gate, there are the remains of some important fortifications, with a beautiful well-preserved sandstone staircase, consisting of a double flight of steps, which lead from the top of the walls down to the beach

It is not clear whether this staircase served as a public access to and from the city, or if it was only used for the private use of the garrison. The latter seems to be the most probable hypothesis, since there are no indications of roads leading to the city in this particular place, while the ruins of what may have been a ‘were found behind the top of the staircase home, perhaps that of the guards.

About halfway along this staircase, between the upper and lower ramps, there will have been a gate or door that closed the access when needed: indications of its presence are still clearly visible. The steps of the entire staircase are now twenty-eight in number, that is, fifteen in the lower ramp, and thirteen in the upper one, but certainly the latter will have been of a much higher number than the times when the staircase was intact.

The amplitude of its flights of stairs varies a little: the upper one is m. 1.50, while that of the lower part is m. 1.62. The same steps all measure m. 0.20 in height. The lowest step, however, that which forms the base, is m high. 0.39.

On the south side of the stairs and attached to these are the remains of an advanced tower or bastion, which protrude up to the base of the stairs presenting an eastward elevation of ten meters in width, and its southern side is six meters wide. At the rear, where it meets the wall of the city wall, this tower shows a height of m. 3.60.

At the foot of the tower you can see large irregular masses of rock, similar to those found in the towers of the north gate. Such large blocks of rock were certainly thrown off the top of the towers when the fortifications were demolished.

It seems that the construction of the tower was of a fairly resistant type, in fact its corners were protected by blocks of hard and well-squared sandstone and its foundations were solidly built with the same material; but most of the lower structure, which is still intact, is made up of small, unprocessed material, well-kept together and with the joints carefully filled with small pieces of stone and binder.

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