Ear of Dionysius

Orecchio di Dionisio
Ear of Dionysius
Ear of Dionigi
Location Italy Syracuse (SR, Sicily, Italy)
Coordinates 37°04′34.45″N 15°16′34.50″E / 37.0762361°N 15.2762500°E / 37.0762361; 15.2762500Coordinates: 37°04′34.45″N 15°16′34.50″E / 37.0762361°N 15.2762500°E / 37.0762361; 15.2762500
Depth ?
Length 65 metres (213 ft)
Elevation 400 amsl
Entrances 1
Website Orecchio di Dionisio

The Ear of Dionysius (Italian: Orecchio di Dionisio) is a limestone cave carved out of the Temenites hill in the city of Syracuse, on the island of Sicily in Italy. Its name comes from its similarity in shape to the human ear.


Exterior view within the context of the Archaeological Park. 2012

The Ear of Dionysius was most likely formed out of an old limestone quarry. It is 23 metres high and extends 65 metres back into the cliff. Horizontally, it bends in an approximate "S" shape, vertically it is tapered at the top like a teardrop. Because of its shape the Ear has extremely good acoustics, making even a small sound resonate throughout the cave.


This cave was dug in Greek/Roman times as a water storage for Syracuse. A narrow tunnel was dug first. This tunnel was widened by digging down and sideways afterwards, giving the cave its unusual shape. The small narrow tunnel is still visible on the top of this artificial cave. An earthquake struck this area causing damage, and the cave became unusable for water storage afterwards.


The name of the cave was coined in 1586 by the painter Caravaggio. It refers to the tyrant Dionysius I of Syracuse. According to legend (possibly one created by Caravaggio), Dionysius used the cave as a prison for political dissidents, and by means of the perfect acoustics eavesdropped on the plans and secrets of his captives. Another more gruesome legend claims that Dionysius carved the cave in its shape so that it would amplify the screams of prisoners being tortured in it. Unfortunately, the sound focusing effect can no longer be heard because access to the focal point is no longer possible.

Because of its reputation for acoustic flawlessness, the Ear of Dionysius has also come to refer to a type of ear trumpet that has a flexible tube. The term 'Ear of Dionysius' can also refer to surveillance, specifically that for political gain.

There is a strong possibility that this feature is actually of natural origin. It lies on the down slope side of a substantial hill it could well be a 'slot' canyon cut by rainwater run-off in prehistoric times. Comparing it to other 'slot' canyons, especially those in the state of Utah (USA), it shows many similar characteristics. The narrowness of the top opening and widening of the lower part are also common to slot caverns elsewhere, as is its serpentine shape. The highly polished sides also suggest that the phenomenon was created by water. Such a natural feature, especially given its acoustics, would have been valued in the ancient world for its supposed sacred properties and this could have led to its preservation. Had it been man-made, why would the 'quarriers' bother to polish its walls to such a high degree, or remove stone in such an impractical fashion? Given that the building of the extensive necropolis that abuts it on the hillside above involved removing a huge amount of the original overlaying rock, it is also possible that this 'canyon' extended even further before men began quarrying there.

See also

Media related to Ear of Dionysius at Wikimedia Commons

This article is issued from Wikipedia - version of the 10/21/2016. The text is available under the Creative Commons Attribution/Share Alike but additional terms may apply for the media files.