Driving along the coast south of Capitolo, you come close to the Archaeological Museum of Egnazia which guards the remains of the ancient city of Egnathia and the precious finds recovered during the excavations that document its glorious past. The acropolis is clearly visible, the highest part of the old town, located on a small hill surrounded by two natural bays. Here the phases of a fascinating millenary history born in the Bronze Age overlap and adapted to the changes of the centuries until the medieval period, when the site underwent a slow decay to become a small village that was definitively abandoned around the 13th century.
The history of Egnazia
In Egnathia, the satirical poet Orazio Flacco arrived in the first century before Christ, almost at the end of his journey from Rome to Brindisi. In his 5th Satire of the First book, the poet briefly described Egnazia as “the city, built against the will of the Nymphs, that wishes to persuade us with laughter and jokes”. We know nothing about why the Roman poet referred to a city built against the will of the Nymphs, but probably these words were an omen of the adverse fate that fell on Egnatia a few centuries later.
The history of Egnazia dates back a long time ago. The first settlements date back to the 15th century BC: there stood a small village of huts which over the centuries became more and more populated so as to constitute an important Messapian center around the 5th century BC. Alike all the Messapian cities, Egnazia was also surrounded by a mighty double wall, in some places up to seven meters high, part of which extended to the sea.
Over time Egnazia became an important port and trading center, and had a great boost in Roman times, thanks to its position along the Via Traiana which was built from the 2nd century AD to connect Rome with Brindisi, or Rome with the East. The Via Traiana, which ran through the whole city, is still clearly visible within the Archaeological Park and still brings the traces of the cart wheels that passed in it. This was the period of greatest prosperity for Egnathia, enriched by trade in spices, carpets, jewels, and even cereals, as it is confirmed by the discovery of a large underground grain store. During the imperial age, a wider port was created north of the acropolis, the traces of which are still evident.
Unfortunately, the fate of Egnazia was marked: an earthquake in 365 AD caused the lowering of the coast level. The port and the neighboring buildings sank into the sea and part of the necropolis disappeared under water, as today it shows the presence on the coast of many tombs invaded by water. It was the beginning of the end: the port submerged by the sea prevented the rich businesses from continuing. The city was almost totally destroyed by the Goths of Totila in 545 AD, but it continued to exist, although very small in size and importance, up until the Middle Ages.
The sea and the traces of the past
The sea of Egnazia, full of a complex and fascinating history spanning 30 centuries, is now enclosed in a natural inlet with a very suggestive scenario, in which the remains of the ancient port built by the Romans are still visible: at low tide or when snorkelling it is not difficult to identify the shapes of the port structures submerged by the water.
The small inlet, in front of the beach north of the Arcopoli, was part of the port and was probably used to build or repair boats; from this, on the eastern side, an artificially flattened rock departs, which constituted the beginning of the pier.
On the stretch of rock to the north of the small bay there are several tombs delimited by a raised edge in which the hollows are visible where the wooden beams were inserted to support the heavy slabs of stone that served as cover. Continuing further north, we come to what it seems it must have been a “working area” in which there are circular tanks probably used for the cooling of ceramics, of which Egnazia boasted an important production.
Continuing further north, we reach the mighty seven meter high Messapian wall, the final part of the outer walls that protected the entire perimeter of the city until the sea. The incredible evidence that ancient civilizations have left in this fascinating place, surviving the erosion of time and the rich collections of finds preserved in the museum, make Egnazia one of the most interesting and fascinating archaeological sites in southern Italy.
Walking on these rocks, pausing to look at one of the many pools with precise geometric contours, plunging into the crystalline green color of the sea, offers rare emotions, which make us reflect on the human journey written in the pages of an infinite story of which Egnazia tells 30 centuries!