Motya and the Natural Reserve of Stagnone

Near Marsala, off the west coast of Sicily and in the province of Trapani, is the town of Motya. Here, visitors can travel back in time and experience the history of this ancient island and its devoted escort: the lagoon of Stagnone.

Phoenician colonizers named the island Motya in the eighth century BC. At the time, this stretch of land was unattractive and uninhabitable, yet these intrepid settlers turned it into one of the most powerful cities of that period, particularly by using its natural resources. In fact, the Phoenicians built numerous basins in which to collect salt and started exporting this valuable commodity all over the Mediterranean.

Apart from obtaining a good supply of fish from the Stagnone lagoon, the Phoenicians exploited its fertile underwater habitat by coming up with an ingenious way of extracting a purple dye from murex shells, which they used to color textiles and demanded good money for them.

Due to its strategic position along the trade route, Motya often found itself involved in the power struggles among the various empires which wanted to possess Sicily. High defensive walls were constructed around the island to offer it better protection. Still, this small domain ended in the fourth century BC when Motya was attacked and completely destroyed by warriors from Syracuse.

In the medieval period, the island offered refuge to a number of friars who renamed it San Pantaleo. The name Motya only appeared again at the end of the 19th century when a tradesman named Joseph Whitaker – whose family was renowned for the production of Marsala wines – took ownership of the island and found archaeological remains of the ancient city. Whitaker financed extensive excavations and even built a museum to exhibit some of the artifacts that were unearthed.

Today, Motya is the property of the NGO Whitaker Foundation and is open for public viewing. The old-fashioned Whitaker museum is a gem for history enthusiasts and is definitely worth a visit before seeing the rest of the island.

Significant structures from different eras are among Motya’s archaeological remains, including a ‘tophet’ area at the far end. This sacred ground overlooking the sea is believed to be a cemetery where the remains of people who were sacrificed were buried in small urns after being offered by the Phoenicians to their god, Baal Hammon.

Since 1984, the Stagnone lagoon has been designated as a nature reserve of special interest and has become one of the must-see locations of this part of Sicily. A salt museum housed in a 300-year-old salt workers’ residence explains the old practice of collecting salt and exhibits an array of various specialist tools. Moreover, numerous enchanting old windmills are scattered among the vast expanse of salt pans that are still in use.

During the day, regular boat trips take visitors across the shallow waters of the Stagnone lagoon and over to the island of Motya, although tourists may prefer to enjoy a romantic trip during sunset when the lagoon absorbs the lovely colors of the sky and all the salt pans turn to a stunning pink.

It is believed that the nearby city of Lilybaeum (modern Marsala) was originally set up by Motya inhabitants who had managed to escape during its downfall. Lilybaeum acted as a naval military stronghold of the Carthaginians but in the third century, when it became a Roman colony, its economy prospered even more. Nonetheless, these areas seemed to be destined to a short existence, and in the fifth century this city was attacked and crushed by vandal tribesmen.

Those who wish to get a comprehensive understanding of this region’s fascinating past can visit the archaeological museum of Baglio Anselmi in Marsala. The site provides a rich collection of remains recovered both from the area of ancient Lilybaeum and from Motya. Undoubtedly, the main attraction is the wreck of a Punic warship, which was reclaimed from the sea after it was discovered in 1969 in an area called Punta Scario in the harbor of Marsala, near the Aegadian Islands.

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