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Mothia Island and Lilibeo: The Phoenician-Punic Civilization in Italy

Date of Submission: 01/06/2006
Criteria: (iii)(iv)(vi)
Category: Cultural
Submitted by:
Ministry for Cultural Heritage and Activies
State, Province or Region:

Regione: Sicila - Provincia: Trapani

Ref.: 2029

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Mothia was founded at the end of VII century B.C. on the island of San Pantaleo, situated at the centre of a large lagoon, known today as 'Stagnone', or big pond. Thanks to its location, particularly favourable to maritime trade, Mothia soon became one of the most prosperous Western Phoenician colonies. The more outstanding public works date back to the second half of VI century B.C., namely the fortifications, a submerged road that used to link the island to the mainland, near Birgi, the cothon (or drainage basin and harbour) and the main sanctuaries, in particular the tophet, where the burnt remains of offerings and sacrifices in honour of the god Baal Hammon were collected. Over one thousand carved steles where discovered here, undoubtedly the most significant evidence of Phoenician Punic sculpture. The ancient town’s industrial area features several omega-shaped furnaces, in every way similar to the more ancient pottery furnaces used in Phoenicia.

The more violent attacks of the Syracusan army took place not far from the Northern Gate with the town’s most imposing monuments, and ended in defeat and plunder in 397 B.C. The survivors of the ransacked town later gathered in the nearby Capo Lilibeo, where the Carthaginians built Lilibeo, a new town that developed into the most important military stronghold in Punic Sicily.

Lilibeo covers a large square area partly bordered by the sea; the sides facing the mainland were defended by a deep moat and strong towered ramparts. A vast necropolis ran along the north-east wall, beyond the moat. Thanks to its imposing fortifications and to the natural canal of dunes and cliffs that linked the harbour to the Stagnone making access difficult because of shallow waters, Lilibeo withstood the attacks of the Syracusan tyrant, Dionysius I, in 368 B.C. and then Pirrus, in 277 B.C. During the first Punic War, according to the historian Polibius, Lilibeo was the stronghold that allowed Carthaginians to maintain their dominion in Sicily. Despite years of siege and strict naval blockade, the town resisted Roman conquest and the Punic troops were evacuated only after the peace treaty that put an end to the war. Lilibeo prospered under Roman rule as a commercial port and also as seat of one of the two quaestores in charge of the administration of the whole of Sicily. Cicero held this position and spoke of Lilibeo as civitas splendidissima. The town’s economy further developed during the Roman Empire because of its strategic position along the commercial maritime routes from Northern Africa to Rome; the ruins of several luxurious private dwellings, with a wealth of thermal baths and polychrome mosaics, brought to light by during excavations in Lilibeo, date back to that period.

The site maintained its role as a crucial maritime port also under Arab and Norman rule: travellers of that period often referred to Lilibeo and described the town. In fact, it was during the years of the Arab domination that the was named Marsala, from the Arab Mars el Allah, or 'God's Harbour.

Statements of authenticity and/or integrity

The Island of San Pantaleo (Mothia) belongs to the Whitaker Foundation, a non-profit corporation under the aegis of the Accademia dei Linci; which guarantees that the archaeological site strictly protected and open to the public.

The Stagnone area, the cultural and physical link between Mothia and Lilibeo, is a protected natural reserve administered by the Province of Trapani.

The archaeological site of Capo Lilibeo, extending over about over one third of the ancient settlement, has been fully expropriated by the Superintendency for excavation and restoration works.

Comparison with other similar properties

Mothia is distinguished from all other Phoenician Punic colonies in the Mediterranean area by the very particular conservation status of its urban settlement and by the typology of the architectural structures it contains. Furthermore, a great number of carved steles were brought to light in tophet, which therefore is the most significant evidence of Phoenician Punic sculpture.