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The eruption of 252 AD remained famous in the Sicilian history because it is linked to the very first miracle of St. Agatha. The young Catania martyr girl, in fact, had died only the previous year and the population asked for her help against the fury of the volcano. They brought her veil to procession and it seems it managed to stop the lava. Besides legends and rituals, though, this eruption of the 3rd century also tells a lot about the life of Mount Etna and its evolution.

Eruption of 252, the very first historical chronicle

Thanks to the “miracle of St. Agatha”, the eruptive event of year 252 was the first volcanic phenomenon to be meticulously described in the history known to date. Mount Etna obviously had been already erupting for many centuries and probably had erupted also in the previous months, but nothing had never been written in memory of those events. With the eruption “of St. Agatha”, however, we have a very clear historical-geological chronicle.

From studies conducted on the lavas of that period, however, scientists noted that this eruption was not particularly dangerous. But it must have been spectacular, to the point of creating panic through the population of the south side of the volcano which, for this reason, brought the veil of Agatha into procession. The miracle attributed to the Saint, however, seems to have occurred at a time when the lava was already cooling, as the eruption had already run out.

eruzione 252_2
photo by agatino REITANO & daniele RUSSO

What happened during the eruption of 252

The chronicles report that “A year after the birth day of the Saint, Mount Etna erupted a great fire” which originated on the south side, between the current towns of Nicolosi and Pedara. The lava came out of a small vent line, whose highest crater is the one known today as a Monpeloso that is “Hairy Hill”, because it is covered with vegetation ( see photo taken from: REITANO A. RUSSO D. [2013] L’apparato eruttivo di Monpeloso-Grottalunga presso Nicolosi, CT. In “Incontri, la Sicilia e l’Altrove” rivista trimestrale, anno I, n.3, aprile-giugno, pp.64, p. 24-27, Edizioni Incontri ). The same chronicles describe an eruption that began on February 1st and ended on the 5th, in front of the veil of St. Agatha and on the very day of her birthday.

But subsequent studies (19th century) conducted by important geologists such as Carlo Gemellaro and Sartorius von Waltershausen have doubted the “greatness” of this event. In fact, if the eruption had been so powerful as to reach Catania it could never have exhausted in four days; And if it was not powerful at all, and never reached Catania, it means that it stopped before, so … what was the miracle about?

In fact, the lavas issued by the Monpeloso crater stopped long before entering the city, precisely in the territory of Mascalucia. Therefore, it is possible that the procession of the sacred veil was made when the lava was already almost cold, and the danger to Catania never really existed. But this fueled the popular religious faith and the most lively tradition of the city and the entire province for centuries.

The places of the eruption of 252

Monpeloso crater today rises between Nicolosi and Pedara, among the hamlets of Castagneto, Grottalunga and Ragala. The path covers a ring that runs around the larger cracter’s edge and also includes a cave, for a total of about 2 km.

After leaving the car you access the path passing through a vineyard which is part of the Park of Etna (authorized passage). You immediately meet the cave of Grotta Lunga, a lava tunnel formed by the eruption of Monpeloso and full of fascinating natural “sculptures” along the walls. Continuing on the path, towards the hill, you meet some farmhouses, small lava formations and finally the road that climbs the crater, between trees and reeds.

From the top of Monpeloso you can enjoy the panorama of the Catania coast and the relief of Etna. You can continue walking round along the edge, or go down to the bottom of the crater. Here the vegetation is rich in oaks, ferns, holm oaks … a soft green coverage that hides ancient volcanic bombs.

To get to Monpeloso crater have as your point of reference the city of Catania (its airport and the central railway station). From there you can move to the city and to Nicolosi, or Pedara, through local buses and transfer services by tour operators.

Autore: Grazia Musumeci

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