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Mount Etna (also known locally as Mongibeddu in Sicilian and Mongibello in Italian) is an active volcano on the east coast of Sicily, close to Messina and Catania. It is the largest volcano in Europe, currently standing about 10,991 ft (3,350 m) high, though it should be noted that this varies with summit eruptions (the mountain is 71 ft (21,6 m) lower now than it was in 1865). It is the highest mountain in Italy south of the Alps. Etna covers an area of 460 square miles (1190 km²). This makes it by far the largest of the three active volcanos in Italy, being nearly three times the height of the next largest, Mount Vesuvius.
Mount Etna is one of the most active volcanoes in the world and is in an almost constant state of eruption. Although it can occasionally be very destructive, it is not generally regarded as being particularly dangerous, and thousands of people live on its slopes and in the surrounding areas. The fertile volcanic soils support extensive agriculture, with vineyards and orchards spread across the lower slopes of the mountain and the broad Plain of Catania to the south.
Etna is an isolated peak about 18 miles (29 km) from Catania which dominates the eastern side of Sicily. Its shape is that of a truncated cone with a ragged top, which is actually a complex of large volcanic cones hosting four summit craters. Around 260 smaller craters, formed by flank eruptions, occupy the slopes. On the southeastern side of Etna lies an immense gully, the Valle del Bove, which is between 2000-4000 ft (600-1200 m) deep and over 3 miles (5 km) wide. Many of Etna’s subsidiary craters reside within this cleft, which is thought to have been created around 3,500 years ago by the collapse of an ancient caldera. The height of the mountain varies with its eruptions; until 1911, there was only one large cone and crater at the summit, but subsequent eruptions have created new craters and cones.
The slopes of Etna form three distinct zones. The lower zone, extending up to about 4000 ft (1200 m) are densely populated and planted with vineyards, citrus fruits, and groves of olives, figs and almonds. The middle zone (up to about 6900 ft / 2100 m) is heavily wooded, mostly with pine and chestnut trees. At the top of the mountain is a volcanic wasteland, dominated by old lava flows, screes and volcanic ash. Few plants grow there, as it is covered by snow for much of the year.
Etna is an extremely complex volcano, presenting considerable difficulties in classification. It has features of both a shield volcano and a stratovolcano, and displays behavior typical of both plinian and strombolian volcanoes. It stands at the convergent boundary where the African Plate is being subducted beneath the Eurasian Plate, deforming the latter and forcing plumes of magma upwards into weak points in the crust such as under Etna. It is perhaps most accurate to describe Etna as being a mixture of overlapping shield and strato volcanoes partially destroyed by repeated collapses and partly buried under subsequent volcanic edifices.
Etna was known in Roman times as Aetna, a name thought to have derived either from the Greek word aitho (“to burn”) or the earlier Phoenician word attano. The Arabs called the mountain Gibel Utlamat (“the mountain of fire”); later, this name evolved into Mons Gibel (translating from its Roman and Arab parts as ‘Mountain Mountain’, since such repetition in Sicilian denotes largeness or greatness) and subsequently Etna’s current local name Mongibeddu.
The mountain’s regular and often dramatic eruptions made it a major subject of interest for classical mythologists and their later successors, who sought to explain its behavior in terms of the various gods and giants of Roman and Greek legend. Aeolus, the king of the winds, was said to have imprisoned the winds in caves below Etna. The giant Typhon was confined under Etna, according to the poet Aeschylus, and was the cause of the mountain’s eruptions. Another giant, Enceladus, rebelled against the gods, and was killed and buried under Etna. Hephaestus or Vulcan, the god of fire and the forge, was said to have had his forge under Etna and drove the fire-demon Adranus out from the mountain, while the Cyclopes maintained a smithy there where they fashioned lightning bolts for Zeus to use as a weapon. The Greek underworld, Tartarus, was supposed to be situated beneath Etna.
Empedocles, a major pre-Socratic philosopher and Greek statesman of the 5th century BC, was said to have met his death in the volcano’s crater. Etna supposedly erupted in sympathy with the martyrdom of Saint Agatha in 251 AD, prompting Christians thereafter to invoke her name against fire and lightning.
About 3,500 years ago, the eastern flank of the mountain experienced a catastrophic collapse, generating an enormous landslide in an event similar to that seen at Mount St. Helens in 1980. The eruption, which is thought to have caused this collapse, was recorded by Diodore of Sicily, and is the first known record of an eruption at Etna. The landslide left a large depression in the side of the volcano, known as ‘Valle del Bove‘ (Valley of the Oxen). The steep walls of the Valle have suffered subsequent collapse on numerous occasions. The strata exposed in the valley walls provide an important and easily accessible record of Etna’s eruptive history.
The most recent collapse event at the summit of Etna is thought to have occurred about 2,000 years ago, forming what is known as the Piano Caldera. This caldera has been almost entirely filled by subsequent lava eruptions, but is still visible as a distinct break in the slope of the mountain near the base of the present-day summit cone.
The Roman poet Virgil gave what was probably a first-hand description of an eruption in the Aeneid:
The port capacious, and secure from wind,
Is to the foot of thund’ring Etna joined.
By turns a pitchy cloud she rolls on high:
By turns hot embers from her entrails fly,
And flakes of mounting flames, that lick the sky.
Oft from her bowels massy rocks are thrown,
And shivered by the force come piece-meal down.
Oft liquid lakes of burning sulphur flow,
Fed from the fiery springs that boil below.
In 396 BC, an eruption of Etna is said to have thwarted
the Carthaginians in their attempt to advance
on Syracuse during the First Sicilian War.
Another very large lava flow from an eruption in 1928 led to the first destruction of a town since the 1669 eruption. In this case, the town of Mascali was destroyed in just two days, with the lava destroying every building. The event was used by Mussolini’s Fascist regime for propaganda purposes, with the evacuation, aid and rebuilding operations being presented as models of fascist planning. Mascali was rebuilt on a new site, and its church contains the Italian fascist symbol of the torch, placed above the statue of Christ.
Other major twentieth century eruptions occurred in 1949, 1971, 1983, 1992, and 2000. The 1992 eruption saw the town of Zafferana threatened by a lava flow, but successful diversion efforts saved the town with the loss of only one building a few hundred metres outside it.
In 2002-2003, the biggest series of eruptions for many years threw up a huge column of ash that could easily be seen from space and fell as far away as Libya, on the far side of the Mediterranean Sea. Seismic activity in this eruption caused the eastern flanks of the volcano to slip by up to two meters, and many houses on the flanks of the volcano experienced structural damage. The eruption also completely destroyed the Rifugio Sapienza, on the southern flank of the volcano. The Rifugio was the site of a cable car station which had previously been destroyed in the 1983 eruption.
How to Get ThereBy Bus
One bus runs daily to and from Catania and Nicolosi to Rifugio Sapienza, about 1400m below the summit on the south side, giving you enough time for a trip up the mountain and sightseeing.By Tour Bus
Many agencies in Taormina offer organized trips to and around the mountain. Tours can also be arranged by contacting the Parco Regionale dell’Etna, Via Etnea 107, Nicolosi, tel: +39 095 91 45 88.
Where to Stay
You can sleep in Rifugio Sapienza itself. There is a youth hostel in Nicolosi.
Sights & Activities
From Rifugio Sapienza during good weather, you can pay for a trip on a 4-wheel-drive vehicle about 800m nearer the top. In bad weather, you can walk if you are experienced and prepared for freezing weather.
Where to Eat
There are cafes/restaurants around Rifugio Sapienza.
Azienda Provinciale Turismo Catania
Address: via Cimarosa 10 — 95124 Catania
Tel.: (095) 730 62 11
Web site: www.turismo.catania.it
Shopping & Markets
There are many souvenir shops around Rifugio Sapienza.
Note: This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article “Metasyntactic variable” and Creative Commons by Commons Deed. This information was accurate when it was posted, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the businesses/establishements in question before planning your trip.