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A Visit to the “Mountain of Fire”

A Visit to the “Mountain of Fire”

 A Visit to the “Mountain of Fire”


THERE are few places in the world where you are treated to a breathtaking view of the same volcano whether you are in the countryside, by the sea, or in the city. If that city happens to be Catania, then you can only be looking at 11,000-foot [3,300 m] Mount Etna, the highest active volcano in Europe, located less than halfway down the eastern coast of Sicily.

A Long-Observed Volcano

The Arabs who dominated Sicily for a long time called the volcano the Mountain of Fire, and Etna has certainly lived up to that name by regularly spewing white-hot lava from its depths. Two of the oldest surviving testimonies to Etna’s activity were penned by Pindar and Aeschylus, who both described an eruption that took place in 475 B.C.E. More than once, the lava has given an amazing performance by making a fiery snakelike trail down the mountain before diving into the sea. This occurred in 396 B.C.E., in 1329 C.E., and in 1669 C.E.​—the last of which is considered the most famous of its “modern” eruptions. On that occasion, a tongue of lava about a mile [2 km] wide and 15 miles [25 km] long overflowed Catania’s city walls, swallowed up the homes of more than 27,000 people, and partially filled the city’s harbor.

By all accounts, the volcano’s activity intensified in the 20th century, during which there were many eruptions. The most violent, in 1928, destroyed the village of Mascali. Over the past few years, lava and ash emissions have continued to cause problems and anxiety for the local people.

Profile of “Big Mamma”

It is claimed that the formation of Etna’s main structure was begun at least 170,000 years ago by an emission of magma, or molten rock. About 250 minor cones on the flanks of the volcano’s main cone are the product of different phases of its eruptive activity. They look a bit like babies around their mother, and because of this, the volcano has the nickname Big Mamma.

If you went for a car ride or took the picturesque train ride around Etna, you would notice a variety of captivating scenes. These include the Monti Rossi (Red Hills) near Nicolosi, the Silvestri Craters, and the vast depression of the Valle del Bove (Valley of the Ox), which can be seen from Giarre and Zafferana.

The geologic history of the volcano, though not completely understood, goes way back in time. Emissions of magma in a submarine and coastal environment formed the coast to the north of Catania. Part of that coast is known as the Riviera dei Ciclopi, or Cyclopes’ Coast, characterized by its black lava cliffs. Directly in front of the cliff at Aci Trezza, bizarre-shaped rock formations, called the Faraglioni, emerge from the sea.

 An Unusual Attachment

You might wonder if the people who live at the foot of this volcano are afraid that it will erupt at any moment. When Etna is calm, the Etneans, as the local people are called, forget that the volcano even exists. “The beast is calm,” wrote 19th-century French author Guy de Maupassant in his Journey to Sicily. “It is sleeping over there in the distance.” If a plume of smoke appears, Etneans might give the mountain a quick glance. However, if they hear a boom in the middle of the night, find their balconies and roads covered in ash, or find their nostrils and eyes full of ash, things change. Then, they wisely display a respectful fear of Etna​—especially when a red river of lava is visible slowly but relentlessly descending from the mountain, devouring everything in its path.

Despite this, the people who live in the area consider Etna to be a “friendly giant.” After all, even though it has caused great damage​—destroying urban areas, crops and, more recently, tourist facilities—​it has taken very few victims. Following its destructive bursts of activity when it has swept away the fruits of human labor, the tenacious local people just get to work and start over.

The Italian poet Giacomo Leopardi well described the attachment that people who live at the foot of a volcano have to their land. He likened such people to the broom, a bush that often grows in volcanic environments. Its yellow flowers are beautiful and radiant. They hold their heads high and refuse to fall until the torrent of lava reaches them. Once the eruption is over and the rock has cooled, the broom starts to grow again, strong and courageous, as it patiently gets back to work!

 Etna Is Changing

In the opinion of volcanologists, this “friendly giant” seems to be changing. In the recent past, Etna has not been explosive in character, but now, says Focus magazine, “what we have considered a lively but not dangerous volcano is being viewed with increasing suspicion.” According to a warning given by French and Italian researchers, Etna “is slowly transforming itself from an effusive volcano, which means one with a slow lava flow and low gas emission, into an explosive volcano.” Hence, Paola Del Carlo, a researcher at the Italian National Geophysical and Volcanology Institute of Catania, states that “during the past 30 years, both the effusive and the explosive activity [of the volcano] have become decidedly more intense, and it is difficult to predict with precision what will happen in the future.”

An Extraordinary Spectacle

Despite instilling fear and commanding respect, Etna offers an extraordinary spectacle. When enveloped in white in the winter or clothed in dark brown in the summer or when quietly dominating the coastline, shaking earth and hearts, or lighting up the nights with fire, the volcano testifies to the power of the One who created it. (Psalm 65:6; 95:3, 4) If you ever have the chance to visit beautiful Sicily, do not forget Etna. You will see it in the distance with its characteristic plume of smoke. “Don’t worry if you hear rumbling,” the locals are quick to mention. “It’s just Etna’s way of saying hello.”

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Mt. Etna

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A drawing of Mount Etna from 1843

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Culver Pictures

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July 26, 2001

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July 28, 2001, with Catania in the background

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October 30, 2002

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September 12, 2004

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Bizarre-shaped rock formations called the Faraglioni

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The local people refer to Mount Etna as a “friendly giant”

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All photos: © Tom Pfieffer; map: Mountain High Maps® Copyright © 1997 Digital Wisdom, Inc.

[Picture Credit Lines on page 16]

Background: © WOLFGANG KAEHLER 2005,; Faraglioni: Dennis Thompson/Unicorn Stock Photos