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By Karen La Rosa - Mount Etna, in eastern Sicily, has just been granted world heritage status by the UNESCO committee that held its meeting in Cambodia this month. UNESCO, United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization, gives its highly prized designation and financial support to places of exemplary scientific, cultural, historical and global significance. UNESCO compiled its first list in 1978: in 2013, there are 964 listed sites. They are divided into cultural, natural and historic properties. Italy, with 48 sites, has among the most sites in the world, with China and Spain right behind it.  The island of Sicily, with its remarkable treasures, boasts 6 sites, with Mt. Etna the most recent.

In Italy, Mount Etna is also known as Mongibello; ‘mons’ from the Latin for mountain and ‘gebe’ from the Arabic for mountain. In Sicilian, it is Muncibeddu. The word ‘Etna’ means ‘to burn’ in the ancient Phoenician language.

Mount Etna is the highest mountain in Italy south of the Alps, almost 3 times the height of Mount Vesuvius, and it is about 600,000 years old. It is Europe's most active volcano, puffing constantly and erupting spectacularly on occasion, sending ashes into the sky and closing down the airport.

It has enriched tremendously the science of volcanology and geology with its 2700 year history of documented activity, written and oral.

It has altered history with its, sometimes, violent eruptions and has been the catalyst for great cultural change, including architecture and urban planning. In 1669, an exceptionally long and devastating eruption destroyed 10 cities and covered with lava the harbor of Catania, but there were no victims.

There are 4 open craters at the summit, but hundreds of side craters that can be approached from the south or north. The slopes, up to 6,500 feet, reveal ancient lava flows, caves, craters, and lava shafts. Color, size and the degree of regrowth date the lava. Above that, it becomes like a moonscape of lava. You can see some of the older, inactive craters just by driving by or walking at elevation.

Since Etna is still active, care is required. It emits steam constantly and erupts not infrequently. It can rain small bits of lava for miles and sometimes it can halt air traffic into Catania. Ashes are not a surprise, but the accompanying boom can be startling.

This hulking beast is both feared and revered in Sicily. Why revered? Because Etna gives Sicily some of its most fertile, mineral rich, arable, land. The wines, fruit and vegetables from Etna are unique in taste and highly valued. Beauty? With the sea as her right hand rival, Etna looms large and it’s hard to take your eyes off of it.


Karen La Rosa