Sicily in February. Cheating winter with the smell of new grass and the first flowers and blossom, I promised two friends that in three days we would chase down the ancient Greeks and their Mediterranean setting.
To get into the mood, I watched Luchino Visconti’s The Leopard. Now more than 50 years old, its genius is timeless. Sicily is undoubtedly the star of the film. The wistful Prince of Salina, played with august levity by Burt Lancaster, reminds the audience that the island will be unaltered by Garibaldi’s daring unification. Sicily, he pronounces, is unyielding to change.
Majestic monument to time
We arrived early in Palermo, and within the hour were at ancient Segesta. In front of the ticket office, a large, contented mongrel basked in the late winter sunshine. Climbing the path to the great temple, we set up a flock of cawing jackdaws. Dwarfed by the scale of the 5th-century BC Doric temple, you had to pinch yourself to realise this was not a film set but a majestic monument to a time when ancient Egesta could hire a master architect. Now in the middle of nowhere, the metropolitan Greek and Roman town, with its diminutive Norman castle, occupied the adjacent overgrown hill. Staring at the temple overlooking rolling hills, we could only ask why. Why here? Why such colossal effort, and why the investment in measured architectural beauty? But wait, I told my friends, this is no more than an antipasto as we encircle the island.
Less than an hour later, having passed Trapani, we had reached the western coast at Mozia (Motya). The littoral is scruffy until you gain the water’s edge. The inshore salterns were full of water, and the windmills employed to extract the salt itself were stilled. Everything was serenely somnolent in the bright late morning radiance. A toothless old man whittling walking sticks pointed to a ferry in the distance. Minutes later, the eager ferryman was at our disposal, and the three of us leapt on board. Disconcerting little gaggles of complacent grebe, the pleasure craft chugged out the kilometre to a dock on Mozia.
The Prince of Salina might have used Phoenician Mozia as evidence of perpetual stasis on this island, but the reverse is true. Mozia was founded as an entrepot in the 8th century BC, its low perimeter coastline being powerfully fortified. Its walls proved essential until, in 398 BC, a coalition of forces led by Syracusans rudely penetrated these inner waters and laid siege to the trading community. Dismayed, the traders upped sticks and moved.
Close to the landing dock, the tiny museum is a Mediterranean pearl. Built into a Risorgimento-period tower-house owned by Joseph Whitaker, an English Marsala-making vintner, it contains all manner of material from countless archaeological excavations. Whitaker launched his investigations in the late 19th century, and his legacy is a foundation that still handsomely supports ongoing excavations by Rome’s La Sapienza university. But there is more. Apart from displays parading Mozia’s treasures, deep inside the museum the original collection survives, intricately carpentered wooden cases crammed with Punic finds – arrowheads, spindle whorls, and ceramics galore.
The island has trails reaching out like spokes in a wheel from the museum hub to digs on the water’s edge. A kilometre or so from the museum is the Kothon, the Punic harbour. Beside the powerful south gate, this rectangular basin, with its own sanctuary within a temenos enclosure wall, frees your imagination. Here merchant-venturers set sail for North Africa and the Levant in the 7th century BC, their wealth inducing an enmity that gave rise to the vaunting temple at Segesta, as well as those we were aiming to visit. Here, too, in this compact harbourage, were berthed triremes. This is no sprawling Roman haven sheltered by ribbons of stone moles; it is instead small, a considered bite out of the island’s otherwise densely built-up landmass. Today, with blossoming flowers and a sharp view towards the Egedi archipelago and tumuli-shaped sparkling piles of salt, it is little less than paradise, a tribute to a moment when western Sicily enjoyed unparalleled wealth.
Ordinarily, the salt museum is open, and with it a trattoria but, our ferryman lamented, no one comes in wintertime.
This is an excerpt from an article published in CWA 83. Read on in the magazine or click here to subscribe.