We fly into Catania, in the shadow of Mount Etna, on the east coast of Sicily. Europe’s largest active volcano rewards us with clear views today, as plumes of smoke rise from her snowcapped summit. Our timing is fortuitous: it is the March equinox and the first day of spring.
Sicily is Persephone’s island, and spring is when she returns from her annual winter sojourn with Hades, god of the underworld, who made her his reluctant queen after snatching her from a field where she was gathering flowers for her mother Demeter, goddess of fertility and the harvest. At least, that’s the story that provided the ancients with a divine explanation for the changing of the seasons. We pick up a hire car and head west towards the central province of Enna and Lake Pergusa, the scene of Persephone’s abduction, according to local legend. From Enna, we then head south to Agrigento, our base for two days while we explore the archaeological sites and towns of the south and west coast.
Sicily’s abundant fertility, celebrated in the local cults of Demeter and Persephone, and its position as the largest island in the Mediterranean at the crossroads of several important trade routes, has for thousands of years – along with Malta and Gozo – drawn the attention of invaders and settlers including Phoenicians, Ancient Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Normans, and Spanish.
The influence of these overlapping civilisations is often apparent in a single site, sometimes a single building. It is also apparent in Sicily’s famed cuisine, which makes the island a rewarding destination not just for lovers of archaeology but for foodies too. Muslim Arabs, Berbers, and Andalusians who arrived after AD 827 imported oranges, lemons, almonds, and dates, and the Greeks cultivated produce that is to be had today from the hillside estate at Agrigento: olives, honey, cheese, wine. We sample the island’s best at the restaurant of the Hotel Villa Athena, a stone’s throw from the UNESCO World Heritage Site of the Valley of the Temples.
The three great Greek temple complexes of Agrigento, Selinunte, and Segesta in southern and western Sicily are the equal of anything in Greece itself. We visit the first of these after a breakfast of cappuccino and sweet-ricotta cannoli, and, as it is the week before Easter and still early in the season, we have the site almost to ourselves. As well as the extraordinarily well-preserved Doric temples of Hera and Concordia, there are the remains of several others, among them the Temples of Heracles, Olympian Zeus, Castor and Pollux, Hephaestos, Demeter, and Asclepius, all constructed between about 510 BC and 430 BC.
Exploring a ‘Greek Pompeii’
The next day we drive west for an hour-and-a-half along the coast past fragrant orchards and groves of oranges and silver olive trees towards Sciacca. Here are located some of Sicily’s best beaches, and the landscape is wilder.
Atmospheric Selinunte, which stands on a coastal promontory between Mazara del Vallo and Sciacca, is hauntingly beautiful and carpeted with buttercups and purple borage. Like a Greek Pompeii, it is the site of one of the ancient world’s greatest tragedies, destroyed virtually overnight in the late 5th century BC by invading Carthaginians who are said to have slaughtered 16,000 inhabitants and enslaved thousands more.
Around 15 per cent of the 250-acre city has survived above ground. The rest is preserved below. Geophysical surveys and excavations over the past 15 years are gradually revealing an entire city of 2,500 houses, a harbour, and commercial and industrial zones.
‘Selinunte is the only Classical Greek city where the entire metropolis is still preserved, mainly buried under sand and earth. It therefore gives us a unique opportunity to discover how an Ancient Greek city functioned,’ explained Professor Martin Bentz of the University of Bonn, Director of the major current excavation at Selinunte.
Recent work by Bentz and his team has identified some 80 pottery kilns – used in the production of roof tiles, fine tableware, amphorae and other containers for exports of olive oil and grain, statuettes of gods and goddesses, and even ceramic coffins – as well as workshops complete with pottery-making equipment and paint pigments. In the corner of one workshop, the team has discovered a shrine with two arulae (small altars) and artefacts dedicated to Athena Ergane (Athena of the Workers), Artemis (goddess of hunting and of childbirth), Demeter (goddess of fertility and of the harvest), and Zeus.
Seven miles to the north-east is Cave di Cusa, where the stone for the ancient city’s temples was quarried. It was abandoned suddenly in 409 BC when the Carthaginians attacked, and there are great fluted column sections to be seen today, carved in situ, still anchored in the mother rock.
Onwards from Selinunte
Selinunte was a stop on the Grand Tour for more intrepid travellers in the 18th century, as was beautiful Taormina, famed for its Greek theatre and its commanding position on a distant spur of Etna, overlooking the island’s eastern coast, the next stop on our own tour.
We make our way there via the Villa Romana del Casale near Piazza Armerina. The Roman villa was part of a 3rd- to 4th-century AD estate, and the spectacular mosaics that decorated every room of the wealthy landowner’s apartments are beautifully preserved thanks to a flood that buried them in mud. From there, we wind our way through central Sicily where fertile hills of an improbable green give way to spectacular views of Mount Etna on the way to Morgantina, the site of a native Sikel village in the prehistoric period and of a later Greek settlement from around 550 BC.
We end our visit to Sicily in Syracuse, one of the great city-states of antiquity, and home to mathematician and engineer Archimedes. Here the ancient is very much part of the fabric of modern life. Summer performances of Ancient Greek plays are still held in the 5th-century BC theatre in the archaeological park. In Syracuse’s charming ‘centro storico’, on the island of Ortygia, we lose ourselves in a maze of backstreets so narrow it is possible to lean across and embrace your neighbour on the balcony opposite. We emerge in Piazza Duomo, where the magnificent Baroque cathedral incorporates in its walls the columns of the ancient temple of Minerva, which in turn was built on the site of a 6th-century BC monument to Athena. Inside is a 13th-century font and Norman-era mosaics. Round the corner, in Piazza Pancali, the colourful morning market conducts its trade around the ruins of the temple of Apollo, the oldest extant Doric temple in Western Europe.
To travel through Sicily is to travel through time, though there is not time enough to see it all in one visit. We plan a return trip to see the shimmering mosaics of the Capella Palatina in Palermo, the Arab-Norman art of the Cathedral of Monreale, and the medieval architecture of Cefalù. In the meantime, the British Museum’s exhibition entitled ‘Sicily: Culture and Conquest’ (CWA 77) offers a compelling portrait of a magical island that at one time was one of the most enlightened cultures in Europe.
All images: Sharon Sharpe
Sharon Sharpe (www.scsharpe.com) is a writer specialising in the arts and cultural heritage of the Middle East and Arab world. She has lived and worked in the UAE and Kuwait, and has travelled extensively in Europe and the Middle East, photographing and writing about sites of cultural and archaeological interest. She now lives and works in London.
This article appeared in issue 78 of Current World Archaeology.