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xEurasia Odyssey

A Quick Jaunt to Western Sicily

ITALY | Thursday, 16 May 2019 | Views [581]

Concordia Temple, Valle dei Templi, Agrigento

Concordia Temple, Valle dei Templi, Agrigento

Quick Jaunt to Sicily

 I’ve been looking for a house in the Salzburg region and have been incredibly frustrated with what is on the market for exorbitant prices.  In order to escape a cyclone of despair, I looked for cheap flights to somewhere where it wasn’t raining.  Palermo won out, as I have wanted to tour the western side of the island for some time. I was only in Sicily once on a day trip from Malta a few years ago and was able to see some of the highlights of the eastern side, including walking around on Mt. Etna, and through Taormina then. The western side has a different history, equally as rich, and I wanted to see the famous ruins in the Valle dei Templi, Selinunte and Segesta as well as the churches in Palermo and Monreale.  To cap off the trip I thought it would be good to get to the medieval hilltop town of Erice and perhaps spend some time near the beach somewhere by the airport before flying back.  Luckily, I was able to cram all of this into a quick extended weekend trip.

 Sicily has been inhabited since Neolithic times, the museums in Palermo, Selinunte and Erice display artifacts from about 10,000 BCE up to modern times, with special emphasis on the Punic, Greek, and Roman eras. Norman remains are more prominent in Palermo and vicinity than elsewhere, esp. in their Castle very near the Cathedral, but there are still partial structures throughout this side of the island.  Actually the entire landscape is dotted with partial ancient walls from undecipherable ages. As it is early May, yellow, blue and violet flowers blanket the fields with isolated blooms emerging from the tumbled rocks; occasionally a group of red poppies puncture the Monet-like settings. The colorful vegetation reminds one of both the fragility as well as persistence of life contrasted against the broken, shattered and only partially reconstructed ancient places of worship and commerce.

 The temples in Valle dei Templi near Agrigento on the southern side of the island are truly impressive, despite the hordes of tourists.  I was luckily there on a cold fairly windy day and, as it was prior to the beginning of the high season, the site was filled with mostly Italian tourists who were taking advantage of the free entrance on the first Sunday of the month. (This is a tip for those planning on going! First Sundays are free in museums and archeological sites throughout Italy in the off-season. It used to be throughout the year, but the cultural minister has been trying to reduce it and add a museum free week in March.) The site museum is across the road from a former Roman residential era.  There were artifacts found here from earlier times, esp. the Greeks, but the remaining rock wall outlines, with just a few patches of mosaic flooring, are all Roman. The museum is nicely laid out almost chronologically with an audio guide that was somewhat less impressive.  The plaques give the same information, so one can save the E5 as it really isn’t worth it.  The display starts with Punic and Greek remains, with a number of amphora, clearly demonstrating the artistic talents of local and homeland Greeks with black, red and white casting techniques.  Herakles’ adventures, Zeus’ female exploits, Athena’s interference in the Trojan war and Aphrodite’s pleasures are especially favored as motifs. There are a few statues in the museum, the best one of a Kore made from Carerra marble. There is also a nice marble head of Athena’s face wearing her nose-covered helmet.  For me, it was especially interesting to see the Neolithic goddess votive figurines, which are identical to those found in Crete and Cyprus, which illustrates the early exchange of ideas and worship from at least 7,000 BCE. The Neolithic section of the museum is oddly at the end, but it is in a room that summarizes habitation on the island. 

After learning about the finds in the region, it was time to explore the temples, which are about 800m away from the museum across fields and olive groves. As one comes uphill one faces the most intact of the temples, that of the Concordia.This temple was protected because a 6th C archbishop decided to make it a church and built walls around the columns. To the left at the end of the site is the Temple to Juno, which commands a spectacular view of the sea to one side and inland rolling hills and fields (& now the highrise walls of Agrigento) to the other. Going the other way, one comes to the temples of Herakles, Poseidon and Zeus among others.  Herakles’ is the most intact, but Zeus’ was the largest.  In the middle of the temple area is a fallen guardian statue that has its twin in the museum.  These rock-hewn figures are well over 4 meters tall and a meter and a half wide. Another fallen statue in the area was that of an over large bronze winged person, perhaps Mercury or a very large Eros, but there were no noticeable indications of identity left. Kids were climbing all over the statue’s remains, and I wasn’t sure the spirit of the figure was especially pleased with the disrespect being demonstrated. On the other hand, the bambini were obviously enjoying themselves.

Agrigento lies just up the hill from the temples and the entrance is through a windy road that leads to the center of the town where there is a large parking area. The center is mainly one-way roads, so it is easy to get lost driving to a small hotel/b&b, especially when the GPS says to turn left when a left turn isn’t permitted.  The advantage to the system, however, is that it allows traffic to flow through the very narrow sometimes rather steep streets that have parked cars on either side. The immediate center of town is quite nice with restaurants and cafes in a park-like setting and interesting hilly side streets with shops, churches and a square dedicated to Pirandello, who was born here and who has a theater in his honor in the city hall. The theater offers concerts as well as theatrical productions, and couples in evening clothes were heading to the entrance as I tried to photograph the site for a friend.

The next day I headed to first to Selinunte and then to Segesta, ancient sister cities of Agrigento. Selinunte is a major area on the coast, in fact it may be the largest archeological park in Europe, and it takes quite a while to get through all of the ruins.  To aid travelers, there is an electric golf cart that carries people from area to area. One of the major sections is in the northern, which has a Temple to Demeter Malophoros with a small temple to Hera and another to Hecate by its side.  Further along the path is a cult site for Zeus Meilichios with two altars but not much else. The acropolis is about a kilometer away and is quite large.  The remaining columns stand like sentinels on the hill above the coast. The archeologists in Selinunte decided not to try to guess which temple belonged to which deity, with the exception of those mentioned above, but instead simply labeled them Temple A, B, C, etc.. The same was true in Segesta about an hour away from Selinunte. This site has really only two highlights, but they are worth the trip.  The first is a large, mostly intact temple dedicated to an unknown Greek deity. The temple in this area is especially remarkable as the town was inhabited by Elymians, not Greeks. According to tradition, the Elymians stem from the Trojans who fled after the fall of their city; after many years sailing around the Mediterranean the women got tired and decided to stay put where they were. Over time they moved inland and Segesta was one of their main cities. Archeologists believe that the population came from a mix of Trojans, Phoenicians, local inhabitants, and Greeks. The temple was supposedly constructed during a time when trade with Greece was at its height. The connection with differing Greek city-states brought both income and eventual disaster as the city-fathers favored Athens in a war with Syracuse and lost, which led to the destruction of the town. From the temple one walks down a ways to the parking area where for E1.5 one can take a bus up the hill to the theater/former residential complex. The view from the top is spectacular as one can see across the green rolling hills dotted with small farms to mountains with the temple on an outcrop above a gorge. From above it is difficult to imagine that an army invaded the site; it seems more likely that the town died from lack of trade.

From Segesta it is only a few kilometers on the autostrada to Trapani and the coast. On a hill above Trapani lies the intact medieval town of Erice. Parking is available outside the walls and is free except during high season, from mid-May to the beginning of October. The town is renown as a tourist mecca in the summer as it is so much cooler than down in Trapani, so it is advisable to come in the off-season when one can wander the winding cobble-stoned paths and admire the half-moon coast below in peace.  The town provides a map with a suggested walking tour of the churches, which all charge minimal entrance fees. One can also purchase the package for E6. Entrance into the two town museums, is, however, not included and this must be purchased separately. The churches are quite diverse as some are pretty bare while others have more Gothic (Royal Church) or Baroque (SS. Salvatore) features. As a whole, however, they demonstrate how the differing sections of town felt more inclined to one saint over the other, indicating the various needs of the population over time. In San Giuliano 18thC wooden carved “Misteri” are on display. These are tableaus from the Passion that are hand carried by four or more people during the Good Friday procession throughout Erice.  The workmanship on some of the figures is exquisite. Each of the tableaus was created by a different guild or business so they all used different artists. During the procession the figures would go by the main tower at the city wall. The tower was supposedly first built during Punic times, but that which remains is a late 13th/early 14th C construction by Frederick III of Aragon, who was responsible for much of what one currently sees, including the Royal Church. The main museum, the Cordici Museum, right off the center square showcases artifacts from the classical period through the Middle Ages, with a separate room for modern art. The other museum, the Ettore Majorana, is dedicated to Antonio Zichichi, who was the instigator of the 1982 Erice Statement “signed by thousands of scientists and numerous Nobel Prize winners from all over the world.  The Erice Statement proposes “rules” that scholars and governments must follow so that science, technology and politics can work together to construct a better world.” (Erice: A Friendly Walk-Around Guidebook, 23) The ancient house has a modern seminar room where a talk on neurobiology was being held while I went through a fascinating exhibit on optics. From the top floor there is a terrace that looks out over the coastline; the walls to this room are filled with art that illustrates scientific concepts, including a couple of Leonardo da Vinci that tie the history of the site with the ideas discussed in its rooms together.  One of the other very interesting sites in town is the Venus Castle.  According to legend, this was originally the site of a Venus Temple, complete with priestesses who lent their physical services to pilgrims once a year. The pilgrims had quite a trek up as the temple, now castle, lies atop a steep cliff. It commands an astounding view of the coastal region, so whether or not the pilgrims’ sexual yearnings were full-filled, Venus graced them with a view of the beauty of her region, which should have satisfied their senses.

The ancient and medieval worlds of temples, castles and cathedrals still live amidst modern buildings and traffic in the Sicilian capital of Palermo. The Cathedral is a testament to the history of the city.  The first place of Christian worship was built on the site shortly after Constantine’s 313 CE Edict. This structure was destroyed in the 5th C by Vandals, but by the late 6th early 7th, a new building arose, which was again destroyed by the Arabs in the early 9th C. By the mid -11th, the Normans were in power and they reestablished the church and built the beginnings of the current cathedral.  The modern edifice is an incredible mixture of styles, from the early middle age Norman, to Catalan Gothic, to Renaissance, to Baroque, to indiscriminately remodeled. Throughout it all, though, it is dedicated to the Virgin Mary and her Assumption into Heaven.  Sculptures and paintings of her ascendance are throughout the Cathedral. Her presence is felt in churches and sites across the region and the entire island.  From Aphrodite and Athena to Venus and Isis and finally to the Virgin Mary, the Eternal Feminine has a distinct footprint in these coastal areas. One of the other incredibly ornate inner city churches is the “Martorana,” otherwise known as the Church of Santa Maria dell’ Ammiraglio, which was constructed in the mid-12th C in gratitude to the Virgin for a politician and merchant’s long and successful career. This church has a number of interesting features, not the least of which are intricate Byzantine mosaics that portray George of Antioch dedicating the church to the Virgin, the “Incoronation of Roger II by Jesus Christ” and Christ as Pantocrator. The church appears split between Byzantine mosaics and beautiful 15th-17th C frescos and paintings.  The church immediately next door, San Cataldo, seems barren in comparison to the Martorana. Perhaps the most famous of the worship sites directly in the capital city is the Palatine Chapel in the Royal Palace.  Built by the Normans in Byzantine style the golden colorful mosaics tell the biblical story starting with the creation of the world and God’s seven days’ activities through the Expulsion from Eden, the Flood, Babel, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, to a variety of events surrounding the stories of Peter and Paul. The mosaic dome showcases Christ Pantocrator surrounded by four angels and the four archangels. What is especially unique about this chapel is that the ceiling was built by Muslim architects using Muqarnas decorations, i.e., inlaid wooden star designs similar to those found in Uzbekistan mosques or parts of the Alhambra. The Normans were known for their ecumenical policies, and this chapel is an indication of the goodwill among artisans of various faiths.  The Chapel also has an image of Mary in the Presbytery near St. John the Baptist and Mary Magdalene, but this was added much later in the 17thC. Palermo is filled with churches, so it would be impossible to visit them all.  One additional site that I found interesting, though, was the Theatiner church. One of Salzburg’s main churches on the Kajetanerplatz was built by this order and Carlos Borromeo, who has a distinct presence in the salt city on the Salzach, left his mark on Palermo as well. Palermo is known not just for its churches, castle, and piazzas but also for its opera house, which when it was built in the late 1800s, was the largest in Italy. It has excellent acoustics and a beautiful interior.  No capital city in Europe is complete without an archeological museum and Palermo is no different, other than the fact that only the classical exhibition is currently on display.  The other floors are still undergoing renovations, even though they were supposed to have been completed by now. The artifacts that are on display demonstrate how trade with other Mediterranean communities affected life and culture in Western Sicily from about the 8th C BCE. Votive figurines as well as vases, amphora, burial artifacts all showcase a free exchange of ideas as well as products.

This ancient exchange has a new twist with the migrations from North Africa, which aren’t an exchange as the intent is not to go back.  The population of Sicily appears to be changing, but then again, it always has.  The Trojans came, the Phoenicians came, the Greeks came, the Romans came, the Normans came, and now North Africa is coming.  These events are not always seamless or without conflict, but one can hope that the spirit of openness and generosity as exemplified in the design of the Palatine Chapel will prevail and not the Mafioso techniques for which the island is also noted.

My time in Western Sicily was short, but filled with fascinating sights, sounds, and tastes of living ancient traditions. I hope to go back again soon.


Tags: ancient ruins, churches, city visit, museums


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