Sicily: The Mediterranean Heart – part 1

Sicily's Aeolian Islands by Giovanni
Sicily's Aeolian Islands by Giovanni

The prehistoric cave paintings in the Grotto del Genovese on the island of Levanto near Trapani show that Sicily has long been the home of a creative and spiritual people.  And when men began searching for rare obsidian to create weapons and tools the people of the small volcanic Aeolian islands (UNESCO World Heritage Site) within sight of Sicily became trading partners with Greek and Levantine sailors.  Sicily, the Mediterranean’s largest island, sits like a lump in the throat of the great sea.  It was the closest European outpost for Carthaginian traders and an unavoidable resting point for Greek and Phoenician sailors traveling from the civilized east to the copper of Sardinia and the silver of Spain.  Early Greek traders took the circuitous coastal route avoiding open waters and eventually reached the Straits of Messina.  The locals seizing an opportunity began collecting a toll of as much as 10% of the cargo becoming wealthy.

Segesta Temple
Segesta Temple

Sicily was a breadbasket for centuries to the Greeks and to the Romans.  The Greeks set up coastal trading centers to bring luxury goods to the Sicilians in exchange for their grain.  The many tribes of the island became wealthy and rivalries resulted.  When the people of Segesta felt threatened by nearby Selinunte, the Athenians were invited to defend the Segestans. Ambassadors were sent and the Segestans served their guests on golden plates at many Segestan homes.  Impressed by the local wealth, the Athenians agreed to come to the aid of their Sicilian allies.  What they didn’t realize is that the golden plates were moved from house to house behind their backs.  The resulting battle brought the Peloponnesian War to Sicily.

The Romans and Carthaginians began the Punic Wars in and around Sicily.  As with the Greeks, the Romans were invited into the conflict by the Mamertines of Messina who felt threatened by Syracuse which was backed by Carthage.  Over 120 years and 3 wars, the Romans created their powerful navy, took control of much of the Mediterranean and destroyed Carthage.  This pattern of playing an important role in larger conflicts has continued into the 20th century.  The Normans battled the Islamic Saracens here.  And Mussolini’s fascists fought the Allies across Sicily.  These conflicts have left their scars, but the Sicilians are resilient and over and over have rebuilt.

Concordia Temple at Agrigento by poudou99
Concordia Temple at Agrigento by poudou99

The Levantines, Greeks, Latins, Arabs, Normans, various crusaders and finally the Italians have invaded the island.  Though often politically subjugated, the indomitable island people have remained resolutely Sicilian, subsuming their arrogant invaders into a cultural stew.  No matter the political landscape, Sicily remains Sicily and the Sicilians retain their uniqueness.  This blending is heard in their language and is seen in their glorious buildings.

Roman Women in Bikinis at Piazza Armerina Roman Villa by Disdero
Roman Women in Bikinis at Piazza Armerina Roman Villa by Disdero

In Agrigento, near Syracuse, are the largest and most impressive Greek ruins anywhere. This UNESCO World Heritage site includes the Temple of Concordia (left).  At Segesta, not far from Palermo and Trapani, there is a single temple built by the locals in imitation of the Doric style. It is arguably the most complete of all Greek ruins of the golden era.  And between Segesta and Agrigento are the ruins of the Acropolis at Selinunte, which offers a huge quantity of fallen columns and several recognizable temples.  Beyond those 3 places there are also remnants in Tyndari and Taormina including Greek theaters rebuilt in their original style by the Romans.  These two sights offer more than just ruins they offer dramatic sea and volcano views from high cliffs.

From the beginning, fortresses were built on high coastal promontories like Erice and Milazzo.  And successive invaders captured these defensive positions they built and renovated.  The castles we see today are blends of various eras of Sicilian military history.  And they offer some of the islands most stunning views.

The Romans have also left renowned art and structures, particularly in the center of the island at the UNESCO World Heritage Site, Villa Romana del Casale at Piazza Armenina, which offers lively and beautiful Roman mosaics including one with women in what we now call bikinis.  There are also Roman ruins at Biaglo near the church-filled village Castroreale. (Continued in Part 2)


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