NEWSLETTER ARTICLES

ANCIENT GREEK SITES OF SICILY

Valley of the Temples - Agrigento

Valley of the Temples - Agrigento

TOP THREE ANCIENT GREEK SITES IN SICILY 

AN ISLAND OVERFLOWING WITH HISTORICAL AND ARCHAEOLOGICAL ATTRACTIONS FROM ANTIQUITY   

1)   VALLEY OF THE TEMPLES – AGRIGENTO – UNESCO World Heritage Listed Site

Agrigento boasts eight magnificent buildings built between 510 and 430 BC, among them the Temple of Zeus is the largest in the world, the Temple of Concordia is still considered one of the greatest masterpieces of Doric architecture only behind the Parthenon in Athens itself. Not to be out done the Temples of Heracles, Castor and Pollux are magnificent in scale. The honey coloured ruins are located on a rocky ridge, covered in almond trees with the landscape falling away to the distant blue sea are actually located on rocky crests – not really a valley at all. In its hey day one of the most important and culturally advanced Greek cities in the Mediterranean.

 

2)  SELINUNTE

Located on the south west coast of Sicily, Selinunte covers one of the largest and most impressive archaeological sites in the Mediterranean. At its height it was one of the most progressive and eminent cities. Destroyed by the Carthaginians around 250 BC and later decimated by an earthquake, it lay abandoned for over 2000 years. Today it’s a tumble of collapsed walls and pillars, you can still trace the imprints of its streets and building foundations. The best preserved temples leave an impression of solitary grandeur with wild flowers sprouting, lizards darting with the glittering sea a calm backdrop.

 

3)  GREEK THEATRE - TAORMINA

Though there are many larger and better preserved Greek theatres, none rival Taormina’s dazzling location offering views along the cactus coated coastline and overlooking the variously snow capped or smoking Mt Etna. The theatre is built into and out of the hillside and still used today for acoustically sound music and film festivals. The present structure had been overlaid for the most part in brick by the Romans on earlier Greek foundations from 3 BC.

 

BACKGROUND – GREEK SICILY

Sicily was colonized by Greeks in the 8th century BC. Initially, restricted to the eastern and southern parts of the island. The most important colony was established at Syracuse in 734 BC and Messina and various smaller city states. These city states were an important part of classical Greek civilization, which included Sicily as part of Magna Graecia - both Empedocles and Archimedes were from Sicily.

The Greek city-states enjoyed long periods of democratic government, but in times of social stress, in particular, with constant warring against Carthage, tyrants occasionally usurped the leadership.

As the Greek and Phoenician communities grew more populous and powerful, the Sicels and Sicanians were pushed further into the centre of the island. By the 3rd century BC, Syracuse was the most populous Greek city in the world. Sicilian politics was intertwined with the politics of Greece itself, leading Athens, for example, to mount the disastrous Sicilian Expedition in 415 BC during the Peloponnesian War.

In Greek Mythology, the goddess Athena threw Mount Etna onto the island of Sicily and upon either the gigante Enkeladus or Typhon during the giants' war against the gods.

The Greeks came into conflict with the Punic trading communities, by now effectively protectorates of Carthage, with its capital on the African mainland not far from the southwest corner of the island. Palermo was a Carthaginian city, founded in the 8th century BC, named Zis or Sis ("Panormos" to the Greeks). Hundreds of Phoenician and Carthaginian grave sites have been found in a necropolis over a large area of Palermo, now built over, south of the Norman palace, where the Norman kings had a vast park.

In the far west, Marsala was never thoroughly Hellenized. In the First and Second Sicilian Wars, Carthage was in control of all but the eastern part of Sicily, which was dominated by Syracuse. However, the dividing line between the Carthaginian west and the Greek east moved backwards and forwards frequently in the ensuing centuries.

 

UNDER THE SPOTLIGHT:   Ancient Selinunte - History, temples and archaeological site 

Selinunte is one of Sicily's great Greek archaeological sites. Situated by the sea in the south-western corner of Sicily, the isolated ruins here have stood abandoned for most of their history. The lack of later development allows visitors to imagine the ancient town of Selinus as it would have been two and a half thousand years ago. The archaeological park at Selinunte is huge, incorporating Greek temples, ancient town walls, the ruins of residential and commercial buildings and countryside paths and zones not yet excavated. If interested in Greek Sicily, this is a very important site to visit, and the temples' setting close to the sea are wonderfully picturesque.

Selinunte - Selinus - was a reasonable-sized town, however the scale of its temples indicate Selinunte had ideas high above its station. Founded in the seventh century BC by Greeks from Megara Hyblaea, itself a colony of Megara in Greece, Selinus was spread over a couple of low hills by the seashore. The town probably reached its peak in the sixth and fifth centuries BC, the era when its grand temples were constructed. In 409 BC Selinus was attacked, defeated and destroyed by the Carthaginians. There were later attempts to re-fortify the citadel, but the town's greatest days were over.

After earthquakes shook the remaining buildings in the Middle Ages, the site of Selinus was forgotten until its rediscovery in the sixteenth century. In the early nineteenth century English archaeologists began the work of excavation, which is ongoing today.

On entering the archaeological park, the first sight you see is the grandest. The large Doric temple known as Temple E was re-erected in the 1950s and standing proudly on a rise. It is an impressive evocation of Sicily's Greek past, and, unusually, visitors can climb into the temple itself to get a real sense of the scale and history of the building.

Behind Temple E are two more temples - this low hill would have been a sacred site outside the town centre. Furthest from the entrance, Temple G, was a massively ambitious project that may never have been finished. Completed, it would have been one of the biggest temples of the ancient world, and the mound of masonry surrounding it is still impressive by any standard today. Clambering among the sections of column is a memorable experience - to get an idea of Greek construction techniques from the blocks of carved stone and to marvel at the scale and ambition of the building and the force of its ultimate destruction at the hands of the Carthaginian conquerors and later earthquakes.

From the eastern section of the site, visitors cross a shallow valley where Selinunte's port once stood and climb up to the heart of town on another low hill. The acropolis and more temples (one partially re-erected) were in this area of the city; the earliest part of Selinunte to be built and also the last to be inhabited by the survivors of the Carthaginian siege. In its heyday the town's main residential areas covered the level ground inland from this hilltop, parts of the street layout have been excavated, though the ruins aren't as striking as those in the main hilltop cluster.

On the western hill is a small museum which exhibits finds from the site and helps give an idea of how the temples - brightly painted and decorated - would have looked. The best portable remains, including the metopes - sculpture panels from the temple frieze, are now in the archaeological museum in Palermo.

Despite the grandeur of Selinunte's temples and the powerful images of its jumbled columns, the town's domestic architecture is equally as fascinating. A street of ruined shops is a compelling reminder of the everyday life in ancient Selinunte.

Some of the extant ruins at Selinunte are very poignant. After the big defeat in 409 BC, defensive walls built of existing masonry were thrown up in a desperate attempt to defend the nucleus of the city. A row of twelve narrow openings in the fortifications were supposedly designed for lines of men to run out in the town's defence in the event of a military assault.

If you have the time, you should walk onwards to Selinunte's third major group of ruins, along a path to the west which leads through fields. By a stream you will find the remains of a very early sacred site, the Malophorus sanctuary. There is a simple temple here, sacrificial altars and a carefully constructed water course. This was evidently an important site used over a long period. Archaeologists found thousands of votive offerings, mostly terracotta figurines, here, and much of the Selinunte material exhibited in the Palermo archaeological museum is from this part of the site.

 

Visit all 3 sites on the Unspoiled Sicily in Style tour – next departure May 2017.