Magna Graecia in Sicily!
Greek temples, theaters, and communities may not be something that you would instinctively associate with Sicily, after all, Sicily is part of Italy. But, that was very much the reality of the ancient world. Sicily, particularly along its eastern and southern coastlines, was home to hundreds of thousands of Greeks from the 8th century BC to about the 3rd century BC, until they ultimately fell to the Romans. Second and third only to Athens, two cities in Sicily, those being Siracusa and Agrigento, were once home to the largest populations of Greeks. In fact, at one point Siracusa even eclipsed Athens in Greek power and population. Collectively, the Greek cities in Sicily were known as Magna Graecia or "Greater Greece", during that time. They were ruled by local leaders as individual city-states and held bitter rivalries, often fighting against each other.
Having just returned from a trip to Sicily, I want to share with you the best locations to visit on the island to experience "Greek Sicily".
Taormina & Giardini Naxos
Taormina & Giardini Naxos
Taormina is a city that is majestically perched high on a cliff along Sicily's eastern coastline overlooking the Ionian sea. From there, looking up you can easily view the smoldering Mount Etna, and looking down you can see a nearby beach community along the shore, called Giardini Naxos. Naxos, Sicily while now a tiny beach town popular with sun-bathers, is very relevant to the history of Magna Graecia as it was where the very first Greek settlers to the island landed in 734 BC. Sadly 300 years after their arrival, the town of Naxos was destroyed by the neighboring, rival city of Siracusa. It was at that time that the town's survivors sought a safer, more protected location high on the adjacent cliff, and established Taormina. While there is not much left to see of the former Naxos settlement but a few scattered ruins, I think its relevant history deserves mention.
Taormina became established by the Greeks fleeing Naxos, Sicily in the 5th c. BC. Located in a beautiful setting offering panoramic vistas, there now remains only one important Greek site in Taormina... the Ancient Greek Theater. Although Sicily is home to many Greek theaters, the Greek Theater of Taormina is uniquely stunning as it is set high on a cliff offering an expansive view beyond the stage, framing both Mt. Etna and the sea. The theater's architecture visible today is actually a hybrid, composed of a Roman remodel of the Greek original. Hence, it is commonly referred to as the Ancient Greco-Roman Theater of Taormina. The steep, semi-circular arrangement of the seats provided optimal views and enhanced acoustics for the Greek plays. Even viewers in the 'cheap seats' could hear a whisper from the stage. Today, concerts are still held regularly in the theater throughout the summer months. I was lucky enough to catch a concert by the famous Il Volo pop trio when I was there this June.
Enjoy a tiny morsel from their concert...
Segesta is an ancient Greek site in Western Sicily located about an hour's drive southwest of Palermo. The site is relatively minor in that it consists of only two small monuments... a temple and a theater. The temple is a very well-preserved, Doric Greek temple built about 420 BC, nearly 25 years after the Parthenon. Interestingly, it was never finished, as evidenced by numerous architectural observations. Its condition and preservation, however, are exceptional.
After a short shuttle bus ride to the top of an acropolis, the theater can also be visited. While the small theater has been restored, many original stones are still present amongst the semi-circular arcade of seats, called the cavea. As you look down on the landscape beyond the stage, it's important to remember that the ancient Greek theatergoers would not have seen the view that can be seen today, as there would have been a high stone backdrop at the back of the stage, called the scena. Both comedies and tragedies were performed there, again, with excellent acoustics.
Moving southward along the island, Selinunte is worth a stop. It is located near the southwestern tip of Sicily. Selinunte was home to a moderate-sized Greek community in its day and shoulders the remains of multiple temples, an Agora, and a theater. While all of the temples are in ruins, ONE was "reconstructed", even if somewhat shoddily. For better or for worse, the reconstructed temple is notable in that it is one of the few Greek temples, in both Sicily and Greece that I am aware of, that visitors are allowed to "enter" and walk on. When you walk up the stairs and enter its peristyle to explore its interior space, you really get a feel for the vast dimensions of an ancient Greek temple. Ancient Greek temples typically faced eastward with steps leading up to the entrance. There, an altar would be located. Greek temples had Doric-style columns composing a rectangular peristyle of, approximately, 6 x 13 columns. The columnar peristyle surrounded a solid-walled, inner chamber called a cella (Naos) where the cult statue of the god/goddess was located.
Many of the excavated treasures from Selinunte are now showcased in the Regional Archaeological Museum of Palermo. Parts of friezes and pediments from the temples are on display, some of which retained their original colors. Although we are accustomed to seeing Greek temples in all white (if marble) or all beige (if sandstone), the temples in their original forms were painted in bright, bold colors.
One of the largest and most powerful cities of Magna Graecia was Agrigento, located along the elevated southern coastline of Sicily. Agrigento is famous for its Valley of the Temples. That powerhouse ancient Greek community undoubtedly appeared formidable to onlookers approaching from the sea, as they were confronted with a long row of Agrigento's prominent temples perched high on a cliff. Agrigento had a population of 200,000 and was the third-largest Greek city after Athens and Siracusa. During its heyday, there existed 15 Doric-style temples, each honoring a different god. Now there are only five remaining temples that can be visited.
The Valley of the Temples is truly a magnificent travel experience, as they are the best-preserved complex of Greek temples in all of Italy. The five temples are the Temple of Juno, the Temple of Concordia, the Temple of Hercules, the Temple of Olympian Zeus, and the Temple of Castor and Pollux. The old city wall of Agrigento is also visible along the valley.
Amongst the temples, the Temple of Zeus was particularly unique as it was the largest Doric temple in the ancient world. It was longer than a football field and taller than a 10-story building! Its architecture consisted of a solid outer wall, instead of a line of open columns, as traditional amongst Greek temples. In addition, it had 38 giant telamon figures holding up the massive roof of the temple, as shown in the cork model below. One of the original telamons is displayed in the Pietro Griffo Archeological Museum, also shown below. The museum showcases many other treasures that have been excavated from the city.
For a grand finale, Siracusa located at the southeastern tip of the island is the perfect location to finish a tour of Greek Sicily. It not only rivaled but actually eclipsed Athens in its Greek stature during its peak in the 5th century. Home to the brilliant inventor, mathematician, physicist, and genius, Archimedes in the 3rd c. BC, Siracusa has reveled in his fame. (He invented the Archimedes Screw that we saw in action throughout the salt flats in Trapani, Sicily, as it is still used to this day to move water from a lower to a higher elevation. Check it out in the video below.) Visitors to Siracusa should visit two areas... mainland Siracusa and the small historic island of Ortigia.
Two Greek-related sites should be viewed on the mainland... the Neapolis Archaeological Park and the Paolo Orsi Archaeological Museum. In the archaeological park, you can see a sizeable Greek theater, the remains of an aqueduct, the footprint of a monstrous sacrificial altar, a huge quarry, and a (later) Roman amphitheater.
The island of Ortigia is a true gem. One of the sites that are particularly noteworthy is the Temple of Apollo. It is the remains of the first Doric stone temple in Sicily from about 580 BC. It predated the Parthenon in Athens by 130 years.
Another site, believe it or not, is the Siracusa Cathedral. You may be wondering how a cathedral fits into the ancient Greek civilization of Magna Graecia. I'll tell you! This structure was ORIGINALLY an ancient Greek temple with 6 columns at both the front and back and 14 columns on the two sides. It was built on the highest point of the island to honor the goddess Athena, in 480 BC. The original temple steps are still visible along the cathedral's base on the outside. In 535 AD the Byzantines converted the temple to a church by filling in the spaces between the still-standing columns of the peristyle. They then cut arches out of the inner Greek temple cella (Naos) walls to create a nave and two side aisles. The ancient Doric colonnade is still present and notable! It is obvious that the floorplan of ancient Greek temples transitioned easily to floorplans of Christian churches and cathedrals. Amazing!!!
By the way, this wasn't the only Greek temple that was converted into a church by the Byzantines. Many were. The Temple of Concordia in Agrigento, mentioned previously, also succumbed to that fate. That was used as a church for almost 1200 years. It wasn't until the Napoleonic years in the late 18th c. that the building was stripped back to its original state and became appreciated as an ancient temple.
So this is Greek Sicily!
The Sicilian beaches, the sunshine, the seafood, the cannolis and pistachios, and the wines were all FABULOUS! But for me, understanding the Greek connection and the island's history exponentially magnified my overall experience. I just loved appreciating how the various cultures interacted, learning how the powers rivaled each other and shifted, and seeing the ruins and relics of those struggles, victories, and compatibilities. Sicily is truly complex, as it is not just about the Greeks! The Carthaginians, the Romans, the Byzantines, the Arabs, and the Normans all made power plays and left their own unique footprints on this spectacular island. But that may be for another blog...