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Snapshot: Sicily

September 14, 2020

It’s strategic location between Europe and Africa has made Sicily a jewel in the crown for empires for thousands of years

Sicily. Nowhere on earth has so much history in such a small space. The Vandals, Ostrogoths, Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Elymians, the Byzantine, Arabs, the Romans, and the Normans are just some of the many tribes and empires that have called Sicily home. And who wouldn’t want to up-sticks and base themselves on this beautiful sun-kissed island? But it wasn’t just for its beautiful beaches and fertile lands that made it so attractive. It’s a strategic location in the heart of the Mediterranean – as a stepping stone between Europe and Africa – has made it the jewel in the crown of every empire in the region over the last 10,000 years. And each tribe, kingdom and ruler that has arrived here left his mark. So many of the temples, churches and palaces are still so well preserved and show so much of their original glory.

The village of Giardini Naxos and snowy Mount Etna seen from a viewpoint of the Roman Theatre in Taormina.
The village of Giardini Naxos and snowy Mount Etna seen from a viewpoint of the Roman Theatre in Taormina.

But it isn’t just temples where people of Sicily come to worship. People have made offerings to the bubbling fires of Mount Etna since time began. The island (and its famous mountain) has been a focal point for many ancient myths and stories – not least as the home of the one-eyed Cyclops in Homer’s Odyssey.

The buildings and temples left by these ancient civilisations are what attracts so many visitors, who are keen to look through Sicily’s window into a mythical past. It’s easy to spot Arab domes, Byzantine mosaics and Norman palaces in the capital of Palermo but the archaeological treasures found throughout the island, truly show the history of Sicily.

And where best to start than the Valley of the Temples. Eight temples can be found in Agrigento on the southern coast of the island, with Temple of Concordia being the most stunning of them all. The temple’s huge Doric columns show the scale of the building and intricate statues featuring gods and characters from Greek mythology can still be seen carved into the stone.

Valley of the Temples in Mitoraj Agrigento, Sicily.
Valley of the Temples in Mitoraj Agrigento, Sicily.

The site of Selinunte in the west of the island is another stunning example of the incredible ancient Greek Architecture. The five temples are centred on an acropolis, and whilst many lay in ruins, Temple Hera has been beautifully resurrected. The stunning coastal backdrop and the tall pillars of the temple in the foreground make it is easy to imagine being one of the 30,000 inhabitants who lived her in 400 BCE.

The Temple of Hera is an ancient Greek ruin and is a sample of doric architecture.
The Temple of Hera is an ancient Greek ruin and is a sample of doric architecture.

The Necropolis of Pantalica is arguably the oldest archaeological site on the island. Up to 5,000 tombs were cut into the limestone rock on the side of Pantalica’s beautiful natural gorge. Although unclear exactly when they were created it is thought it was between the 13th and 8th century BCE during the early Middle Ages or Arab period.

Hiker walking along the trails of the Anapo Valley by the rocky necropolis of Pantalica.
Hiker walking along the trails of the Anapo Valley by the rocky necropolis of Pantalica.

By the 4th century BCE, the Romans had arrived in Sicily and the Villa Romana del Casaleis an incredible example of Roman architecture. Inside are some of the most complex mosaics from the Roman empire, which were rediscovered in the 19th century after being lost for over 700 years. In 1959 excavation of the site found a mosaics of women exercising wearing just bikinis. Was it this discovery that led to the fashion trend in the west that started in the 1960s?

Old Roman ruins in Villa Romana del Casale in Piazza Armerina.
Old Roman ruins in Villa Romana del Casale in Piazza Armerina.

By the 12th century, Christianity had really arrived. The church of La Martorana was built by Albanian Christians and still exhibits its exquisite mosaics, whilst the Palatine Chapel was built as a royal chapel for the Norman King Roger II. The 16th century Monastero Dei Benedettini of San Nicolò is one of the largest monasteries in Europe, and today calls the University of Catania’s Department of Humanities its home.

Baroque central courtyard with colonnade in the Benedictine cloister now part of Università dei Benedettini in Catania.
Baroque central courtyard with colonnade in the Benedictine cloister now part of Università dei Benedettini in Catania.

The Palaces of Noto display Baroque architecture at its best, whilst near the port town of Kalsa are some beautifully weathered Baroque churches. As they have for centuries, visitors watch the world go by with a glass of wine from one of the lovely restaurants that are scattered throughout the town squares.

There are of course beaches galore in Sicily, modern art galleries and fine dining but there is nowhere else on earth where you can get so up close and personal to thousands of years of history.

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