Island of the Cyclops - Sicily, Italy
There was a time when, if you asked what sprang to mind when Sicily is mentioned, the sinister organised crime of the mafia would certainly rank high on the list. Nowadays it is more likely to be a figure from the other side of the law – Inspector Montalbano - who has done so much to popularise both traditional Sicilian manhood and the beautiful old hilltop and seaside towns he visits during his investigations.
Ask a classicist about Sicily and there will be many references – the sea battle in the harbour at Syracuse in 413BC, immortalised and described in graphic detail by Thucydides; the giant one-eyed Cyclops, who traditionally lived on the slopes of Mount Etna; and the inventive mathematical genius Archimedes, who leapt from his bath when he solved a problem presented to him by King Hieron, and ran, still naked, through the streets of Syracuse yelling ‘Eureka’ – ‘I have found it!’
The deeper you delve into these stories the more fascinating they become, especially as you can still walk the streets of Ortygia, the small island which was the original Greek colony of Siracusa, and gaze over the Great Harbour which played such a significant role in the history of the western world. This was the site of a turning point in the Peloponnesian Wars between Athens and Sparta, each trying to curb the ambitions of the other. Thucydides tells us that this was 'the greatest action that we know of in Hellenic history – to the victors the most brilliant of successes, to the vanquished the most calamitous of defeats...' The war-loving Spartans won, and the Golden Age of Athens was well and truly over. A couple of centuries later the inventive genius Archimedes tried out his various fighting machines here in the same harbour – and one of the very chic piazzas still bears his name.
The street pattern in Syracuse is still based on the ancient grid. But this is a living city, and instead of ancient ruins (in Ortygia at least), there are Baroque mansions, elegant courtyards and paved piazzas, part of a major rebuilding programme after an earthquake at the end of the 17thcentury, and recently restored and enhanced.
The Cathedral here is one of the most remarkable examples anywhere of continuity from the ancient world – Doric columns protrude from the walls, both without and within, and the arches of the nave have been cut through the wall of the cella (inner sanctum) of a temple built in the 5thcentury BC. It represents a most pragmatic response to a change of spiritual focus – a temple built as a home for the cult statue of Athena has been turned inside-out and back-to-front to make a place of congregation for Christian worship. The open colonnade has been made solid, the solid cella wall has been opened out, and the entrance changed from east to west to accommodate new beliefs. It happened all over the place, but nowhere is it more graphically demonstrated in a living cathedral.
If romantically ruined temples are what you are after, though, Sicily provides many examples. Temple-building was the way not only to appease the gods, but to show off the wealth and strength of a city, and there was much to be had of both on an island of such strategic importance. All those civilisations developed enough to embark on sea trade around the Mediterranean needed to have trading stations and friendly ports of call on the Sicilian Coast – the Straits of Sicily and Messina were the only ways through from east to west. Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Greeks from many different home cities and, eventually, the Romans all fought for this control, and the wealth generated by victory has left impressive ruins for visitors from Grand Tourists to the present day.
Cities such as Selinunte and Agrigento had multiple temples, and you can both tread the well-laid-out paths of the most famous ruins, and go in search of those which were once equally impressive but are now by-passed by the hordes. A climb through the back-streets of the medieval hill-town of Agrigento leads you to another temple now absorbed by a small church – Sta Maria dei Greci – and there are other hidden treasures if you take the time to search them out.
At the other end of the island lies another important city, representing a second Golden Age of art and architecture. Norman adventurers, led by the de Hauteville family, came here at the end of the 11th century and established a wealthy, powerful but relatively short-lived dynasty which left some wonderful churches and palaces in and around Palermo. The rulers are easy to remember – two Rogers, two Williams (one Bad, one Good), and their religious buildings are hard to forget, glorying in fabulous gold-in-glass mosaics. These show biblical scenes from the Old and New Testaments which actually represent very lively scenes of Medieval life – Lazarus being raised from the dead whilst those around him hold their noses, friendly-looking pairs of animals progressing into the ark... The art of mosaic-making had been well-established here much earlier, as the late Roman villas at Piazza Armerina and Tellaro reveal, but they have moved from floor to high walls, and are made of bright glass rather than natural stone. The Normans rulers made use of all the skills and traditions left by earlier civilisations – Romans, Byzantine Greeks and Arabs – and their architectural heritage is quite unlike the austere castle-building further north and west.
From the prehistoric Sikels, who left the hills of the interior honeycombed with their tombs, to Baroque hill-towns, with lots in between, there is so much to explore. Volcanic Etna provides a dramatic back-drop to many of the sites in the east of the island – and the legend of the Cyclops on its slopes may have been inspired by early settlers finding the skulls of an extinct form of pygmy elephant which once roamed here....the large central hole where the trunk once attached looks remarkably like the socket of a huge eye. Crafty Odysseus, clever Archimedes and cunning Montalbano provide lots to consider in a journey around the island.
Dr Denise Allen PhD
Dr Denise Allen PHD has a background in archaeology, and is a specialist in Roman glass with a wide interest in Classical civilisations. Her first involvement with Andante came in the early days, when she led the first tours to Tunisia and Sicily, and she joined the office staff in 1999, became Deputy Director shortly afterwards, and is now responsible for the tour programme. She will be leading ‘A Cultural Carousel in Sicily’ in March 2013 (see below).
Andante Travels, now in its 27th year, is an established and well respected archaeological tour operator founded and run by archaeologists. It is an unusual company, offering tailor-made tours on which thousands of passengers enjoy hand-picked hotels, great food and even better company. The ethos is simple: expert guides in an accessible and friendly atmosphere. The company has been successfully operating tours to Sicily for over a decade.
Andante’s forthcoming tours to Sicily:
Sicilia Antiqua (11 days): Sept 2012; April, May, Sept 2013
Relaxed break on Ortygia (7 days): May & Sept 2013
Sicily: Archaeology and Art History (7 days): Jan 2013
A Cultural Carousel in Sicily (8 days): Mar 2013