A Guide to Sicily’s Greek Ruins
The Greek ruins found on this wild isle are known to surpass those on the Greek mainland. Once a centre of Greek culture certain Sicilian cities were believed to equal, if not rival, the city-states of Athens and Sparta.
Here are few of the better picks worth a visit (with credit to Conde Nast Traveler magazine).
The celebrated Valley of the Temples, below the scruffy modern city of Agrigento, is one of the wonders of the world. The great Greek poet Pindar described it as ‘the most beautiful city of mortals’, and even in its present state its temples are stunning. This lush, green, archaeological park was once the site of Akragas, one of the largest and most powerful cities in the entire Greek world in the 5th-century, notorious for the luxurious and debauched lifestyle of its inhabitants.
Once an important Greek colony, the ruins of Eraclea Minoa are well worth a visit. Built on a cliff above one of the Mediterranean’s longest and finest beaches, much of the city has collapsed into the sea. It has been virtually deserted since the end of the 1st-century BC, and you can still find fragments of pottery everywhere – vase handles, bases of pots, bits of amphorae – an astonishing experience for amateur archaeologists. The ruins gives you a chance to touch objects that so often are found behind glass in well-guarded museums.
Wander down the sleepy, slightly touristy, and ancient streets of Erice and wonder at the number of churches in such a small place. This is where Daedalus, whose son Icarus flew too near the sun, allegedly came to ground after his more successful airborne adventure.
The subterranean Roman burial chamber of Crispia Salvia on via Massimo D’Azeglio in Marsala is truly remarkable. It’s no more than five metres wide, reached via a narrow staircase hewn from the rock.
Morgantina is the site for mosaic fans – the mosaic floors that have survived here are the oldest yet found in the world. The town is set in the heart of Sicily, and made its fortune from wheat growing. The enormous wealth led to a number of magnificent houses being built in the 5th-century BC, in which the mosaic floors can be found. PIAZZA ARMERINA… See also the vast mosaics in the Villa Romana at Casale.
> SEGESTA’S DORIC TEMPLE AND THEATRE
One of the world’s most magnificent ancient sites can be found an hour’s drive from Palermo. Set on the edge of a deep canyon in the midst of the wild and desolate mountains, this huge 5th-century BC temple was probably never finished. Its 36 columns are said to act like an organ on windy days, producing mysterious and beautiful notes. The theatre, overlooking a magnificent landscape towards the Mediterranean Sea, has remarkably survived invasions and earthquakes (the town is situated in one of the most seismic zones in Europe). You need at least half a day to walk in and around the temple; the best view is from the hillside on the opposite site of the canyon, you should be warned that it requires a 30-minute hefty uphill walk.
The ruins of Selinunte, a town founded 628BC, are some of the most impressive of the ancient Greek world. Spread out over more than 270 hectares, this huge city on the southwestern coast of Sicily was built on hills immediately above the Mediterranean. The earthquakes that regularly afflict this part of Sicily damaged almost all of them, and the resulting ruins are extremely remarkable. Many of the carvings from the Selinunte temples are now in display in Palermo’s archaeological museum. Their quality is on par with the Elgin marbles from Athens’ Parthenon. No visit to Selinunte is complete without a walk along the beach below the city, from where there are marvellous panoramas of the temples.
Just down Syracuse’s winding main street from the cathedral is the Fontana di Arethusa, the city’s main water supply in the ancient past. Fresh water continues to bubble up in huge quantities. The Greeks believed that Artemis, the goddess of hunting, turned nymph Arethusa into a fountain on this spot, to save her from being raped by a river deity.
THE GREEK THEATRE
The vast Greek theatre in Syracuse was once considered one of the most important centres for Greek theatre and poetry. Overlooking the city towards the sea, the theatre hosts a prestigious festival of classic tragedies and comedies performed in ancient Greek in May and June every year. Beside the theatre, you will find the mysterious Latomie – deep and precipitous limestone quarries out of which the stone for the theatre and ancient city was extracted. The quarries, riddled with catacombs were used as a prison for more than 7,000 Athenian prisoners of war who survived defeat in 413BC.
Syracuse was one of the most sophisticated and powerful cities in the ancient Greek world and modern Syracuse is perhaps the most elegant and civilised city in present-day Sicily. Its baroque cathedral, for example, is merely an ornate shell surrounding the almost intact Temple of Athena. If the walls and façade of the cathedral were torn down, one of the world’s most perfectly preserved fifth-century BC Doric temples would be revealed. The Virgin Mary, to whom the cathedral is dedicated, stands above the altar in exactly the same place as a massive statue of Athena stood 2,500 years ago.