Sicily: The Ancient Site of Segesta

Sailing south from Sardinia, the Aegean Odyssey next made port at Trapani, on the northeast coast of Sicily, the largest island of the Mediterranean.  In addition to lying very near the “toe” of Italy, Sicily is located a mere 105 miles from the coast of North Africa.  This strategic location made the island a vital possession throughout history, and the art and architecture that remains from multiple periods tells a fascinating and complicated story of constant change.

Sicily is a triangular island, each of its three point boasting a city of historical importance.  Near Trapani, where we were docked for our first day on the island, is Marsala.  The port was vital to trade communication with Africa, being the point of Sicily that lies closest to that continent, and unsurprisingly it was occupied for many years by Muslims (as was the rest of the island).  The Arabic history of the port is reflected in the name, now most recognizable as the designation for the sweet wine produced in this region.  The root of the word lies in the Arabic Marsa Allah – the port of Allah.

On the south point of the island lies Syracuse, ancient Sirako.  One of the major sea powers of the ancient Greek world, Sirako was also the home of Archimedes.  The area was of great religious importance for the Greeks and Romans; the small island of Ortygia, barely separated by a channel from Syracuse, was celebrated in some versions of ancient myth as the birthplace of the goddess Diana – the newborn goddess then helped her mother Leto cross the sea to the Greek island of Delos where she gave birth to the second of her twins, Apollo.

The third corner of the island, the northeastern tip, almost grazes the Italian mainland.  The two-mile wide waterway dividing them (the Strait of Messina) can be very turbulent and dangerous for ships, and the passage was renowned in antiquity as the dwelling-place of the monsters Scylla and Charybdis.  Like many travelers, Odysseus was forced to choose between sailing near the female whirlpool Charybdis  off the coast of Sicily or passing close to the hideous Scylla, a female creature with a cruel barking voice like a hound.   She lived on a cliff on the Italian side of the Strait and darted her six heads out like eels from the rock to grab passing sailors (as well as, on occasion, innocent dolphins).  This unavoidable and often fatal choice made by ancient sailors – even the non-mythological variety had to carefully maneuver between the Italian rocks and the whirlpools that sometimes formed on the Sicilian side – gave rise to the English phrase “between a rock and a hard place.”

We began our Sicilian adventure at the port of Trapani, although we did not spend much time there, using it mainly as a base from which to explore other sites.

I wish I could get garlic delivered at home!

Ancient historians claimed that Trapani was founded by Trojans fleeing the fall of Troy.  Indeed, there may be some truth to that legend, as archaeological evidence suggests that the area was once inhabited by people who migrated here from Anatolia, now modern Turkey, the location of the historical city of Troy.  The city was occupied over time by Greeks, Romans, Vandals, Byzantines, Arabs, Normans and other groups.  It served primarily as a port for the city of Erice, which overlooks Trapani on a high rocky mountain; the location gave ample protection from seaborne attacks.  (Join me back here in a few days for some history and images of that beautiful town!)  I wish that I had a better picture of Trapani, which is quite attractive.  Unfortunately, the best vantage point from which to take photos of the city is the side of the mountain on the way to Erice, and by the time we made that drive such a heavy fog had rolled in that it was impossible it see more than a few feet.  So in lieu of a wonderful panoramic photo of the city, I submit this snapshot of something almost as wonderful – a garlic truck!

When we disembarked at Trapani, our first tour took us to the nearby site of Segesta, spread between two adjacent hilltops situated in a lush rural area.  One hilltop boasts the remains of an ancient Greek and Roman acropolis with portions of civic buildings dating from the second century B.C. (the Hellenistic period) to the 3rd century A.D.  Though remains of a stoa (a long portico), a city street, an agora (market/meetingplace) and macellum (an indoor food market), a tholos (a round monument – this one is of uncertain use), and a much later 15th century church are visible, the most evocative monument is the fine smallish theater, where a member of our group treated us to a short performance of opera.

View of the theater at Segesta

The crowning glory of Segesta, however, is the beautiful temple that occupies the adjacent hill.  It is a Greek peripteral temple (meaning it has columns all the way around) in the simple Doric style (that is, with column capitals that are undecorated).  The temple as it stands is not a reconstruction.  This is rare, as most ancient monuments that can be now be seen in a somewhat complete form have undergone some form of anastylosis (re-erection) by archaeologists and architects.

The temple at Segesta. Photo Credit: Ken Merten

The incomplete appearance of the Segesta temple is not a result of unfinished modern restoration, but rather is due to the fact that it was never finished in antiquity.  Unfortunately, we have no evidence indicating for which god or goddess it was intended as a home, because it was generally in the finishing stages of temple construction that elements such as sculptural decoration or inscriptions were added, the details that signal the identification of the temple’s patron deity.

The “mystery temple” is extremely  interesting for other reasons, though.  The very fact that it is unfinished makes it a fascinating case study of ancient construction techniques.  For example, most of the ashlar blocks used to build the stairs and the foundations of the columns still retain “tabs”, small pieces of jutting stone, which I hope are visible in this photo:

View of the temple showing the stairs and column bases. The construction "tabs" are visible on both. For example, look at the base of the third column from the front, above a patch of grass.

These tabs were used as handles to lift the blocks in order to transport them from the quarry to the building site, and then to maneuver them into place.  Had the building been finished, the masons would have cut them away.

Another wonderful characteristic of the Segesta temple is its stunning setting.  High on a hill in an area of rolling farmland, it is easy to imagine why the site was selected as one of worship.  The day of our visit was overcast and drizzly, which put me in a somber and contemplative mood (something I quite enjoy), but I can imagine that a brilliant sunny day would make the hilltop temple seem vibrant and lively.  Though it is perhaps one of the less-visited sites on Sicily, it is one that rewards attention, both in terms of its historical and architectural value and the beauty and serenity of the location.

A flower behind the temple

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