Inheriting Sicily

From ancient ruins to architecture: the beauty of Segesta, Selinunte, Agrigento and Taormina

By Honor Moore
Isola Bella, in Taormina, is breathtaking at dusk.
Photograph: Photo by: Harf Zimmermann

We’re on our way to the Cathedral of Monreale, on the outskirts of Palermo, and as we drive, the landscape opens to a valley that is now part of the city; I’m imagining it thick with orange groves as it was 50 years ago when Margarett’s driver took her up this very road. When she reached Sicily, Margarett had not painted or traveled for 20 years. She was looking for a new life, whereas I, depleted by a year touring for a successful book, am wondering how to make my way back to writing.
Later, driving through farmland toward Segesta, the site of the first Greek temple on our itinerary, I remind myself that I have been a writer for nearly four decades, one of a generation of women whose work and activism have helped make a story like Margarett’s nearly obsolete. And yet I am still always apprehensive before I start something new. Right then the road sign for Segesta interrupts my reverie, and I see it: a flash of pink and columns.
The day is gray, which makes the landscape all the more luscious, and the temple seems to rise like a vision as weapproach it. Its appearance is so unexpected that, in spite of the ticket booth, I almost believe Rosemary and I are the first modern people ever to climb thishill. I still expect a Greek temple to be white, but this one is quite definitely pink, a golden-hued pink. I take my time, relishing forest, meadow and mountain. It’s late in the day, so there’s no one here but us, and there’s a haunting feeling of loneliness. This mountain-side was once the fierce city of Segesta, and the temple, built in the fifth century BC, was first restored at the end of the eighteenth century. The vista changes as I circle, the landscape framed differently by successive pairs of massive but graceful columns.
The next morning we head out for Cave di Cusa, where the stone for the temples at Selinunte, Segesta’s rival city in antiquity, was quarried. My idea of a quarry is a pond in New England cut steeply from granite, and as we walk a meadow carpeted with wildflowers, gnarled olive trees evoking the past, that’s what I look for. And then we come upon a massive drum of stone set in a clearing, which I realize is a section of column. Birdsong and the silence make it seem so innocent in contrast to its enormity—its height and width much greater than I am tall. No excavation has been done here, the guidebook tells me. Beyond the next olive grove, I find a fluted column still within the envelope of stone from which it was being mined. All work ceased one morning in 409 BC when stoneworkers, startled by the thunderous sound of the Carthaginians’ invading army, dropped their tools. The city fell in nine days, sacked and burned to the ground, its people sold into slavery.
It’s hard to summon images of carnage when the bleached golden ruins of Selinunte come into view. Recon-struction did not take place until the late 1950s, so Margarett would not have seen the temple gorgeous against a blue sky on this grassy hill. On another rise, just a few columns emerge from massive rubble, as if the temple were awakening from a sleep of millennia. As we tour the skeleton of a vast city, I imagine crowds of merchants and shoppers and, at the almost intact Sanctuary of Demeter Malphoros, worshippers carrying tiny votive images of the goddess, examples of which we’ll see the following day in the archaeological museum in Agrigento.
At Agrigento, ruins of temples and an ancient garden crown a hill, now a park called Valle dei Templi (Valley of the Temples), from which you can see the modern city, built from the same pinkish stone. Margarett posed for a now lost photograph at the Temple of Concord, the most complete of the structures, and as I approach, I picture her between its columns, tall and dressed in black. I spend hours there watching the light change on the ancient stone.

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