On the southern tip of Italy, Sicily, the largest of the Mediterranean islands, has been since ancient times a melting pot for a number of ethnic groups whose warriors and merchants sought its shores.
The Greeks were the first to leave their mark when, between the 8th and the 6th centuries BC, they founded a number of important cities on the eastern and southern coastline of the island. Meanwhile, the Phoenicians and later the Carthaginians settled along the western and northern coast, establishing trading communities around Palermo and Marsala. The dividing line between the Greeks in the southeast and the Carthaginians in the northwest shifted frequently, following the vagaries of alliances with the local tribes. These fluid associations and ensuing conflicts have left an enduring stamp on western Sicily, the destination of a recent road trip.
It is 80 kilometers (50 miles) from Palermo, where we landed the previous night, to Segesta, once a major city of the Elymian nation (said to be descended from Trojan settlers who took refuge here after the fall of Troy in 1183 BC). Hardly any traces of the original town remain, and what little there is has yet to be unearthed. But what Segesta does have is one of finest and most impressive Doric temples to be found in Sicily, and one of the best preserved anywhere in the West.
Perched on a 305-meter (1000-foot) high hill a 15-minute walk from the entrance to the Segesta Archeological Park, the 5th century BC temple commands an impressive view of the surrounding countryside. Construction began around 420 BC on the site of an earlier cult building, Raised on a three-step base, the 26 meters (85 feet) by 61 meters (200 feet) structure consists of six columns on each facade and 14 columns along the sides. The columns are 9 meter (30 foot) high. Why an Elymian site would replicate so precisely the architecture of a Greek Doric temple is much debated amongst scholars. So too is to which god or cult the temple may have been intended. What is known, however, is that following the sacking of the Greek city of Selinunte to the south in 409 BC by the Carthaginians, the construction of the Segesta temple came to a halt and was never resumed. Meanwhile its imposing colonnade has remained intact through the ages, harmoniously integrated to the bucolic surroundings of its isolated hillside.
Another 1.5 kilometer (one mile) uphill to the top of Mount Barbaro (shuttle access available), the Hellenistic-style theater commands a spectacular view of the countryside and the Gulf of Castellamare. Built in the 3rd century BC, it originally had 29 rows of seats (of which the lower 21 rows remain) and a capacity of approximately 4000 spectators. The amphitheater-style structure is supported by a containing wall of limestone blocks. It now hosts theatrical and musical performances throughout the summer months.
After lunch, we resume our westward journey to the very tip of Sicily: Lo Stagnone, the largest lagoon in Italy. Now a marine reserve, Lo Stagnone is home not only to the time-honored tradition of sea-salt harvesting, but also to the ancient city of Motya. First established by the Phoenicians on the smallest of the four islands of the lagoon in the 8th century BC, the settlement gradually flourished into one of the most affluent cities of its time, naturally protected by the lagoon as well as high defensive walls – until it was razed to the ground in 397 BC by the Greek Tyrant Dionysios of Syracuse. Motya never recovered. Even after the Romans conquered Sicily (265-241 BC), it seems to have altogether disappeared from history.
Then in 1902, the island, which by then was known as San Pantaleo, was purchased by John Whitaker, the archeologist heir to a British family that had settled in Sicily and made its fortune in the trade of Marsala wine. His studies and archeological digs brought back to light the Phoenician grandeur of Motya, including the Temple of Kothon, dedicated to Baal Addir (which the Greeks identified with Poseidon), part of an archaic necropolis and the fortifications of the North and South Gates. Also recently excavated are the remains of a 4th century BC residential complex with elaborate black and white mosaic floors that earned it the moniker of House of Mosaics.
The Whitaker Museum
Now housed in the former residence of the family, the Whitaker Museum showcases a fine collection of these archeological finds including a remarkable display of Phoenician stele as well as domestic and religious potteries. The most spectacular piece of the collection is the Motya Charioteer, a unique 1,80 meter (70 inches) tall white marble statue of the Greek Classical Period (fifth century BC), which was discovered in the area of the Northern Gate in 1987.
Good to Know
- Getting there — Palermo: The most convenient entry point to the Western part of Sicily is Palermo. The international Falcone-Borserlino Airport offers daily flights to and from most major European cities as well as the Italian mainland. It is located some 30 kilometers (20 miles) from the center of the city, There are frequent train and bus connections between the city and the airport from 5:00 am to midnight. Segesta: It’s an easy one-hour drive from the center of Palermo via highway A29 (direction Trapani) to the Segesta exit and the Segesta Archeological Park. Motya: It’s a further 30-minute drive west on highway A29 from Segesta to Marsala and the edge of the Lo Stagnone Lagoon.
- Visiting — Segesta: The Archeological Park consists of two separate areas, the temple, easily accessible on foot, and the theatre, located on top of Mount Barbaro. While the theatre can also be reached on foot, a private shuttle bus service is available at a cost of 1,50 € round trip. The park is open daily starting at 9:00 am. Closing time varies with the seasons. See the official website for details. Motya: There are frequent water shuttles from the small pier at the Saline di Ettore Infersa waterfront for the pleasant 10-minute ride across the lagoon to the Whitaker Pier on San Pantaleo island. Cost is 5 € round trip. The island and the Whitaker Museum are open daily from 10:00 am to 2:00 pm and 3:00 pm to 7:00 pm. There is an entrance fee of 9 € to visit the island and the museum.