Sicily defies categorization because it is not just an Italian region or Mediterranean island or former home of the Mafia. Your astonishment will bubble up and erupt just like Mt. Etna’s lava. Prepare to be awestruck visiting Sicily’s ancient Greek ruins.
From my first moment looking out my airplane window at the ghostly images of buildings, roads, and sea, I felt a shiver. I would be traveling back in time for the next nine days to discover Sicily—known as the Crossroads of Civilization.
I had chosen Exodus Travels’ Treasures of Sicily tour because I wanted to see Ancient Greek and Roman ruins, Baroque cathedrals and villages, and Europe’s biggest active volcano.
I would be a treasure seeker just like the scores of conquerors who sailed to Sicily to plunder its riches.
Tiziano Tomasella, my exuberant tour leader, prefers to call them “visitors,” because none permanently ruled the island. He said the Arabs “visited” the longest—200 years.
“Sicily is one of the most fascinating islands in Europe, thanks to the indelible marks left by the Phoenician, Greek, Roman, Arab, Norman and Spanish civilisations.”Exodus Travels
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People quiz me now that I am back home about what inspired me most in Sicily. I answer without hesitation: Sicily’s ancient Greek ruins.
As a high school student in AP English, I was required to read Homer’s epic poem (The Odyssey). But I would never imagine that decades later I would follow in Odysseus’ steps to Sicily — immortalized as the land of the Cyclopes, land of the Laestrygonians, and the island of Aeolus, one or more of the Aeolian Islands.
I have not yet visited Greece, which may account for my wonder in exploring Sicily’s well-preserved archeological sites. But I don’t think it was just a question of exposure.
I felt the inexorable pull into the past when Greek explorers discovered this island and established these Hellenic outposts.
I sucked in my breath to witness this Greek city, marveling at the gleaming white Doric temple perched on the hill, certainly one of the most outstanding monuments of Greek culture. (The Parthenon also features the Doric columns.)
UNESCO Description: “Founded as a Greek colony in the 6th century B.C., Agrigento became one of the leading cities in the Mediterranean world. Its supremacy and pride are demonstrated by the remains of the magnificent Doric temples that dominate the ancient town, much of which still lies intact under today’s fields and orchards. Selected excavated areas throw light on the later Hellenistic and Roman town and the burial practices of its early Christian inhabitants.”
I felt dwarfed, an ant skittering around the Doric columns, as I climbed up the sacred hill to gaze at these Hellenic temples.
The sky frowned above, threatening to pour down rain. But the blue canvas streaked with dark grey clouds seemed to elevate the Greek temples to other-worldly edifices.
Valley of the Temples
I couldn’t escape the crowds of people who clogged the pathways to take selfies. But I could reach out and rub my hand along a column, imagining I heard a reverberation from the past.
We visited the Temple of Juno; the Temple of Concorde, one of the most well-preserved Doric temples in the ancient Greek world; the Temple of Hercules; and the Temple of Castor and Pollux.
Agrigento is located on the southern coast of Sicily. The archaeological area covers the ancient polis, from the Rupe Atenea to the acropolis of the original ancient city, plus the sacred hill on which stand the main Doric temples.
Immortalized in literature, Syracuse is no imaginary city birthed in a writer’s fertile imagination. This ancient city was the most powerful city-state in the ancient Greek world and briefly the capital of the Byzantine Empire. (Check out my Instagram reel here.)
This open-air museum features a massive collection of ruins dating back to Greek and Roman times. Neapolis is the most visited archaeological site in Syracuse. It was a highlight in visiting Sicily’s ancient Greek ruins. (It reminded me of visiting Matera, Italy.)
UNESCO Description: “Ancient Syracuse includes the nucleus of the city’s foundation as Ortygia by Greeks from Corinth in the 8th century BC. The site of the city, which Cicero described as ‘the greatest Greek city and the most beautiful of all’, retains vestiges such as the Temple of Athena (5th century BC, later transformed to serve as a cathedral), a Greek theatre, a Roman amphitheater, a fort and more.”
Neapolis Archeological Park
Our group visited Neapolis Archeological Park. Our local guide (Vanessa) provided so much insight about the ruins. The park includes the Greek theater, the Roman amphitheater, the ancient stone quarries, the ear of Dionysus, and the altar of Hieron.
I marveled as we entered the Grotta dei Cordari to hear people singing an Italian song. Due to the cave’s acoustics, their voices were amplified. We all stood and cheered as the women performed for us.
It is hard to choose one favorite structure at Neapolis Archeological Park. But my imagination took flight at Teatro Greco, as I gazed down on the stage. I could almost hear the actor speak his lines from Euripides’ Greek tragedy (Medea) as she rails about her philandering husband Jason who deserts her for the daughter of King Creon of Corinth.
“Of all creatures that can feel and think, we women are the worst treated things alive.”Medea
A Greek man would have played her role as women were not permitted to be actresses. The male actor wore a female mask. (Learn more about Roman masks at the Museo Teatro Romano in Lecce, Italy.)
Our guide told us that she buys a ticket each summer to see a Greek play at the Teatro Greco. Imagine sitting under the stars as night spreads its blanket over the land to see the most famous plays in the world performed.
Seliunate is the largest archaeological area in Europe that we visited among Sicily’s ancient Greek ruins.
“Seven temples, some in good condition, built according to a strict Doric order, the oldest Greek architectural style. There are still sanctuaries, necropolis, the caves of Cusa and all the places of interest present within the Archaeological Park.”Visit Seliunate
Some people prefer to tour the park in a golf cart because the ancient city spreads across 670 acres. You need to trudge up and down hills to reach the ancient temples. But the views down to the sea coast are bewitching.
Instead of being led by a guide, we were left to tour on our own without a prescribed time set at each temple. I really liked being able to linger at the Temple C, which is the oldest structure in the Acropolis. I could see (and touch) 14 columns. It honors the god Apollo.
I also climbed up to see Temples A and O, which were set on the Acropolis hill. The Greeks constructed between 490-460 B.C. to honor their gods Dioscuri and Poseidon. There were only some remains, nearly identical.
The museum features artifacts from the Ancient Greek colony which was founded in 650 B.C. Seliunate’s name stems from “Selinon”, which refers to the leaves of “apio.” This wild parsley grew abundantly along the banks of the Modione River.
The colony enjoyed two centuries of prosperity. “There are seven historical milestones that marked the birth, the rise and fall of one of the West’s largest Greek colonies ever,” according to Visit Selinuate. In 409 B.C., Hannibal crushes and plunders Selinunte, saving only women and children.
Sicily’s Hellenic Past
Before I came to the island, I had no idea that Sicily had boasted several Greek colonies in ancient times. But walking along the hard-packed dirt trails and looking up at the soaring Doric temples, I encountered the divine visiting Sicily’s ancient Greek ruins.
Fertile the isle, the temple much surpassing.”Shakespeare