Travel December 2002

Wonders of the World

Three timeless Sicilian places

When I was very young, my great-aunt gave me a set of the Book of Knowledge that had been published, I think, in the late 1920s. I used to read the volumes of the encyclopedia—each bound in embossed dark red with blue lettering—from cover to cover, like novels. It was a deeply strange reading experience, since by the time I got the books, a good deal of the information they contained (certainly much of the science and world affairs) was outdated, and besides, I was too young to understand much of what I was reading. The result was that I scarcely knew or cared what was supposed to be factual and what wasn't. Were the constellations really formed when Greek mythological figures were pasted up in the heavens? As far as I was concerned, they were.

One of my favorite pages was an illustration for a long article on Charles Kingsley's The Water Babies, the Victorian children's classic. Another contained a series of illustrations—I remember them as black-and-white photographs, but of course that is impossible—of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. The Statue of Zeus at Olympia, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, the Colossus of Rhodes. Nothing in the text informed me (or perhaps I ignored what was there) that some of these places no longer existed, if they ever had. In any case, that was information I didn't want, because it would have interfered with my ambition to visit them someday, one by one.

On a recent sojourn in Sicily, I frequently found myself remembering that page in the children's encyclopedia, because it seemed to me that what I was seeing was as close as I will ever come to the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Perhaps this has something to do with the fact that in Sicily so many astonishing places are so close together. Within a single day you could, if you wished (given enough stamina and a really hot car), visit Segesta, home to probably the most majestically sited Greek temple and theater in Sicily; head west to the point of departure for Mozia and catch a boat to this ghostly island where an important Phoenician settlement once stood; and finally drive north up to Erice, a town so exquisite that it became the raw material for legends and was for centuries a center of the cult of the goddess Aphrodite. Though you could see all three places in one day, each of them makes you want to stay or to keep returning to watch the effects of the changing weather and the mercurial Sicilian light.

What Segesta, Mozia, and Erice have in common is that they are not only lovely but also mysterious. No one knows why the temple at Segesta was left unfinished—it has no roof, and the thick columns were never fluted—or exactly when it was built. Most scholars agree that it was constructed at some point in the fifth century B.C., by the citizens of Egesta, a settlement of Hellenized Elymians, members of one of Sicily's earliest indigenous groups—the same tribe that founded Eryx, as Erice was originally known.

Lonely, moody, surrounded by mountains, overlooking the patchwork fields in the valley below and (from the theater, which is uphill from the temple) a vista that extends all the way to the Gulf of Castellammare, Segesta is one of those places where the sky seems to expand as if in response to the heroic scale of what lies beneath it. For centuries it has been the sort of destination that inspired romantic voyagers to contemplate the sublimity and transience of earthly existence, the vast scope of eternity.

When Goethe visited Segesta, the site had not been restored to the extent it has been today; tired from the effort of "clambering about among the unimpressive ruins of a theater," he cut his visit short. Yet his description of the temple's setting still seems fresh and accurate.

The site of the temple is remarkable. Standing on an isolated hill at the head of a long, wide valley and surrounded by cliffs, it towers over a vast landscape ... The countryside broods in a melancholy fertility; it is cultivated but with scarcely a sign of human habitation ... The wind howled around the columns as though they were a forest, and birds of prey wheeled, screaming, above the empty shell.

From the start the prospect of going to Mozia made me a little edgy: sailing across a lagoon to an island on which no one lives but which was once the outpost of a highly developed and cruel civilization. Today there are only ruins, and a small museum in the former home of one Joseph Whitaker, an Englishman born in Sicily who made a fortune exporting Marsala wine. The ride wasn't long—ten, maybe fifteen, minutes. And the boatman was very clear about the fact that he'd be back to pick us up in two hours. Still, as he let us off at the dock on the island, I felt a sharp, irrational stab of panic and abandonment.

What if the fisherman who ferried my husband and me out there got distracted and forgot about us? What if we were stranded, exposed to the elements, alone with the spirits of the Phoenician traders who first came to Mozia in the eighth century B.C.? The traders lived in harmony with their Greek neighbors until a series of Carthaginian wars, when Dionysius the Elder of Syracuse, using catapults and battering rams (the state-of-the-art tools of warfare in the fourth century B.C.), destroyed the settlement and much of its population.

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