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I got the books, a good deal of the information they contained (certainly much of the science and world affairs) was outdated, and besides, I was too young to understand much of what I was reading.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.

My anxiety dissipated as we headed up a walkway, lined on both sides with plants sending up shoots topped with giant scarlet flowers. When we stopped in the tidy villa-museum to orient ourselves, and to reassure ourselves that there was indeed another living human being on the island, I found myself grinning with loony gratitude at the young man who took our money and gave us tickets.

He suggested that we tour the museum before exploring the island, and as we walked into the first of the few small rooms that compose the Museo Whitaker, we stopped short in front of the Ephebus of Mozia, a statue, from the fifth century B.C., so arresting and shockingly beautiful that it occurred to me that the boatman could return two hours hence and find us still standing here, staring at the sculpture.

The marble statue of the young man, the ephebus, was discovered in the northern part of the island, near where archaeologists think there was a temple. It had been buried, lying on its back, covered with stones—hidden, it is thought, during the ghastly siege of Dionysius, in hopes that someone would remember to dig it up after the war was over. But no one was left, or anyway no one who remembered, and the Ephebus of Mozia remained in his untimely grave until 1979, when he was at last exhumed.

For weeks we had been looking at Greek statuary. In fact, it often seemed that Sicily has as many archaeological museums as it has orange groves, that every small town has its own brown (denoting a cultural attraction) sign featuring the logo of a temple and an arrow pointing to the local repository of coins and potsherds. What was surprising was how many of these modest, unpromising museums contain a minor masterpiece. Less surprisingly, the larger and richer institutions were fascinating. To browse among their collections of vases figured with masked actors, flute players, dancing girls, centaurs and satyrs, maenads and Amazons, was the closest we could hope to come to watching a film of the daily existence and imaginative lives of Sicily's Greek colonists. Always, there were funerary artifacts—say, a basket of figs carved from stone to ensure that the dead would eat well in their afterlife—and sculptures of young men with shapely bodies and exquisitely rendered musculature.

But there is nothing anywhere like the Ephebus of Mozia. Not until Michelangelo would a sculptor again prove able to breathe so much life into marble, to make stone so exactly mimic flesh, and to celebrate the sensuality of the young male body with such control and such impassioned admiration. The Ephebus of Mozia is at once fully male and completely androgynous, like some representative of an earlier, mythic race—before human beings were divided into males and females. Clothed in a tunic that closely follows the lines of his thighs and buttocks, his head turned to one side, his features caught in an expression partway between strength and submission, his hand resting lightly on his outthrust hip, the figure is so frankly sensual, the effect of the work so unmistakably erotic, that I was glad there was no one else in the museum, no other tourists on the island. It would have been embarrassing to look at the statue with strangers around; it is something you'd want to do in private.

At last we managed to free ourselves from the statue's spell. Shortly we headed out across the island, along sandy pathways lined with scrub pines and dwarf palms, down dirt tracks through vineyards, and across the fields of poppies and wildflowers that cover much of the flat, open land. We passed the remains of a black-and-white mosaic floor, the so-called domestic quarters, sacred areas, and "industrial" ones, where the Phoenicians dyed textiles and baked pottery. Finally we reached the necropolis, a collection of tombs—the horrifyingly miniature sarcophagi that were used to inter the children killed in Phoenician religious rituals and later, when infant sacrifice was no longer customary, the small animals that were substituted as victims.

Sea gulls shrieked overhead and dove toward the white beach. We could hear and smell and see the steely ocean. Grape arbors and wildflowers surrounded us. The loneliness, the melancholy, and the sheer creepiness of the necropolis contrasted so sharply with the scenery that I began to shiver in the warm morning sun. And once more I found myself praying that the boatman would remember we were out there. Which of course he did.

From our base in the bustling town of Trapani we drove to Erice, arriving in midafternoon on an unusually bright (Erice is famous for its mists and fog) and chilly Saturday in February. Here again everything seemed deserted and lonely. Too narrow for cars, the cobblestone alleys of the medieval town were so quiet that we could hear our footsteps. The sense of solitude was so eerie that my heart sped up when we turned a corner and saw other people: a couple of expensively dressed Italian tourists ascending the steep street. What were they doing there—and why was she carrying that Fendi shopping bag?

It was the perfect time to visit Erice. You want to be here when no one else is: very early in the morning, in the quiet of an off-season afternoon, or late at night. To be in Erice is to indulge your fantasies of time travel, of what it would be like to live in the fourteenth century, to see its ghosts come alive, to lose all contact with modern life. Gazing out from the parapets of the town's fortress or twelfth-century castle, looking down across the sea (supposedly, on especially clear days, you can see all the way to Africa), you feel as if you've left the world behind, down below, and that the only way to rejoin it is to let go and plummet straight down. Erice is not the first place I'd recommend to the acrophobic.

The height, the view, the sweep of ocean and hills—it seems almost laughable that any place could be so lovely. But the town itself was sobering, so severe and frosty that being here felt the way it might feel to be inside a diamond. Its perfection was almost physically painful.

Even the paving stones were aesthetically satisfying. The grass that grew up through the crevices between the polished stones, which were arranged in regular geometric patterns, was such a pleasing shade of green that it could have been chosen from a catalogue. Erice looked more like a stage set than like an organic, living town. And except for the televisions tuned to sports channels in the few cafés that were open, except for an occasional car braving the capillary-thin streets to deliver luggage to one of the town's hotels, there was nothing to spoil the illusion that we had left our own century and moved back into another.

Erice reminded me of Les Baux-de-Provence, in the south of France—also a ruined medieval town that sits on a hilltop and rises out of the living town beneath it. I had that same sense of seeing something that will never change, or never change much, that will remain untouched by the forces that keep shaping and refashioning whatever is alive—untouched, that is, by life itself. To walk the streets of Erice and then drive back down to Trapani, as we did early that evening, was almost like being Persephone, like being permitted to enter the realm of the dead and then return to the noisy, disorderly, and precious province of the living.