Sicily is arguably the Italian region with the most varied historical past. Over the centuries, it was ruled by Greeks, Carthaginians, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Normans, Swabians, French, Spaniards, and Austrians, before becoming part of the Kingdom of Two Sicilies and finally Italy, after the unification of the country in 1861.
All of those dominations left indelible traces in the region’s cultural and architectural character, sometimes stratified atop each other, like in Syracuse’s baroque cathedral – whose nave’s pillars are made from the columns of a Greek temple – or in the unique mix of Arab and Norman architectural styles present in many of the churches and palaces of Palermo.
Those with a penchant for etymology can entertain themselves trying to guess from which language Sicily’s toponyms come from. While Palermo, Syracuse, and Agrigento, to name a few, are derived from Greek names, the city of Gibellina owes its name to the Arabic “jebel”, meaning “mountain”, and the Zisa castle to “al-Aziz”, meaning “splendid”.
This tumultuous past and its island nature have left a trace in the spirit of its Sicilians, whose character can be sometimes described as exuberant and flamboyant and at times reserved and diffident. Due to their past, Sicilians have learned to examine things with a skeptical eye and to distrust foreigners, but once you break behind the initial barrier, they can be some of the most affable and hospitable people in the world.
Sicily is the largest island in the Mediterranean. Its area of 25,711 km² (almost 10,000 square miles) and 1,484 km (922 mi) of coastline encompass a wide variety of natural landscapes and human environments.
In addition to its natural beauty, Sicily boasts an incredible concentration of works of art, including from the magnificent Greek temples of Agrigento, incredibly well-preserved mosaics of Roman villas, Arab mosques later transformed into Christian churches, Norman castles and cathedrals adorned by the most detailed Byzantine mosaics, medieval gothic towns, and majestic examples of Baroque architecture.
The following sections will introduce some of the most notable examples of the beauty of Sicily, as captured by me during some of my trips to the island. The presentation follows, in a roughly chronological order, the phases of the island’s history that left the most visible traces.
Greece outside of Greece: Magna Graecia
For a few centuries, most of Southern Italy was colonized by Greeks, who elected to leave their sometimes inhospitable homeland and the strife between rivaling cities, and found here huge swaths of incredibly fertile land, with very few inhabitants.
In this part of the world, that the Romans later dubbed Magna Graecia (Greater Greece) they founded colonies whose riches and power sometimes surpassed those of their Greek counterparts. By way of example, Akragas (nowadays Agrigento) in its heyday had a population of over 300,000 and was a true superpower at the time, but still had to contend with cities of similar magnitude, like Syracuse.
If you’d like to see some of the most prominent ruins from the Classical Greek period, you can start with Syracuse, Segesta, and Selinunte, but nowhere else you can find a greater concentration of huge and well-preserved monuments like in the Valley of Temples, a UNESCO World Heritage site near the modern city of Agrigento. If time allows, make sure you visit the site during one of the evening openings, when the temples are lit just as the sun sets.
Rome Takes Over
The Greeks shared the island with the Phoenicians and the Carthaginians, who didn’t leave us any monument of comparable grandiosity, but after the Punic Wars, Rome asserted its complete domination over Sicily.
The most notable archaeological sites from the Roman period are the Theatre of Taormina (while a Greek theatre originally stood in that place, it was later completely rebuilt by the Romans) and the Villa del Casale near Piazza Armerina.
The ruins of this grandiose country villa, possibly owned by an emperor or a high-level aristocrat, contain hundreds of square meters of exceptionally well-preserved and highly detailed mosaics, depicting mythological subjects, everyday scenes, a hunt, banquets, and a chariot race. Even girls in a bikini, believe it or not, are depicted there.
In the next installment of this series, we’ll discover the remains of the Arabo-Norman culture, which left some of the most extraordinary works of art and architecture of all.
If you’d like to visit Sicily (and other parts of Southern Italy) with me, check out my Southern Italy Photo Tour.