8th May 2015
Should you travel as I did from Trapani to Segesta by ‘Tarantola’ bus, make sure you sit ont he right hand side of the bus on the way there. I’d sat at the little Trapani bus terminal by the train station in anticipation today, because this was to be my first day in Sicily seeing one of the amazing temples that the island is famous for. Approaching Segesta after a 50 minute journey, I got my first tantalising view of columns peeking from between the trees.
I’d caught the 0800 bus from Trapani in order to arrive at Segesta before it became clogged with coaches of daytrippers and I’m glad I did. The main attraction is the Doric temple, away from the acropolis, so I figured it would be best to get the temple seen first. As it turns out, most tourists didn’t bother making the ascent up to the acropolis at all, which was a shame.
The wonderful thing about Segesta is that as the visitor climbs the up the hill to the temple itself, there are no modern buildings visible. Even the gift shop and cafe below have been carefully blocked out by some strategic greenery.
The temple is built on what must have been a very ancient place of worship for the Elymian population, the first people to settle down in western Sicily. The temple was probably built on top of a much more ancient wooden shrine and most archaeologists date the founding of the stone building to around 420BC. At that point in time the Segestans were cosying up to Athens and this may explain the Greek style of architecture, in fact they may even have invited an Athenian architect to build the temple.
The temple was destined to remain unfinished, perhaps due to a breakdown with Athens. A greek colony to the south of Sicily called Selinus (Selinunte,) had been aggressive towards neighbouring Segesta since at least 580 BC. In 415BC Segesta was in danger again and called upon Athens for help defending herself. Athens, keen to win spoils and keep a close eye on Syracuse, responded by launching the disastrous Sicilian Expedition, led by three generals and composing of 140 warships.
In the meantime the Selinuntines had called upon Syracuse for back up, who were considerably larger and stronger than the Athenian force. When the first Athenians reached Segesta they were dismayed that the city was not as rich as they had claimed and would not be able to provide the money promised for military assistance. The three generals, Alcibiades, Nicias and Lamachus, squabbled over which action to take. Should they abandon the cheeky Segestans to their fate, or, since they were in Sicily already, fight a few battles before returning home?
Alcibiades received word that he was wanted back in Athens to face trial for destroying religious statues. After he learned that he’d been sentenced to death in abesntia, he secretly sailed to Sparta in order to seek refuge there, offering Spartans valuable information of Athenian forces to aid Sparta in their war against them in return for a safe haven.
Nicias decides to attack Syracuse which resulted in an indecisive first battle. The Spartans, always friends of the enemies of Athens, decide to send a force to aid Syracuse. Nicias sends a desperate letter to Athens saying that the expedition should either be recalled or massively reinforced, believing himself unable to now break Syracuse with the forces he had left.
If he had been hoping for an invitation to come home he did not receive it. Athens sent 73 more ships to Sicily with 5,000 hoplites under the command of Demosthenes and Eurymedon. Upon their arrival they were immediately attacked and Demosthenes agreed with Nicias that defeat was inevitable unless the Athenians were all allowed to go home.
Just as the fleet were about to set sail fro Athens there was a lunar eclipse, which the priests convinceed Nicias was an omen that the fleet should delay sailing for a month. The fleet, anchored in harbour for so long, was too tempting a target for Syracuse to ignore. Hemmed in, the Athenians didn’t stand a chance of escape. Athenian ships were rammed and sank by the Syracusan fleet, any Athenian ships that managed to beach themselves ashore were met by a Syracusan army who slaughtered the crews and seized the ships.
This second battle was again indecisive as the Syracusans lost almost as many ships in the melee as the Athenians had.
A few days later the Athenian survivors attempted a final stand on land, but the third battle ended in disaster. The battle swung quickly in the favour of Syracuse. Nicias and Demosthenes were executed and the survivors, numbering only 7,000, were kept prisoner in quarries just outside Syracuse where, if they weren’t sold into slavery first, they were left in the quarries without shelter to burn in the sun and slowly die from starvation, thirst and disease.
The crushing defeat stunned the Athenians back home. Neutral states in the First Peloponnesian War now hurried to back Sparta. By 404BC, unable to recover from the losses in Sicily, Athens fell to the Spartans bringing the First Peloponnesian War to a close.
Meanwhile, in 409BC Selinus takes another shot at Segesta. Thoroughly abandoned by the embittered Athenians, Segesta turns to Carthage. Carthage decisively defeat the Selinuntines and Segesta accepts Carthaginian dominion in return. A Greek temple now seems unnecessary, even out of place. The building work, which had been delayed during the conflict, was never completed, though neither was it demolished.
What is left is a temple with unfluted columns and no cella walls. The roof is not missing, it was never built. It is, however, undeniably beautiful.
The acropolis is on a separate hill to the temple. There is bus that leaves every ten minutes or so from the ticket office to the summit. On a hot day it is well worth taking advantage of this, even if, like me, you may have to share the bus with a very noisy class of Italian teenagers. A cheap ticket can be purchased from the site ticket office.
The main attraction of the acropolis is the theatre.
The theatre is 3rdC BC with Roman expansions added circa 100BC.
It is quiet and peaceful up on the acropolis (once the teenagers leave!) but all too soon it is time for me to get the bus back to Trapani. Sicilian buses can be a bit of a nightmare. If the driver is making good time and you are waiting half way along his route, you had better be waiting at the bus stop early to catch him, he will not wait for the advertised time for you. On the other hand, buses are often late. I am quickly learning to start waiting early but expecting to be late. Unfortunately this bus is late today and as I wait by the roadside I am overcome with nausea. I have enough time to dash behind a bush to lose my lunch before the bus eventually arrives and I shakily take my seat, cursing myself for not wearing a hat all morning.
After an uncomfortable journey back to Trapani and a lie down at my hotel I have recovered enough to head to Erice, or Eryx as the Elymians would have called their main city.
There is a cable car up to Erice from Trapani, but I decide instead to catch an AST bus from outside the train station yo the mountain instead. I’m really thankful I did. The bus obviously takes a little longer but takes the most scenic possible route, dropping off schoolchildren to the Trapani suburbs along the way. The ascent up the side of the mountain is simply gorgeous, with hair pin bends allowing gorgeous views of the sea as you ascend from either side of the bus. It is completely idyllic.
Eryx itself was the Elymian capital, although remained thoroughly Punic in influence and didn’t go through the Hellenic phase that Segesta did.
Various legends describe Erice as being founded by Aeneas and other Trojan refugees and/or that it was ruled by King Eryx, son of Aphrodite, who hosted Herakles in the city but lost it to him in a wrestling match.
The town joined Dionysus I of Syracuse in 397BC but was reclaimed by Himilco for the Carthaginians within a year. Pyrrhus defeated the garrison of Erice in 278 BC during his crusade to liberate Sicilian Greeks, but by the First Punic War the town is again under Carthaginian control. Hamilcar destroyed the city in 260BC and moved most of the population to Trapani. The Romans still thought it important enough to capture however, and Hamilcar Barca was forced to try and capture it back. He succeeded in taking the town but not the garrison. Despite doggedly besieging the Romans, Hamilcar Barca was forced to abandon his efforts, and Erice, after his countrymen were brutally defeated at the battle of the Aegadi Islands in 241BC, a battle he may well have watched unfold from his viewpoint in the town:
During peacetime the Romans had little interest in Erice, save for a famous temple there that was already ancient by their time. Founded circa 1300 BC, the temple would be revered by Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Greeks, and Romans alike. Dedicated to Aphrodite/Venus (who the Carthaginians seemed to have aligned with Astarte,) worshippers flocked from all over the Mediterranean. Those wishing to commune with the goddess could do so by spending time with the sacred prostitute-priestesses.
Because of the Aeneas myth, the Romans (who had also fancied themselves as descendants of Trojan survivors,) made sure that the sanctuary never suffered too much, even if the town was not considered of much importance.
Unfortunately for Venus, the Norman invasion of Sicily brought with it a desire to utterly destroy the pagan site and the sanctuary was obliterated, replaced with a Norman castle. Traces of the sanctuary can be spotted however, as the stonework was recycled into the fortress walls. The castle survives and, whilst it’s not as exciting to me as an ancient sanctuary, is still beautiful.
Modern Erice is small and only home to about 300 residents, the numbers of people swelling enormously when the coaches arrive each day. I was grateful to be there towards the end of the working day when the crowds were thinning and I had several on the narrow, steep streets to myself.
One touristy thing I simply cannot skip is a visit to the most famous cake shop on an island famous for their sweet tooth. Maria Grammatico Pasticceria can be smelled before it is stumbled across, luring the hungry traveller in with the most tempting smell of baking treats imaginable. There is patisserie, and then there is Maria Grammatico.
Maria lost her father as a child and her family struggled to survive in post WWII Erice. Her mother sent her to a convent, aged only 11, where she spent the next 15 years working hard and learning the art of making pasta di mandorla from the nuns. Upon leaving, Maria returned to Erice in 1963 and opened up a little bakery. Her hard work and beautiful cooking paid off and the bakery is now world famous.
I’ve uncharacteristically yet to have been tempted by anything sweet on Sicilian menus so far but even I can’t resist. In fact, the pastries are so affordable and inviting that instead of trying to choose one I have two. I’m not even sorry!
Having eschewed the cable car on the way up to Erice, I decide to catch it for the descent if purely for the views of Trapani and the Egadi Islands. I’m punished by the excessive wait for a bus back to the train station (the cable car base is not exactly central) but I manage to take a few photos in the dying sunlight as compensation…
And now for an early night. Having seen Segesta today I am paying a visit to Selinunte, home of their bitterest enemies, tomorrow. It will be a Saturday and public transport will be more challenging than usual. As it turns out, I’ll need all the luck I can get…