‘Take Me Back To The Quarries!’

At present, we find ourselves in Sicily, but not the Sicily so popularized by the movie, The Godfather. One is cautioned, to be sure, never to speak of “those who have no name.” Rather, we are here to glimpse the interplay of over four thousand years of “invasions” of one kind or another. Sicily has been subjected to just about every culture that has sailed the Mediterranean — Minoans, Mycenaeans, Phoenicians, Greeks, Carthaginians, Romans, Byzantines, Saracens, Lombards, Crusaders, Normans, Spanish, Hapsburgs, French, German Nazis, British and American forces, and now tourists. Of course, somewhere along the line I no doubt have missed an invading-colonizing group or two. The most intriguing and lasting influences, however, come from the Greeks.

One has to hand it to the ancient Greeks. Even in the face of doom, they could gather up a sense of ironic humor. Here in Syracuse, Sicily, there lived a poet named Philoxenus. As was the case with so many intellectuals of his day, he was a favorite at the royal court of the Tyrant, Dionysius I (432-367 B.C.E), along with the likes of the historian Phillistus and the philosopher Plato. Dionysius, of course, did not begin life with a silver spoon in his mouth. He began public service as a clerk, not a likely profession for one who would one day rule the greatest Greek city of its time. Nevertheless, when Carthage brought war against Syracuse (409-406 B.C.E) came the opportunity for Dionysius, as a military commander, to distinguish himself and assume the role of tyrant (king). And so, wanting to show himself both powerful and witty, he gathered around him the literati of the age and entertained them with his own poems. Philoxenus, however, displeased the tyrant and was sent off to do hard labor at the Latomia (the local stone quarry). But, being the forgiving type, Dionysius relented and brought him back to the court. Again, Dionysius recited one of his poems and asked Philoxenus what he thought of it. Well, all Philoxenus could say was “Take me back to the quarries!”

Today one can visit the rock quarry to see a fine Greek theater and Roman amphitheater. One can also see the “Ear of Dionysius,” a natural cleft in the rock formation that is almost 60 feet high and meanders 200 feet into the hillside. It is called the “Ear of Dionysius” because, as legend has it, Dionysius took advantage of its acoustics. He was said to eavesdrop on the plots of his enemies interned there and to later listen to their screams as they were tortured. As for Dionysus, Dante, in The Divine Comedy, consigned him to the river of boiling blood in the lowest level of hell. Like so many tyrants, history remembers him as cruel, suspicious, and vindictive. Even back then, ancient Greek and medieval/renaissance poets were known to fan the flames of discontent.

Before returning to some of the highlights of Magna Graecia, it is best to retrace our steps to Rome. We always begin and end our sojourns in Italy with short stays in Rome. At our age, we need the extra time to decompress and gather our strength. Well, someone has to suffer the indignities of travel! At any rate, we found ourselves on the first full day of this trip visiting The Basilica of St. Paul outside the Walls. Near it, Paul the Apostle was beheaded in 67 C.E., at the end of Nero's reign (he, a Roman tyrant). It was at Constantine's bidding in 313 C.E., that the basilica was begun. Constantine, having just proclaimed by edict an end to persecution of Christians, ordered basilicas to be built for Peter (now the Vatican) and for Paul. I am brought up short when I realize that, except for Lenin in his tomb, where else in the world are the founders of a great movement or religion to be found resting? The marble sarcophagi containing the mortal remains of Peter and of Paul not only exist, but are on view at their respective basilicas. More amazing is that both tombs have withstood the plundering of vandals, huns, warring Byzantine versus Roman popes, the Lombards, the Saracens, Charles V in 1527, fires, floods, and earthquakes. A true believer might well read some import in such a long and tortured account of survival for such sacred relics. For me, the awe to be found is in the sheer magnitude of the edifice, the basilica. Constructed of massive rows of columns, floors of inlaid marble, mosaic friezes, gilded bronze doors--to say nothing of the statuary and paintings, it is a wonder. The plan of the “Theodosian” reconstructed Nave and Four Aisles alone (1831-1854) measures some 135 m long by 65 m wide. Put aside the fact that what one actually sees for the most part is the 19th Century reconstruction after a devastating fire.

Just to stand there and have to admit that no such place exists in America, except perhaps a sports stadium. But for me, setting aside the Roman, Byzantine, Medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque overlays, what stands out most is the Cosmati Cloister, completed in 1235 C.E. In the center of the cloister are four squares of well-tended garden. Four “covered walks protected by a low wall or podium” provides a welcome retreat from the frenetic pace of life beyond its walls. One can fantasize about living quietly in such an inner sanctum, as I am certain many a cloistered monk did. Paired corkscrew columns support the round arches that run the entire periphery of the four-cornered walkway. Here is where we spent the better part of our visit to the basilica, alone with the silence, the roses and shrubbery, the terra cotta tiled roof, and the whimsical twisted columns, many inlaid with mosaics. Rome may harbor in excess of 3,000,000 people on any given day, but here, in this “secret” garden, one can forget the present and dream of a “never was” paradise on earth.

Fast forward to Agrigento, founded in 581 BC by colonists from Crete and Rhodes. Who knows how many citizens there were? Some say 200,000. Others say as many as 600,000 to 800,000. By any measure, it represented on a grand scale the Greek culture. The reason we chose to visit Akragas, its ancient name, is because of the Temple of Concord, built in 430 BC. This is the most intact example of a Greek Temple to be found, even surpassing the Parthenon. In 2001, when we were in Athens, the Parthenon was obscured by scaffolding, in preparation for the Olympic Games. It is still smothered in scaffolding and one has no hope of scaling it or getting a full sense of its function and grandeur. So much for jibbing at the Athenians for blowing it. Here, in Agrigento is the best example of what the Doric era Greeks were capable of building. Approximately 47 by 77 meters at its base, built on a stepped base of 3 levels. With 34 massive columns rising 6.7 meters in height (almost 20 feet), each with a doric capital and square “abacus” stone. Not to belabor the technical details, but think of what the roof of the Parthenon is supposed to look like and you will get the full picture. Of course, today the entire structure is the color of a warm sandstone bleached by the sun for 2400+ years. At this time of year, the hills are cloaked in vibrant green and yellow flowers. Sicily stays moderate all year, which allows farmers to grow a cornucopia of fruits and vegetables. No wonder the pioneers abandoned the hardscrabble homeland for such a verdant island in search of the good life. I won't bore the reader with more detail about the Valley of the Temples, except to note that besides the Temple of Concord, there is also the Temple of Herakles (6th Century BC), the Temple of Hera, the Temple of Olympian Zeus (one of the largest ever built) which housed giant telemons (standing stone statues), and the Temple of the Dioscuri. All of these monumental enterprises were once painted in bright white, red, and blue colors.

Of course, Greeks here never did things half-heartedly. In the 6th Century B.C. they had to put up with a tyrant named Philaris. It was by his command that Perillo built a hollow bronze bull for the purpose of putting enemies inside and heating it until red hot. The screams of the victims being roasted alive were said to sound very much like a real bull. Philaris' life ended predictably; he was stoned to death by an angry crowd.

On a lighter note, there are depictions here of the ancient marriage rites. A priest puts the hands of the couple together and invokes that no one come between. Then, the bridegroom puts a belt (the Herculean Knot) around the bride's waist and ties it. So, the joining of hands and the tying of the knot go back at least this far. How many other rituals have been passed down from time immemorial? Guests shower newlyweds with wheat (having no rice), barley, and pomegranates. Bride and groom drive home in a two wheeled cart, the axle of which is burnt to prevent them coming back--a sort of burning one's bridges so to speak. Once the bride is with child, the “incinta” (the belt) is removed from the woman's waist in the presence of relatives and friends, and offered to the gods. Much more could be said of ancient Akragas, but we must move on to Enna.

It was important to be in Enna for Good Friday. Long before Christianity, Henna (its ancient name) was already recognized as the center, the heart of Sicily. Near Pergusa Lake, 5 kilometers from Enna, there is archeological evidence (Cozze Matrice) of human habitation that goes back at least 10,000 years. One might ask, how did stone age humans make it on to the island? The answer is as elusive as how exactly humans made their way to the new world. For our purposes here, it is enough to cast back to about 1400 BCE. By then, the great mother cult, mother earth if you prefer, was firmly established at Enna. By name Demeter, she was worshipped as the goddess of the harvest, grain, and fertility. In essence, Demeter is the “law bringer,” which coincides with the civilizing influence of agricultural life. Upon arrival, the Attic Greeks, with their Eleusian Mysteries (which predate the Olympian gods) continued and refined the tradition. The legend grew up that Demeter made the world barren because Hades had grabbed her daughter, Persephone, near Lake Pergusa and dragged her down into the earth to serve as his queen. It took Zeus to intervene with Hades to permit Persephone to return to the upper world each spring and the cycle of life to resume. These Eleusian Mysteries may sound but wives’ tales, but not so fast. As early as 1700 BCE, the initiates to the rite believed in the hope for life after death--resurrection no less. And so it is that Christianity has taken up the promise, here in Enna.

On Good Friday, the 16 confraternities, composed of about 3,000 men and boys, assemble to carry the crucified Christ statue to the Cathedral to be blessed. At the head of the procession is the Confraternity of the Passion, dressed in red capes. They carry, on red pillows, the symbols of the crucifixion--the dice cast by the Roman soldiers, a lantern lit when the Roman soldiers came for Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane, the whip, a crown of thorns, nails for the cross, and a live chicken which is heavily sedated. The chicken is a reminder that Peter would fall asleep before it crowed twice, thus showing Peter that even he would “betray Christ. Next in order is the Confraternity of SS. Salvatore, which since 1672 has had the honor of bearing the blood stained statue of Christ. Dressed in long white vestments and yellow mantle adorned with St. John's Cross, identifying them with the Crusades, the men march in slow, solemn procession that includes priests, dignitaries, and brass and percussion band. The ritual, begun in the 16th Century, was inaugurated by the clergy to make public (advertise) the life, passion, crucifixion, and resurrection of Christ. All week, the processions wind their way through the streets of Enna, each day focused on one theme of Holy Week, from Palm Sunday to the day of resurrection, Sunday. But Good Friday is the capstone, the pinnacle of faith, pomp, circumstance. Above all, it signifies that death must come before resurrection, before redemption. Little wonder that the faithful believe. They have been promised life after death, rebirth in the springtime, for at least 4,000 years. Christianity is but the most current expression of their beliefs. Demeter came long before. If one is asked why he or she believes, the answer might come back, “Credo quia Absurdum” (I believe because it is absurd). Rational explanations do not always satisfy the human mind and heart. Any Sicilian will tell you that there are four great truths — food, death, taxes, and sex — in that order. Perhaps they mean to suggest that religion boils down to these four things bound up together. Who can say? What I can say is that standing on the steps of the Duomo (Cathedral), surrounded by the faithful, with the endless stream of marchers coming up the steps bearing their sacrificed Christ, it is a solemn sight not to take lightly. Thankfully, after the night processions return to their respective churches, torches in hand, the participants go home to rest on Saturday. On Sunday, the processions resume, this time with Holy Mary accompanying her risen son, a joyous end to a solemn ritual. It is, after all, springtime, and the seed is sprouting. Did Bocaccio have Demeter in mind when he painted Primavera?

Next week, I will continue this “stroll” in Syracuse. I can offer but a limited glimpse of what the traveler may find on this storied isle, this land of Odysseus, the Cyclops, the enchantress Circe, and those we dare not speak of by name. In the meantime, we wind our way back by bus, yelling out of the window to confused Sicilian farmers: “Take me back to the quarries.”

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