Selinunte: Take us to your temples (and your beach too!)
Today’s adventures were another episode of “Ain’t No Ruin High Enough,” which has now become everyone’s favorite archaeological game, followed closely by the ever-popular game of “Can Professor Heuer Guess What This Potsherd Came From?” Thankfully, due to the low numbers of crowds at many sites in Sicily, being allowed to get up close and personal with ancient temples is still a possibility. And if I am being honest, I love watching my brave colonists explore sites and discover for themselves the layout of a structure and its function it is like being in an episode of Sherlock with all this deductive thinking going on!
Selinunte was the most western of all the Greek colonies in Sicily, and like Agrigento, it too was the colony of another Sicilian Greek colony named Megara Hyblaia, located not far from Syracuse on the eastern coast of the island. The city got its name from the ancient Greek word for the wild celery that grew there in abundance and was even featured on the city’s coinage. The city’s development (and its wildly successful growth until the end of the 5th century B.C.) was shaped by its frontier position, bordering on territories held by the Elymians, an indigenous people, and the Carthaginians, who controlled the coastlines of the northwestern part of the island. While many Greek colonies in Sicily had hostile relations with the Carthaginians, Selinunte’s dealings with them were quite friendly, allowing the city to profit from the Carthaginian trade network across the Mediterranean, offering in exchange the excess agricultural production of its fertile territory.
Selinunte’s prosperity during the sixth and fifth centuries B.C. allowed it, as at Agrigento, to construct a large number of stone temples, located both on its acropolis as well as in a sort of “sacred crown” around the heart of the city on the Marinella hill to the east and the Gaggera hill to the west. For those approaching Selinunte from the sea, the appearance of all of these large buildings forming the skyline of the city must have been quite impressive. We began our exploration of Selinunte on the Eastern Hill, where the remains of three temples stand side by side. The positions of these temples, parallel to one another and aligned on the same east-west orientation as the road network as the acropolis, indicates that this sacred area was probably planned from the city’s earliest phases and was part of a monumental expansion of the city that reorganized the residential area. The best preserved of the temples on the Eastern Hill is known as Temple E. Because Selinunte’s numerous temples for the most part have defied archaeologists’ efforts to assign them to particular deities, they have been given letters for their names as a means of consistently identifying them. Temple E, which is thought to have been dedicated to Hera or Aphrodite, is particularly important because it was decorated with a series of carved stone slabs (called metopes) in the friezes above the porches (both front and back). Very few Greek temples, especially in Sicily, feature stone architectural decoration because of its enormous expense. The fact that sculpted metopes appear not only in this temple, but in three others at Selinunte, now all housed in the archaeological museum in Palermo, demonstrates the city’s deep coffers, but also an interest to reassert their ethnic identity in their liminal geographic position on the borders of the Greek world by illustrating a variety of Greek myths.
Selinunte is also home to a gigantic Doric temple, known as Temple G, roughly the same scale as that of the Temple of Olympian Zeus at Agrigento, but begun almost half a century earlier. It was the earliest colossal temple in the Greek west and was probably intended to vie with the great Ionic temples of Asia Minor. Its long period of construction, taking over a century, is demonstrated by the variation in style between its eastern and western sides. We know that the temple was incomplete when Selinunte’s former allies, the Carthaginians, attacked in 409 B.C. because a number of the column drums were never completed with their final fluting details. To give the reader some sense of just how enormous this temple was, we decided to make a scale photo – this is our group sitting on just one column capital!
A trip to Selinunte is not complete without a stop for granita, the original Italian ice and a Sicilian specialty. Everyday a gentleman sells them from his cart attached to his bicycle at the entrance to the acropolis of Selinunte. Given the number of hot and desperate tourists pass his way on a daily basis, I have a feeling he makes quite a tidy profit, although I think our order of 18 at one go might have set a record.
After we cooled down and sugared up a bit trying all the granita flavors, we scrambled over any temple remains we were allowed to explore, searching for fun surprises like Carthaginian religious symbols set in the mosaic floors when the temples were converted for Punic use after the 409 B.C. sack of the city.
A large residential area also occupied part of the acropolis, and the grid system of the streets is clearly visible, even down to the thresholds of the homes and stores. The ground is littered with terracotta fragments from vessels of various shapes and roof tiles, which makes you want to spend hours poking around the dirt to see what you can find. (Anyone is welcome to be a “sherd nerd” with me!)
Even the toughest of ancient Greek colonists during the founding of Selinunte must have needed a little R&R at times, and fortunately the site is conveniently located near an absolutely beautiful sandy beach. Our bus driver, Alessandro, took us to a perfect place for lunch – an open-air restaurant right on the water, where I had a serendipitous reunion with one of my dissertation advisors and the students got to cool off in the achingly blue waters of the Mediterranean Sea.