March 26, 2016
After a couple of perfectly reasonable complaints, it’s apparent that this blog hasn’t been meeting expectations lately. We’ve been cooking, wandering town, taking our Italian lessons seriously, sleeping a lot and doing some minor boat projects. It’s hard to imagine how we had time to work, what with the pressure of the day-to-day stuff of life. Birgit has been doing pilates twice a week, and I, well, walk around…
But the weather is getting better, little by little, even though March has been blustery and, fortunately for the countryside, rainy. In another month or so we’ll be on the road to Albania, Greece and maybe points beyond. Varnishing and serious boat work will start in the next week or so.
We had ok weather last weekend and spent a couple days in Agrigento and Port Empodocle with our dock neighbors and friends Morton and Anna. The trip highlighted yet another aspect of Sicily – its history as an early colony of Greece. Starting sometime before 600 BCE, the Greeks expanded into southern coastal Sicily. Their colonization began in Gela, continued
westward through Licata, and further on to Agrigento, which was called Akragas at the time. Siracusa (Syracuse) is the more famous Greek settlement on Sicily, but around 500 BC Agrigento (known as Akragas at that point) was the fourth largest city in the known world – with somewhere near 200,000 inhabitants.
The Greeks, after overwhelming the native Sicilians, established a thriving trading and administrative center in Akragas, including an impressive number of large temples. Sicily was the most important grain producer of the Mediterranean, and Port Empodocle, only two miles down the hill from Akragas, became a major shipping port for grain and salt, mined in the hills around town. The city was surrounded by 15 miles of impressive stone wall. But it turned out not to be enough to keep the Cathaginians from sacking and burning the city in 406 BC.
Eventually taken by the Romans, the name was changed to Agrigentum. The Romans wrecked most of the temples, but allowed one (“Concordia”), which had been converted to a Christian church, to stand. Necessary to the conversion to a church, in 600 AD, was a ceremony to “exorcise the pagan demons” from the temple. They clearly took those “pagan demons” pretty seriously.
The Romans were followed by a long string of conquerors, including the Vandals, Ostrogoths, Saracens, the Bourbon dynasty (and what a lot of trouble there was about that), the Spanish, and the Normans. Around 800 AD, after over a hundred years of Saracen (Arab) occupation, it regained its Sicilian name of Girgenti. As a result of their passion for the glory days of Rome, the Fascists under Mussolini renamed it Agrigento, although to this day Port Empodocle is still named for an ancient Greek philosopher. Port Empodocle is also the hometown of Andrea Camilleri, famous for creating the fictional Sicilian “Commissario Montalbano.”
The museum in Agrigento is amazing. Something like 3 or 4 acres of exhibits start with indigenous pottery and tools from 3,000 to 4,000 years ago, and go on to a breathtaking assortment of well-preserved Greek pottery, sculpture and implements of daily life.
Yesterday was Good Friday, which seems to be the local high point of the long build-up to Easter. Parades in Licata culminated with a dramatic meeting of statues of the Virgin Mary and Jesus in the Piazza in front of the City Hall, then a march down the main street of town to a podium, where the Christ statue was hung from a cross. Thousands of people participated in the marches, and the final procession included a large brass band, playing a Sicilian-sounding dirge, reminiscent, I’m slightly embarrassed to say, of the music from “The Godfather”.
The music, and the faces in the crowd reflected the deeply mixed European, North African and Arabic heritage. We didn’t see any tourists among the people there, except for the handful of sailors from the marina. Eventually we’ll have photos of the overall Good Friday event on the Flicker site (and more photos of Licata and Sicily generally), but in the meantime, here are some of the faces from the crowd. You can click on the pictures for a better view.