26 July 2015

A week in Sicily exploring the lost
Greek legacy of Magna Graecia

Giardini Naxos, a Sunway photograph of the seafront

Patrick Comerford

I am in Sicily for the next week, staying at the Hotel Villa Linda on Via Recanati in Giardini Naxos. Villa Linda is on the coast of Taormina, near the public beach in Recanati.

I arrived late this evening at Catania Fontanarossa Airport on a flight from Dublin. Most rooms in the Villa Linda have a balcony overlooking the sea, with views of Mount Etna and Taormina in the distance.

The hotel is less than 1 km from the town centre and bus terminal, near shops and restaurants in Giardini Naxos. This is a former fishing village on the coast of the Ionian Sea on a bay that lies between Cape Taormina and Cape Schisò, and has been a popular coastal resort since the 1970s.

The seafront is lined with hotels, pensions, pubs, bars, restaurants, pizzerias and cafés. Giardini Naxos also has several churches and an archaeological park.

The coastline is almost 4 km long and there are several beaches: the big fine sandy one in the bay of Naxos, some small rocky bays with pebbly beaches and another long beach here in Recanati.

Naxos was founded by Thucles the Chalcidian in 734 BC. Although Leontini and Catania were both colonised from here, Naxos was never a powerful city, but the temple of Apollo Archegetes gave it a prominence among the Greek city states on the island.

Naxos was captured in 494 BC by Hippocrates, the tyrant of Gela. But the stand taken by Naxos against Syracuse, and the support of Naxos for Athens in the Sicilian Expedition, led to the capture of Naxos and its destruction in 403 BC at the hands of Dionysius the Tyrant.

The site of Naxos continued to be inhabited, but political and commercial power shifted to neighbouring Tauromenion (Ταυρομένιον). Today Tauromenion is the town of Taormina in the hills above Giardini Naxos.

The most impressive classical site in Taormina is the ancient theatre, built and rebuilt on the foundations of an older Greek theatre. After Syracuse this is the second largest theatre of its kind in Sicily, and it is often a venue for opera, drama and theatre.

This is my first time in a part of Italy that was known in the classical world since the time of Ovid as Magna Graecia (Μεγάλη Ἑλλάς), which included Sicily and the coastal areas of Southern Italy on the Tarentine Gulf. From the eighth century BC they were extensively populated by Greek settlers who brought with them their Hellenic civilisation.

The whole of Sicily was Greek-speaking by the 1st century BC. During the Early Middle Ages, following the disastrous Gothic War new waves of Byzantine Christian Greeks came to Southern Italy from Greece and Asia Minor, as Southern Italy remained loosely governed by the Eastern Roman Empire.

At the end of the 12th century, up to a third of the population of Sicily, concentrated especially in the north-east of the island, was Greek-speaking, and there was a continuous tradition of Greek Orthodoxy and intermittent Byzantine rule.

By the end of the Middle Ages large parts of Sicily continued to speak Greek as their mother tongue. During the 15th and 16th centuries, a slow process of Catholicisation and Latinisation of the Greek population of Sicily would reduce the Greek language and culture further.

Greeks re-entered the area in the 16th and 17th century after the Ottoman conquest of the Peloponnese. Eventually, however, Greek disappeared completely from Sicily in the 18th and 19th centuries. Today, it is estimated about 46,000 ethnic Greeks in Italy are descendants of the Greek settlers who first colonised Sicily and Magna Graecia in antiquity.

So this week in Sicily is not only a holiday in a part of Italy I have never visited before, but also a new experience of Greek culture and civilisation in Magna Graecia.

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