Madeleine Kunin


Madeleine Kunin

 COLCHESTER, VT (2003-11-22)

Civilizations come and go, but nowhere is that assumption so vividly portrayed as in Sicily.

Sicily offers sunshine, flowing wine, hills of silver olive trees, freshly caught fish, countless kinds of pasta -- and history.

On a recent visit I was surprised that there are better preserved Greek temples here than in Greece. But what impressed me most was the wave after wave of invasion, domination, and destruction of one group of people after another.

The Greeks were the first to sail here, arriving in 735 BC. By 529 BC the Carthoginians arrived to subjugate western Sicily. And by 212 BC Syracuse fell to the Romans.

They were followed by the Byzantines, the Arabs in the 9th century, and the Normans.

Just 20 years ago, Jewish ritual baths were unearthed, dating to the 3rd century BC, abandoned in 1492, when the Spaniards brought the Inquisition to Sicily. As I walked down the wet stone steps to the baths, the water still flowed from an underground spring, I felt the presence of the women who bathed here and then had to flee.

In one Cathedral the Greek columns of a temple to Athena still stand, surrounded by a baroque facade. It continues to be a place of worship.

In the Valley of the Temples in Agrigento stands the Temple of Hercules, built around 500 BC, burnt by the Carthegenians, and repaired by the Romans, before it was destroyed once again.

Nearby is the Temple of Zeus, the largest Greek temple in the world, the original columns were thought to be 52 feet tall.

Names like Demeter and Persephone come alive. This was their island.

Seeing these ancient ruins, built largely by those who were enslaved by the most recent conqueror, I felt both awed and saddened.

Awed that some of the imprints of their achievements still survived, despite war and destruction.

And saddened that so much has been lost, leaving us to guess at what might have been.

Yet, there is a beauty in empty spaces, in fragments which give us a hint of what life was like. Touring a Roman villa, we examine fragments of mosaics that depict the hunt for wild animals, the baths, the guest rooms, and an amusing depiction of bikini clad women running, carrying weights and playing ball.

Walking on the landscape of past civilizations, I wonder what we will leave to future tourists who look for traces of the 21st century. One can only hope that a cathedral, a museum, a house, will be left for them to know who we were.

This is Madeleine May Kunin.


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