A city in the center of the Mediterranean, Palermo was once named Ziz, or Flower, by Phoenicians who arrived on these shores in the 8th century BCE. The Phoenicians were the first of the many invaders who captured and tried to hold this strategic city. Byzantines were here, and Arabs, and the Romans—who renamed the port Panoramus (CentralHarbor)—and the Normans, under whose rule the city prospered and grew.
Our tour begins under the threat of rain (“Bring rain coats and sweaters,” warns our guide, Anita,), but the sun is bright as we set out toward the Temple of Segeste, the most complete Graecian style temple in Sicily. On the way Anita, tells us about her country, including anecdotes about the ‘Honorable Society’—better known to us as the Mafia. “The courts take so long to try a case,” she sighs. “Sometimes a grievance is not settled for years! People are then tempted to resort to the Honorable Society.”
Until recently, she adds, the Mafia’s power seemed unshakeable. Even in prison they enjoyed power and good food. “In days past they were treated like kings. Dinner? They got lobsters, steaks, whatever theywanted.” However, there is hope for change. “There is a candidate in the upcoming elections who might curb their power.” She points to a house that we pass along the way: it sports a large sign that proclaims, ‘No Mafia!’
Sunlight is fitful as we reach Segeste and the great, unfinished temple. It stands high and proud and silent on a hill top, and is built of solid limestone blocks. Only the outer parts of the temple were completed, and Anita informs us that this is therefore not really a temple. No inner alcove had been built to house the god. A temple, she explains, was not so much a place of worship as it was a house for the god, and worshippers stood outside where the priest made sacrifices to appease the divinity.
True temple or not, this edifice is imposing. The blocks of limestone were quarried from limestone pits by slaves and then hoisted up by means of wooden pulleys. Since some of the blacks weighed 75 tons, this was no easy feat, and a temple such as this would have taken from 35-50 years to build! As I think of the slaves who were worked to death in this place, a wind stirs up and blasts through us, carrying dust and debris. Perhaps the spirits of the dead are not so quiet here on this hilltop.
From Segeste we continue toward the medieval town of Erice which is well known as a meeting place for scientists worldwide. They meet in the summer, Anita tells us, and adds that it was here that they signed a manifesto against nuclear war. Erice is a fitting place for such a meeting, for the town is built high on top of a mountain which, we are told, encounters the clouds that sail in from Africa. True enough, when we reach the top of the winding road, a mist of clouds blow about us. Perhaps it will rain? But the sun slides out again, and the mists dissipate long enough for us to see the magnificent panorama of sea and land below. Our guide points out the scythe-curve of Palermo and explains that legend has it that Demeter dropped her scythe while searching for her abducted daughter, Persephone, and that this scythe formed the harbor.
We climb a steep road lined with stones that are four hundred years old to see the Castle of Venus—so called because the Temple of Venus, where young women were sent to sacrifice their virginity in service to the goddess—was pulled down and its very stones used to construct the castle. What stories these stones could tell!
Then—lunch. Sicilians know how to eat! With the antipasti and the following courses we absorb understanding of daily life in Palermo and are told that the concept of ‘honor’ has very deep roots in society. Women have their set place in the world—the home. Here they rule all matters, while men foray out into politics and business. In the parliament, Anita says, there are 80 seats—and only four of the seats are held by women. However, she is quick to add, an ‘honorable’ woman is treated not only with respect but with veneration by the males in her household. The Sicilian male immediately hands over his earnings to his wife (so Anita says), and she is treated with chivalry. “It is,” she adds, “not so bad at all. And the divorce rate in our country is 4 and ½ percent!”
After lunch, the long-threatened rain begins to fall. We are glad to get to our bus and to listen to the lively Sicilian music that accompanies us down the misty, winding roads that lead back to our ship.
From this vantage point,
Even the clouds seem lower…
City in the clouds!