"We improve ourselves through other cultures. It's in our DNA".
These words, spoken towards the end of Michael Scott's excellent two parter Sicily:The Wonder of the Mediterranean, could serve not just as a manifesto for the island but for the whole of an increasingly insular Europe that is seeing individual nations turning away foreigners and blaming 'the other' for their own woes. As the Sicilian mayor says "Welcome is the best guarantee of safety".
Scott's a historian, not a politician, but in such vexed times do we live it's hard for him not to weigh in with a couple of pointed barbs. He's earned his right to. He's a great presenter. Knowledgeable and enthusiastic about his subject and a game sport when it comes to joining in. Witness him crushing grapes underfoot, stick fighting, and speaking, what sounds to me, pretty fluent Italian.
I'd really enjoyed the British Museum's Sicily:Culture and Conquest exhibition last year so the chance to learn a bit more about the Mediterranean's largest island was grasped with both hands. The programmes cover some of the same ground that the exhibition did but fill in some of the gaps also.
Scott starts in the beautiful city of Syracuse, founded by the ancient Greeks 2,700 years ago. Its church is five hundred years older than Christ himself. It only became Christian under Byzantine rule and later, after the Arab conquest, was converted into a mosque. The Normans turned it back in to a church. Its history acts as a microcosm of Sicily's own.
Sicily's position as a stepping stone between Europe and Africa was the key to its success. There's ample evidence of inhabitation before the arrival of the Greeks (rock cut tombs of ancient tribes for example). Under Europe's most active volcano, Etna, the Greek settlers cultivated olives and vines. Scott gets involved in the treading of the grapes. It was a practise that was continued until the 1990s before it was banned by the EU. If you take this as evidence of EU meddling you may wish to consider it was considered normal behaviour to urinate over the grapes whilst treading them. Time was precious. Lizards, too, managed to slip in to the grape juice and no doubt occasionally ended up in the drink. Ooh I could crush a grape!
Being Greek, in those days, wasn't a matter of geography. Put simply if you spoke Greek you were Greek. If you didn't you were a Barbarian. It's where that word comes from. Greek speakers thought people speaking other languages sounded like they were bahing like sheep!
As the Greeks dominated the east coast Phoenicians from present day Syria and Lebanon set up a trading post on a small western island, Motya. The rival Phoenician city of Carthage (in modern day Tunisia) seized Motya. Archaeologists now differentiate between the Carthaginians and the Motyans by their different shaped wells which just goes to show people will fight over pretty much anything. I wonder if they had different shaped gearsticks on their Mini Metros too.
Scott ponders urns of cremated children and the Greek sculpted marble Motya charioteer (check him out, he's got a fair sized dick on him) from the era. Phoenicians harvested salt from shallow lagoons. It's a custom that continues to this day so Scott, of course, dons the yellow wellies and shares in some ribald Sicilian humour.
When Carthage and the island's Greeks went to war the future of Sicily hung in the balance. We're shown the Iberian shin guards of a Spanish mercenary and a human vertebra with a bronze arrow embedded. The unfortunate Carthaginian had been shot in the back. The Greeks had won. They built a huge temple to celebrate. It looked out aggressively to the Med as if to say "come and have a go if you think you're hard enough".
The Zeus worshipping Athenians did but they failed to take Syracuse. The captives of war were put to use excavating the local quarries. Caravaggio arrived, on the run from a murder charge or something, and coined the name The Earl of Dionysius for these impressive quarries. They have something of the monumental power of a Richard Serra sculpture. Only more so. The Romans went so far as to call it their favourite prison. Imagine having a favourite prison.
Culture flourished alongside penal institutions. There were Euripides recitals and Sophocles debuted Oedipus Rex at the open air theatres. Probably under better weather than the Minack in Cornwall. Much Ado About Nothing is set in Sicily and our host, as ever, has a crack at joining in.
Carthage rose again and Greek rule came to an end but the Romans were the new guys on the island. Archimedes, a citizen of Syracuse, had designed catapults and a contraption called 'the claw' to defend against them, and for a while it worked. Brains beat brawn. But only briefly. A Roman soldier killed Archimedes. To this day no monument to the legendary mathematician stands in Syracuse. A shame.
Sicily was Rome's first foreign conquest. Rome saw off Carthage in the Punic Wars, possibly the biggest wars to have ever taken place at the time, yet Sicily didn't become Italian. The Sicilians still spoke Greek. In answer to the question what did the Romans ever do for Sicily we're left hanging. We get a quick look at the Necropolis of Agrigento before learning that, after the Romans, both the Vandals and the Ostrogoths took the reins of the island for a while before the Byzantines took over. They ruled from the Christian, Greek speaking, Constantinople. They later made Syracuse their new capital.
In 663AD an Islamic army arrived from Arabia. Ice cream for breakfast wasn't all they brought with them. Pasta was in Sicily before Marco Polo returned from China to give it to the rest of Italy. It'd come from the Arabs invited over by a rebellious Byzantine emperor in the 9th century. He may've come to regret that as within fifty years they'd taken control of the island. Palermo was made the new capital.
Christians and Jews had less rights than their Muslim overlords but they weren't forced to convert. The Arabs had brought pistachios, almonds, saffron, couscous, and water-cress. Delicious food and dubious religious dogma aside irrigation and agriculture made huge leaps under Islamic rule. Scott pops down a well to see for himself.
Palermo was a cosmopolitan melting pot. A column on the cathedral of Palermo even now contains a Qu'ranic inscription praising Allah. Islamic rule lasted for about two centuries until Norman mercenaries crossed the Straits of Messina. Robert and Roger de Hauteville found Sicily a tougher nut to crack than their fellow Norman, William the Conqueror, did England in the same year. Due to adapting a 'softly-softly' approach the conquest of Sicily took half a century.
The Castle of Venus was built in Erice and when rule was passed down to Roger II he had himself crowned first king of Sicily. The Palatine Chapel in Palermo was inaugurated in 1143. A highly heterodox edifice it was built after the great schism in Christianity and during the Crusades. As the world raged, fought, and killed over minor Abrahamic differences Sicilians, at least on the surface, celebrated inclusivity. Sicily was, at that time, Europe's third largest kingdom.
When Norman rule ended Frederick II found himself in power. A look at a Wikipedia timeline of Sicilian monarchs is exhausting and confusing but in 1282 five hundred years of Spanish rule began on the island. When Spain took over huge swathes of Latin America that affected Sicily too. The chocolate goodies were a positive but not much else was. The Spanish Inquisition and the expulsion of the Jews at the turn of the 16th century were particularly ugly events.
The Spanish Inquisition was active on Sicily for 300 years. Heretics were sought out, tortured, burnt, and executed. The graffiti in the palazzo made by those waiting for their trial (normally certain death) is utterly amazing. Scott goes as far as to compare their suffering as similar to that of Christ himself. When we look back on history it's never the men killing for religion that get given the Jesus treatment.
When the Inquisition ended in 1783 the inquisitors burnt their records so now the graffiti is all that stands to remind us of a very dark time in human history. Equally macabre are the mummified bodies in the Capuchin cemeteries. The last is that of a two year old girl from as recently as 1920. She's known as the sleeping beauty of Palermo. Rosalia Lombardo died of pneumonia and was named after the patron saint of Palermo. Because of her notoriety there has been some conflation between the two Rosalias. Pilgrimages to her shrine are made on hands and knees.
In 1693 a huge earthquake hit the island. Entire towns were destroyed and 60,000 people died. Afterwards, in a spirit of resilience, the Cathedral of San Giorgio was built in Modica. Further up the coast in Marsala, the port of Allah, Marsala wine was 'invented' by Yorkshire trader John Woodhouse.
He must've been popular for that but nothing compared to Garibaldi who arrived in Palermo to conquer Sicily in 1860. He finally freed it from the yoke of the Spanish Bourbons and started the path to Italian unification. Unification was such a cause celebre at the time that collections for it in London saw donations from both Charles Dickens and Florence Nightingale. The Sicilian referendum to join Italy saw a 99.5% yes vote (shove that in your pipe, Brexiteers) and Italy's largest opera house was built to celebrate.
As part of Italy things weren't completely plain sailing for Sicily. The Mafia is perhaps one of the things Sicily has become most infamous for. Scott visited a bar from The Godfather but the real story is much more depressing. Death followed death followed death. After Giovanni Falcone, a judge with a long history of prosecuting Mafia cases, his wife, and others were assassinated in an explosion on a motorway near Capaci in 1992 the Sicilian public realised things had got so bad that something had to be done.
This led to the arrest of mafia boss Salvatore Riina who was convicted of over 100 murders. Riina's still in prison now but his family left for their hometown of Corleone (yes, Corleone) from where Giovanni, Salvatore's son, continued the killing of those who wouldn't go along with his gang's extortion schemes.
The Mafia is still a problem in Sicily if not quite on the scale it once was. Nowadays when the World's cameras look to the island it's normally because of the migrant crisis. Scott travels to the island of Lampedusa. A Sicilian lifeguard, as heroic as the likes of Riina were cowardly, imparts, passively, that often they'll save 100 odd people from drowning in 10-15 minutes. In the waters of the Mediterranean these guys don't see colour, sex, religion, or nationality. They just see a fellow human being in trouble and use their own humanity to help out.
Under the shadow of Etna a young Sicilian lady and her husband grow vines. A 15ft high row of congealed lava from the volcano's last eruption borders her vineyard. There's a vine growing out of the lava. The roots have found a way to the sun. Even in the darkest times we can find a way to the sun. If Michael Scott's wonderful documentary taught me anything it's keep going on, never give up, one day the sun will shine.