Sicily was always under the rule of a foreign power. For more than 2500 years it was systematically colonised and never knew the bittersweet taste of freedom gained through the powerful mean of a revolution against an unruly master (with the exception of the War of the Vespers which began as a popular revolt on Easter Monday 1282 when a French soldier decided to search a Palermitan woman for weapons, offended her modesty and enraged some local people into a spontaneous uprising – from Best of Sicily Magazine; the revolt lasted for seven years during which Sicily was formally independent of a foreign ruler). The Greeks were the first, then the Romans, Vandals and Goths, Byzantines, Arabs, Normans, Swabians, Angevins, Aragonese, Savoys, Austrians, Bourbons, until 1860 when Garibaldi liberated the island from the Bourbon rule… or not.
What does it actually mean to be Sicilian then? Who were the Sicilians throughout so many centuries of exploitation and foreign domination? Sicily was the ‘Granary of Rome’ and the nurse whose breast the Romans fed on, but it was also the biggest island in the Mediterranean and many would swear the most beautiful. Like the monuments that represent the multiculturalism of our history, Sicilians are made up of layers. Years ago, in Australia, I hiked through magnificent ancient rock stacks, once underwater, onto which you could easily recognize the layers of the passing years: ripples on their surface showed the slowly receding motion of the water they were once submerged in. Sicilians have been stripped of their lands and traditions through years of colonization but they still retain all the signs of each and every one of them.
I often get the impression that the passing of time is like the advancing and receding of tides which bring or leave debris, colourful seashells and precious objects behind; our oldest buildings do the same by revealing layers of history, habits and traditions.
On marveling at the cathedral of Ortigia, the old town of Siracusa, you can overlook the fact that beyond its baroque façade, rebuilt in the eighteenth century after a terrible earthquake, the ancient pillars of the original Greek temple dedicated to Athena in the 5th century BC, still stand miraculously on its lateral side. The crenelations above these ancient columns testify to the time when the church was turned into a mosque by the conquering Arabs. Layers of history are visible here even to the inattentive eye.
Sicily is like a present which cannot be unwrapped in a hurry; if you do, you might fail to appreciate its beauty but if you have the patience to slowly work your fingers through its outer surface, it will reveal its allure.
Excerpt from the book “A fork in the road – Cycling around Sicily” written by our guide Daniela Petracca