National Geographic : 1955 Jan
Sicily the Three-Cornered Americans' landings in 1943, and across to Syracuse (Siracusa), on the east coast. Here was the greatest of all the Greek colonies in Sicily, a city that rose to heights of magnifi cence in the arts, letters, and sciences, and defeated Athens herself (opposite page). Founded by the Corinthians about 734 B. C., Syracuse became the most powerful city in Europe after routing the Athenians in 413 B. C. Thucydides describes how some 200 ships fought for the supremacy of the Greek world. Athens suffered a terrible defeat; of her 40,000 armed men only 7,000 survived to be taken into slavery. Drama in a 2,400-year-old Theater The 7,000 traditionally were imprisoned in the Quarry of the Capuchins, cut from the living rock of a hillside. As I walked about in its oppressive silence, I saw, growing from crevices in the rock, striking-looking white-and purple flowers. The waxy, delicately scented blossoms resembled passionflowers, and I pro tested when my guide nipped off several of the green buds. "But we do this to thousands every summer. Don't you recognize them?" he said. "They're capers." Now I can never eat capers without think ing of the sweet-smelling flowers that will never blossom. The semicircular Greek theater is in a re markable state of preservation. Classic Greek dramas are often presented in it by a group sponsored by Sicily's regional government. When I was there, two tragedies, Oedipus at Colonus of Sophocles and The Trojan Women of Euripides, were played to an audience that came from all Italy and many other European countries. Amanwhosatnexttometoldmethatin an earlier season a historical play had been per formed here that had had its Sicilian premiere in this same theater more than 400 years before Christ. Northward along the coast from Syracuse lies Catania, second city of Sicily and the industrial and commercial center of the island. The city is built on nine layers of ancient lava, three prehistoric and the last as recent as 1669. Fortunately, these unwelcome out pourings of the volcano Etna, which broods over Catania, have not reached the city in modern times, though several flows have nearly touched it. They are there still: black, fantastic areas of tortured rock. The proximity of a volcano frequently brings one blessing: that of fertile soil. The lavas, vomited from deep within the earth, contain enormous stores of minerals, which can support an intensive agriculture after long weathering. I went to the top of Etna, 10,636 feet above sea level, to see the sun rise. There is a motor road to a small alpine refuge, which one leaves at midnight to ride mule back for a short distance, then to climb on foot to the crater. The road runs at first through rich vegetable gardens, vineyards, and groves of the citrus fruits that are Sicily's chief agricultural export. We reached the top while it was still dark and exceedingly cold. One of the members of our party, a girl, was so sleepy (we had all been awakened at midnight by the guides) that she fell asleep at the tip of Mount Etna, with her head on her knees and, to keep warm, her seat on a fumarole. As we looked out to sea through the clouds of steam, the sky reddened and then, as sud denly as if it had popped over the edge of a flat world, the red disk of the sun appeared, coloring the rising steam with refulgent red gold and flashing cross-shaped beams through the refracting air (page 48). Sicily's Most Famous View Halfway between Catania and Messina stands the town with the most famous view in Sicily (page 44). Taormina is so squeezed on its lofty natural terrace that everything there seems miniature-the extremely narrow streets, the tiny squares, the minuscule cafes. But the world drops away at the edge of the mountain, and one can sit sipping coffee and look southward across Sicily-almost, it seems, to Africa. Northward I drove to Messina, the city closest to the Italian mainland, a scant five miles from the peninsula of Italy. Ever since the terrible earthquake of 1908, in which 60,000 died and more than 90 percent of the city's buildings were razed, Messina has erected only low structures of reinforced con crete along its wide streets and avenues. It has the most modern look of Sicily's cities (page 33). "Your American aviators during the war called it the 'ghost city,'" a Messinese told me, "because they would come over and smother it with bombs; then, when the smoke had cleared away, there the buildings were, apparently intact, with no visible damage."