12/09/2014

Segesta, a Majestic Memory



When I caught my first glimpse of the temple at Segesta, gleaming white in the distance, gracing a hilltop with mouth-gaping majesty, I was overwhelmed with wonder. Of all the forgotten places in the ancient Mediterranean, the temples of Sicily have to be at the top of the list. The island was in the center of the ancient world, a convenient haven for Greeks, Phoenicians, Carthaginians, and Romans. It was an island with major ports and a major supplier of wheat, wine, almonds, and olives. Now only few majestic monuments, like Segesta, remain to remind travelers of the island’s rich history.
Sicily was never a unified island nation, but a conglomerate of indigenous tribes, and colonists residing in cities-states and kingdoms. Just as European settlers flocked to the Americas in more modern times, Greeks and Phoenicians founded settlements across Sicily as early as the 6h and 5h centuries BCE.  Segesta emerged as a major trading center populated by a mixture of native people and Greek colonists.

The bane of Segesta’s existence was another Greek colony, Selinus. The hostilities and disputes between these cities were never ending. In desperation, Segesta asked for help from the Athenians to defeat their rival. Always looking for profitable ventures and the means to expand their domination of the Mediterranean, Athens agreed to send an envoy to Segesta to determine if the city was worthy of military aid and capable of reimbursing them for the support. According to local sources the Segestians constructed a beautiful temple to impress the visiting emissary.
The temple rivaled the Parthenon’s grandeur. Resting high on a hilltop top and wonderfully preserved, it is still impressing visitors today. As far as anyone knows, it was never dedicated to a specific deity and never quite, completely finished. You see, it was built only as a symbol of power and wealth meant to impress the Athenians, not to impress any god on Olympus.
Ironically, shortly after the Segestians won over the Athenians, they dropped their newly acquired ally in favor of courting an alliance with Carthage. Their rival city, Selinus, joined the Greek alliance which soundly defeated a massive Carthaginian campaign in 480 BCE. As a result the Selinutes totally razed Segesta leaving only the marvelous temple for us to marvel at today.
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