Selinunte, the city under earth and sand
The archaeology of Selinunte is unique, mainly because the entire city simply ceased to exist as a major population centre in less than a day. Gradually hundreds of thousands of tons of earth and windblown sand buried houses and other buildings.
Under a collapsed roof in a building burnt by the invaders, the archaeologists have even found a half-eaten remains of meals abandoned by the inhabitants as catastrophe impended on them.
Archaeologists directed by Professor Martin Bentz have also found dozens of unfired ceramic products, pots and tiles, abandoned by terrified local workers before they had had a chance to put them in their kilns.
It’s the first time that archaeologists have been able to produce a detailed comprehensive plan of what a classical Greek city looked like.
It is interesting to know the historical events that led to the end of the city.
Politics of Selinunte
The pattern of development seems to have been similar to that of the major Greek cities. Initially ruled by an aristocratic party of big landowners, descendants of the founding families, the city later fell under the control of tyrants.
In the second half of the 6th century tyrants Theron and Pythagoras governed it. Then followed the spartan Euryleon.
But it is not certain that tyranny was the only form of government.
The geographical location of Selinunte had as a natural consequence a conflict with the Elymian-Punic cities of western Sicily, protected by Carthage.
The city supported the attempts of two Greek leaders, Pentatlo before and Dorieo after, to establish Greek colonies in the western end of Sicily in order to hunt away the Punic population. But both the feats failed.
But strangely when at the beginning of the fifth century the war between Sicilian and Carthaginians flared up, Selinunte allied with Carthage. Probably the motivation of this alliance was economic, because Selinunte traded with the Punic cities and Carthage itself.
War against Segesta
Selinunte also tried to intensify its businesses as well as protect them. It wanted to open a port on Tyrrhenna, founding a commercial store on the Gulf of Castellammare, in Segesta territory.
In 413 a last attempt by Selinunte to invade the territories of Segesta triggered a war which also involved the great powers of the time.
Segesta asked Athens for help. And also Carthage, a traditional ally of the Elymian-Punic cities in Sicily, helped it.
Selinunte turned to Syracuse, Agrigento and Gela to ask for help.
Before the outbreak of the war, the chief of the Carthaginian expedition, Hannibal, attempted to resolve with diplomacy the contrast between the two cities. But Selinunte did not accept any arbitration from Syracuse.
Hannibal was grandson of Hamilcar who died at Himera, not to be confused with the later Hannibal who fought the Romans.
He landed with a powerful army to Lilibeo’s promontory and from there he marched toward Selinunte with his soldiers.
Then he plunged into the city by attacking it from two sides.
Siracusa, Gela and Agrigento delayed sending their help. Left to themselves, inhabitants of Selinunte resisted courageously for nine days before giving up to the enemy.
Hannibal’s soldiers entered the city, looting it and slaughtering population. Hannibal spared only women and children who had fled to the temples. Carthaginians killed about 16,000 of the Greek inhabitants and soldiers. Five thousand men were taken as slaves, as were many thousands of women and children.
So the story of one of the most important Greek colonies in Sicily tragically ended.
After the destruction of 409 BC, Selinunte was inhabited again but never reached the prosperity of previous centuries.
Dionysus the old, tyrant of Syracuse, tried to conquer the Punic colonies of western Sicily, but his attempt failed. After that, Syracuse and Carthage signed a peace agreement.
They established that the Halykos River, today Platani, was the border between the Syracuse and Carthaginian territories.
Selinunte, being in the Carthaginian territory, was subjected to Punic dominance, becoming the most Oriental punic base on the southern coast of Sicily.
Carthaginians fortified the city and rebuilt the area of the earlier acropolis. The new buildings adapted to the remains of the ancient houses. In fact, the archaeological excavations testify a mixed Greek-Punic settlement.
They didn’t rebuild the vast urban center of the Manuzza plain and it became a necropolis.
The Carthaginian dominion spread new cults and new customs. Such as worship of Tanit, the goddess of Fertility. In fact some Tanit signs with caduceus were on mosaic floors of a few houses. In a sacred area there were several funeral stelees, witnessing the Punic sacrifice rites.
The temple to Zeus inside the Malaphoros shrine has probably been used for worshipping Baal Hammon or Tanit.
The end of Selinunte
Carthaginian dominion on Selinunte lasted until the intervention of the Romans in Sicily during the 1st Punic war.
Selinunte hoped to get rid of Carthage with the help of Romans.
But Carthage decided to transfer the population of Selinunte to Lilibeo. Here, the city concentrated all its strength to defend itself from the attacks of the Romans.
Selinunte instead was destroyed and abandoned.
So his story ended forever.
The historian Tommaso Fazello
Arabs called the city Rahal-al-Asnam, that is “House of gods, or of the pillars”.
It seems that some of the Acropolis was inhabited at the time of Aragonese domination in Sicily.
In the 1550s a Dominican friar named Tommaso Fazello set out to write the history of ancient Sicily and during his research he rediscovered the site of ancient Selinus.
At Fazello’s time the place’s name was “Pulichi Land”. This could mean Land of fleas, because of fleas infesting the area, or more imaginatively Land of Polluce.
Rediscovery of the importance of the ancient site
In the Middle Ages, the site was a quarry of building materials. In 1756 people used some blocks of oriental temples to restructure the crumbling bridge over the river Belice. Fortunately in 1779 King Ferdinand Il of Bourbon, with a decree forbade the drawing of the stones of the ancient city. Despite this the splintering continued.
Selinunte began to emerge from the mists of history in the 18th century when it was an archaeological important stop on the Grand Tour, so loved by British intellectuals and aristocrats in the Georgian and early Victorian eras. They knew the site as the ‘City of the Gods’.
Some travellers from Europe described and illustrated the temples. This brought them to the attention of a large audience of scholars. To further divulge Selinunte’s fame was the German landscape designer Philipp Hackert, who placed a view of the ruins on the cover of his work “Vues de la Sicilie”.
The first excavations at Selinunte
In 1822 two British architects William Harris and Samuel Angell started the first excavations in the ruin, authorized by Bourbonnais government. This was possible for the involvement of the English consul in Palermo.
Their research led to the discovery of the three metopees of Temple C. They wanted to transfer the metopees to the British Museum in London, but the aristocratic Sicilian world of the time wanted instead the sculptures at the Royal Museum of Palermo.
In 1824 German archeologist Hittorf brought out the temple B.
In 1831 the newly established Commission for Antiquities and Fine Arts authorized the beginning of archaeological research. Firstly, it authorized the architect Francesco Saverio Cavallari and the sculptor Valerio Villareale to release all the Doric temples from the sand.
Archaeologist Antonio Salinas and architect Giuseppe Patricolo continued the work at the end of the nineteenth century.
Ettore Gabrici, in 1915, continued excavations of the city and sanctuaries.
Jole Bovio Marconi, who worked in Selinunte in the 1950s, discovered the Temple M and the road network.
Vincenzo Tusa reopened excavations at the beginning of 1960s, stifling the activity of illegal diggers. He brought to light the necropolis, a district and a sacred Punicum area. He also began excavations on the hill of Manuzza.
Also the creation of the 270 hectares of archaeological park, aimed at the preservation of the entire archaeological area was a great merit of him. Besides he called the most renowned archaeologists to Selinunte.
Foto: Maria Virzì