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Sicily's Lost Theater

Archaeologists resume the search for the home of drama in a majestic Greek sanctuary


Monday, March 18, 2019

Agrigento Theater Excavation

Going to the theater was an essential part of ancient Greek civic and religious life. Plays such as the tragedies of Aeschylus and Euripides, the comedies of Aristophanes and Menander, and likely numerous other works that have not survived, were regularly staged at religious festivals. Masked actors and a chorus whose role was to comment on the play’s action in song, dance, and verse entertained festivalgoers and paid honor to the gods. “Since the very beginning of Greek civilization, a theater was always a religious building housed in a sanctuary,” says archaeologist Luigi Maria Caliò of the University of Catania. “In the Greek world, everything was related to holiness, and theaters were built in sacred areas.”


At first, theaters were likely just open areas or hillsides with no cavea, or tiered seating area. From about the sixth to the fourth centuries B.C., says Caliò, Greek theaters were built of wood. Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus and Electra, for example, were performed in wooden theaters. Beginning in the fourth century B.C., theaters were often built in stone. “When theaters were monumentalized, they became a crucial part of cities around the Greek world,” Caliò says. Though nearly all traces of the wooden structures have been lost, remains of ancient Greek stone theaters—almost 150 have been discovered to date—still stand from Italy to the Black Sea, at sites such as Epidaurus in the Greek Peloponnese, the sanctuary of Apollo at Delphi, and Taormina in Sicily. As one of the most important cities in the ancient Mediterranean during the classical era and home to one of its grandest sanctuaries, Akragas (now Agrigento), on Sicily’s southern coast, must have had a theater as well. But no ancient sources mention one there and, until recently, no archaeological evidence of such a structure had ever been found.


The city-state of Akragas was founded in 582 B.C. by Greeks from Gela, a flourishing Sicilian colony some 40 miles away that had been established a century earlier. Akragas reached its zenith under the tyrant Theron, who ruled from about 489 to 472 B.C. In 480 B.C., Theron and his ally and brother-in-law Gelon, ruler of the powerful colony of Syracuse, were part of a coalition that defeated the Carthaginians at the Battle of Himera, ending, temporarily at least, the Carthaginians’ threat to take over Sicily. To celebrate their victories, Akragas’ rulers launched a series of monumental building projects, including construction of the immense temple dedicated to Olympian Zeus, which, at 340 by 160 feet, was the largest Doric temple in the Greek world. Akragas was razed by the Carthaginians in 406 B.C. and then left largely abandoned until 338 B.C., when the Carthaginians were defeated and the city was rebuilt.


Agrigento Crab Coin A century later, Akragas was the site of the first pitched land battle of the Punic War, which pitted the resurgent Carthaginians against the newly expanding power of Rome. The Roman victory in 262 B.C. signified the beginning of Roman influence in Sicily. Later, Akragas became Roman Agrigentum. Throughout its history, when the city thrived, building projects and religion did, too. Temples were regularly constructed and dedicated to gods and demigods including Hercules, Zeus, Hera, Athena, Concordia, Hephaestus, Castor and Pollux, Demeter and Persephone, and Isis.


The search for Akragas’ theater began almost a century ago when archaeologist Pirro Marconi directed a large archaeological campaign funded by his English patron, Alexander Hardcastle. Hardcastle was a captain in the British Navy who became fascinated with the site while living in a home known as the Villa Aurea, located between two of Agrigento’s still-standing temples. Until the Englishman died in 1933, he sponsored Marconi’s work. The only written source available to guide Marconi in his search for the theater was De Rebus Siculis Decades Duae, the first printed book on the history of Sicily, written in the middle of the sixteenth century by Dominican monk Tommaso Fazello. Fazello had located what was left of the theater “not very far from San Nicolò church,” adding, “I barely recognize its foundations.” Marconi, however, failed to uncover significant evidence of the structure, ending the pursuit of Akragas’ theater for the next eight decades.

Beyond the Temples

Egypt's Eternal City

Once the most sacred site on the Nile, Heliopolis was all but forgotten until archaeologists returned to save it from disappearing forever


Friday, February 08, 2019

Heliopolis Egypt Surroundings AerialAs geographical guides, creation myths can be unhelpfully vague. Christians, Jews, and Muslims have long searched in vain for the location of the Garden of Eden. For the ancient Egyptians, things were a bit easier. The world, they believed, began on a low hill just outside modern-day Cairo. There the sun rose for the first time and made order out of a roiling sea of elemental chaos. There the Egyptian creator, Atum, and sun god, Ra, first appeared, and there they held court for millennia. And there the Egyptians built their most enduring sacred site, a city known today by its Greek name, Heliopolis, or City of the Sun. At the center of the city, contemporaneous sources and recent archaeological excavations show, was the Temple of the Sun.


Egyptians worshipped at Heliopolis over the course of countless lifetimes and thousands of years. The earliest known temples there date back nearly 4,600 years, to the first days of Egypt’s pyramids. Inscriptions reveal that generations of pharaohs bolstered their claim to have descended from Atum and Ra by building grand shrines there. At its peak around 1200 B.C., the holy site was marked with dozens of colossal obelisks.


Heliopolis was known far and wide in antiquity. Called On in Hebrew, the city is mentioned multiple times in the Old Testament. It also served as a reference point for other Egyptian sacred sites. Although Thebes, Egypt’s capital during the Middle and New Kingdoms (ca. 2030–1070 B.C.), is now far better known, ancient Egyptian sources referred to it as the “Heliopolis of the South,” and its temples were modeled on those at Heliopolis. Even in its final centuries, Heliopolis was a popular destination supposedly visited by the Greek philosopher Plato, according to an account written four centuries later by the geographer and historian Strabo. Strabo also includes a first-person account of his own visit to the site’s nearly deserted ruins in his book Geographica.


Both physically and theologically, Heliopolis was at the heart of Egyptian religion. It was both city and temple, every corner of it holy, but also filled with everyday activity. “You can compare it to the very center of Vatican City,” says archaeologist and University of Leipzig Egyptian Museum curator Dietrich Raue. “Everyone inside the city was somehow connected to the sun cult or temple.”


Yet today, Heliopolis is virtually unknown. After almost two and a half millennia of continuous worship there, the importance of its temples declined. By the second century B.C., the city was abandoned, for reasons archaeologists are still trying to discern. It was subsequently plundered and stripped of anything that could be burned or reused. Beginning in the late Roman period, nearly all of its limestone architecture was carted away to build Cairo, leaving little to see above the surface. Over time, most of the city’s obelisks were removed, carried off first to decorate Alexandria, and then to Rome, Paris, London, and even New York (see “The Obelisks of Heliopolis,” page 30). Only one still stands at the center of the site, a 68-foot-tall red granite monument erected by Senwosret I around 1950 B.C. that juts out of the ground in the impoverished Cairo neighborhood of Matariya like a hieroglyph-inscribed spike. By the 1800s, Heliopolis had all but vanished under the silt that builds up during the Nile’s annual floods. It was buried under farm fields on the outskirts of Cairo. What was left of Heliopolis is now covered by between six and 20 feet of soil and debris. “It’s extraordinary that one of the most famous cities of the ancient world is now a ghost of a name,” says Stephen Quirke, head of the Petrie Museum at the University of London. “It’s a black hole in our knowledge of ancient Egypt. Heliopolis is the great site.”

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The Obelisks of Heliopolis