July 29, 2010

Perhaps no other place in Sicily is as ancient and mystical as Erice.

Erice is located on top of Mount Erice, at around 750 meters (2500 feet) above sea level. The isolated mountain overlooks the city of Trapani, the low western coast towards Marsala, the dramatic Punta del Saraceno and Capo San Vito. Visible from this mountain top is the Aegadian Islands on Sicily's north-western coast, and just beyond the horizon is the northern African coast of Tunis.

The ancient name of Erice was Eryx, and its foundation is associated with The Elymians, an ancient people who inhabited the western part of Sicily during the Bronze Age. The Greeks and Romans identified them as descendants of the Trojans. The Elymians were said to be the refugees from Troy. When the city was destroyed by the Achaeans at the end of the Trojan War, a group of Trojans were said to have escaped and, after a long journey across the Mediterranean Sea, landed in Sicily. They intermarried with the native Sicani to establish a new people, the Elymians. Virgil describes them as having been led to Sicily by the hero Acestes.

In Greek mythology, Eryx was a king of the city of Eryx in Sicily. He was either the son of Poseidon or Aphrodite and King Butes of the Elymian people of Sicily. Eryx was an excellent boxer but died when Heracles (Hercules) beat him in a match.

The Elymi priests ruled the city of Eryx. Their cult worshipped a female deity. Hence, the legends of Erice and a female deity become intertwined.

The Greeks conquered Eryx and upon the Elymi temples, built their shrines to Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love, beauty, and sexuality. Greek mythology says that Aeneas, the son of Aphrodite, and brother to Eryx, built the temples on Eryx.

The Romans, who conquered the Greeks on Sicily, re-dedicated the temples to their Goddess Venus. Venus was a Roman goddess principally associated with love, beauty and fertility. It was here in this temple that the Romans gave their goddess her full name: Venus Erycina.

Throughout the Greek and Roman eras, Erice became a spiritual place of worship.

In 1055-1060, the Norman Count Roger I conquered the island of Sicily. He defeated the Saracens (the name for the Sicilian Arabs who rules Sicily from 800-1060 AD) and drove them out of the coastal cities and plains into the mountains. Try as he might, Roger could not defeat a stronghold of Saracens who took refuge in the mountain top fortress of Erice. Legend has it, one night before another battle, Roger had a dream. In the dream a woman, dress in white, came and showed him a way up the mountain.

The next day Roger gathered his Normans and found a way up the mountain to defeat the Sicilian Muslims.

Roger was a devout Catholic and believed his vision was Mary, the mother of God. He built his Norman church on Erice and dedicated it to St. Mary.

In 2005, I traveled to Sicily and agreed to met a friend, Giovanni Montanti, who helped me discover Petralia Soprana as my ancestral home and found me a place to stay there when I could not find anything on line. He lived in Trapani and took me to the town where he grew up -Erice. His father was mayor of Erice in the 1960s. As we walked through Erice, amid the swirling fog, paved cobblestone alleys, and ancient buildings, he told me about Erice's legends. Giovanni owned a video business. He created videos of Sicily's cities and towns and sold them around the world. He knew Sicily, his island, his home.

He said to me: 'Michael, there are three mountain towns in Sicily that are the most beautiful in all of Sicily. Here is Erice, the first, the oldest and the most mysterious and magical. Sadly, as you see, it is now beginning to be discovered by tourists. The buses come daily now. Then there is Taormina, on the east coast. It is beautiful, but many more tourists visit there. Hollywood stars own homes there. It is one of Sicily's biggest tourist destinations now."

He paused, then smiled and said, "Tomorrow you go to Petralia Soprana for the first time. You have a place to stay but you must know, few people visit Petralia. There are no hotels, places to eat, or tourists. But Petralia Soprana is the third town I speak of. It is untouched by tourists. You will see."

But at this moment, I was captured by Erice's magic. I still am.

In 2006 I returned to Sicily solo. It was my first venture to Sicily traveling alone. My plan was to drive the southern coast of Sicily for 4 days and then return to stay in Petralia Soprana.

But I knew where I wanted to stay my very first night.

I booked my first night in a small hotel in Erice.

The next morning at dawn, I began my trip, and snapped this photo as I drove through Erice.

Erice, Sicily at Dawn 2006