Over the April half term, the Classics Department led a five-day trip to Sicily. Twenty-six boys from Years 7-10 and Dr Joyce, Mrs Pfeffer, Mr Simm and Ms Kerkhof were in attendance. In between ice cream, pizza, spaghetti, and other local Sicilian delicacies, we toured some extraordinary ancient sites and opened our eyes to the cultural treasures of one of the most historically fascinating islands in the world.
What makes Sicily so fascinating? For many, the island conjures up an image of crime and political intrigue, with the ugly spectre of the Mafia, known more locally as 'Cosa Nostra', stalking every shop and street corner. Like most stereotypes, this is a complete distortion of course, but there is a grain of truth at its heart. Sicily for the last two and half thousand years has experienced foreign domination of one sort or another - Greek, Roman, Ostrogoth, Byzantine, Arab, Norman, Angevin, House of Aragon, the Bourbons, and, from the time of the unification of Italy in the 1860s, direct rule from the Italian government in Rome, which has never been popular among some of the long-established families. A strong sense of independence runs deep within the DNA of the inhabitants of the island who, for centuries, have been fighting off occupying armies, emperors, caliphs, kings, dynasts, and other foreign rulers who have sought to exploit the land.
The great cultural blend that is Sicily is nowhere more evident than in its extraordinary architecture. As you pass into the Norman cathedral in Palermo, its capital, you could be forgiven for thinking that you were walking into a mosque, because the church is in fact a conversion of an older Muslim place of worship which had preceded the Normans in the time of the Arab occupation in the eighth and ninth centuries. The oldest surviving church building in Syracuse is a conversion of a pagan temple to Athena, and all over Sicily you can witness the accretion of one cultural influence on top of another.
It is believed that earthquake-resistant structures were an invention of modern times. Not so. The Greeks who were there before the Romans figured out how to build massive temples which could resist seismic activity in the ground. Syracuse itself was extraordinary. There were tingles down spines when boys and staff alike saw the Bay of Syracuse, where one of the most famous naval battles of antiquity took place between the invading Athenians and the Syracusans, described graphically by the Greek historian Thucydides in one of the most extraordinary pieces of historiography ever produced. The quarry where the captured Athenians were detained to hew the local stone became known later, ironically, as 'Il Paradiso', not least since this was the same place where the great Italian painter Caravaggio developed the technique of chiaroscuro (light-shade). Visit, and you will see why!
On an island which is so beautiful and yet so blood-drenched, what better place to encounter our rival school, Merchant Taylors', who were leading their own Classics trip to Sicily? When, upon arrival in the Valley of the Temples, the temptation to re-enact some of the local history was felt amongst those on the trip after getting wind that their notorious rivals landed on soil claimed by Haberdashers’. Instead, glasses were chinked and it was felt that a formal peace treaty was not necessary - look at how the Greeks ignored the Peace of Nicias, to their peril!
The guides were brilliant, and Dr Joyce, Mrs Pfeffer, Mr Simm, and Ms Kerkhof, who as well as injecting a sense of fun and enthusiasm, were indispensable as a force against the marauding Year 7 hordes at 6.45 every morning. A big thanks to the boys for being brilliant, their parents for supporting the trip, Mrs Goldberg for putting up with us for most of the year previous, our fantastic Haberdashers’ staff, and to our amazing Italian hosts.
Three cheers for Sicily!