Electronically Serving Monterey Park, Alhambra, San Gabriel, & Rosemead


This is the ninth in a series of articles about southern Sicily, chiefly the interesting town of Agrigento that we visited in the 1990s


By Charles N. Stevens

Over two thousand years ago the Greeks, looking for an ideal place for their amphitheater, found it on the slope of a precipitous mountain next to the present-day city of Taormina, not far from Agrigento. Sitting on one of the amphitheater’s stone benches, I begin to understand more about the Greeks, the way they saw their surroundings and their place within them. The old gray stone benches inscribe perfect arcs within the natural slope of a hill, each arc just above the other so that all the Greeks could see the performance with the same ease. Respecting the natural flow of the setting, the Greeks had excavated a minimum amount of rock and soil, harmony with nature being important to them.

A Greek sitting anywhere in the amphitheater could not only clearly see the ground level stage, but also beyond the stage and down the steepness of the tree-clothed mountain to the sand beaches and the shimmering blue of the sea. He might have seen a full-sailed Greek ship plowing through the swells. Looking up slightly, he would have seen the towering cone of Mt. Etna, possibly the way I see it today, wearing a scarf of ragged clouds, white volcanic smoke in rounded puffs, perking like a coffee pot, the smoke trailing out to the east in the thin air. The scene is a symphony of greens, blues, cloud-white and the slate-gray violet of mountains. The superb scenic beauty of the spot had been another reason for its selection as a place to build their amphitheater.

The Greeks had gathered early in the morning in their amphitheater on the hillside to watch the plays of Sophocles and Aristophanes or listen to musical performances. They planned to stay all day, music, drama and the majesty of the scenery blending into one supreme experience.

I have some difficulty seeing exactly what the Greeks saw, seeing the scenery only through wide gaps in the crumbling brick wall that the Romans built around the theater. Roman arches and flat red bricks cemented together are everywhere around me as I sit on the Greek stone seats that later, in the 1st century AD, became Roman. The Romans, who called the town Tauromenium, had entirely blocked the magnificent scenery with a great brick wall supported by tall arches. To them the scenery had been only a distraction, not important in their eyes. What occurred on the stage is what they wanted the audience to see. The sides are walled, even the very back with its arched niches for the statues of great Roman gladiators, athletic heroes and political figures.

In adapting the Greek amphitheater to their way of thinking, they had also

lowered the stage a full ten feet and had dug tunnels underneath the stage. They were not as interested in drama or music here. Their entertainment was of a different kind, an exciting show that would appeal to the masses, and keep them happy, a more earthy and robust type of entertainment. Only a few yards from where I sit, on the very earth stage I see in front of me, gladiators once fought to the death, spilling their blood into the soil while the crowd cheered. I might have seen wild animals from Africa released from the tunnels to fight each other or to be slaughtered by strong and fearless men.

Some of the Romans, much like the Greeks, still had a place in their hearts for drama and music. Their theater or Odeon, much smaller than the great amphitheater, was down the hill in the main part of town. We had seen the remains of it behind the small 17th century St. Catherine’s Church, brick and stone seats in the familiar semi-circle, even a few of the brick archways through which the Romans of culture filed in. Clumps of grass grow out of the rubble. A cat moves softly and slowly over the fallen stones. A man sits on a chair, his feet on another chair, under one of the arches, perhaps a self-appointed guide looking for a few extra lira.

From the stone seats, tufts of grass growing between their seams, I can look far up on a hill at the largely intact remains of an old Arab fort left over from the times when the Arabs had their turn in Sicily, in Taormina, spreading their way of life, their ideas of right and wrong, beauty and duty.

Just down the coast, within sight from the top edge of the amphitheater, stands the gray stone vestige of a Norman Fortress, a remnant of the 11th century when the Normans had ruled Sicily, bringing with them their Christian view of life, their own conceptions of right and wrong, their own ideas about the way life should be lived.

We walk through another layer of history in the town of Taormina among the 17th century churches and buildings that line the main street. The old shops have been transformed into tourist shops to cater to the friendly invasion of travelers who flock here from all over the world to soak up the old world charm of this hill town with its unsurpassed natural beauty and relics of the ancient past. We are part of that wave, all of us carrying our separate ideas of how life should be lived. We peer into the shop windows, poke into the shadowy interiors of churches, watch from a hillside piazza as Mt. Etna sends up its smoke signals, listen to church bells resound in the stone corridors.

I sit in the amphitheater thinking about how far back in time I had been transported— back beyond the crumbling Roman walls, beyond the Arab fortress on the hill or the Norman bastion down the coast, far beyond the almost medieval town of Taormina as we see it today, and light years away from all of us who had flown here in machines at speeds unimaginable to the ancient ones or recent historic ones. Another age. I look down through the large breaks in the Roman wall at the play of light on the hazy blue sea and feel that the Greeks had the right idea.

MONTEREY PARK AUTHOR PUBLISHES 4th BOOK – Seeking More of the Sky: Growing Up in the 1930’s:

Charles “Norm” Stevens, a 43 year resident of Monterey Park has recently published his 4th book: Seeking More of the Sky: Growing Up in the 1930’s. This is the story of a young boy growing up in Inglewood, California in the l930’s. This was a time during the depression when unemployment was affecting many and the banks were closed, while the clouds of war were gathering in Europe. But he was lucky enough to be raised in a loving family, the power of that love reflected throughout his stories.

Stevens is the author of three previous books about his experiences during WWII:

An Innocent at Polebrook: A Memoir of an 8th Air Force Bombardier (Story of his 34 bombing missions from his base at Polebrook, England over Germany and France)

The Innocent Cadet: Becoming A World War II Bombardier (A prequel to the first, telling of his training in the U.S. before going overseas into combat.)

Back from Combat: A WWII Bombardier Faces His Military Future from Combat: (This book details the time from when he returned from combat in England until the end of the war.)

He is known to the readers of The Citizen’s Voice as the author of Travel Log Articles including “Cruising the Rhine and Mosel”,” Best of the West”, “In Search of Snow” ,  “From Paris to Normandy on the Seine”, and “Exploring New York”.  He is retired, having taught for 32 years, primarily in the Montebello Unified School District.

Those interested in purchasing an autographed copy of any of his books, may contact the author at 323-721-8230 or  Normstevens24@gmail.com.

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