Metatourism: Sicily

We left Amsterdam for Sicily on the 13th of September, flying via Pisa on Ryanair. Our object was not only cultural tourism but “metatourism:” a tour of tourism itself, particularly the tourism at ancient archaeological sites as it is practiced and applied by both the providers and consumers of this peculiar commodity.

The flights were short but nonetheless mercilessly unpleasant. Ryan’s cabins are dominated by a non-stop sales pitch delivered over the public address system (“buy Ryanair lottery tickets, rent Ryanair automobiles, buy Ryanair premium liquors two-for-one, reserve a hotel room with Ryanair”), screaming children, garish ads plastered over every available square inch of free space, and the overarching feeling that you are participating in something cheap and seamy, something that you would not want your mother to know you had done; something degrading, and humiliating.

We arrived at Trapani airport at 7:00 in the morning. It is a dingy place, small and teetering at the edge of squalor. The hall was quiet, the muzzy murmur of new arrivals hanging in the air and mixing with the dust. The Dutch man in front of us at the car rental agency kept getting his credit cards refused and feigned injured surprise for the benefit of all witnesses, including his wife, who tried to look surprised herself but who really did not look surprised at all. Finally he arrived at some sort of arrangement with the clerk. We got the keys to our car and drove away, heading for Marsala. We were tourists.

Castor&PolluxWhat is involved in the act of tourism? What do tourists see, and think they see? What do they expect to see? Want to see? Why do they visit archaeological sites at all? What do visitors do on site, and why? Complicated questions, indeed. One can hardly presume to answer them. Tourism, particularly archaeological tourism, involves so much faith, and so many other things besides: expectations, assumptions, and beliefs; transactions both commercial and intellectual; trust and lies; showmanship and hucksterism; belief in the legitimacy of authority; fetishism in the urge to produce and consume the document-as-proof; expressions of social status; the exercise of an honest curiosity; aesthetic inquiry and a search for an “authentic” or “accurate” understanding….

Consider the photograph on the left, in which two visitors to an archaeological site document their presence. Behind them is the so-called Temple of Castor and Pollux in the ruins of the ancient Greek city of Agrigento. In popular travel literature it has become one of the icons of Sicilian archaeological tourism, widely used to represent the Wonders of Ancient Greece in Sicily. Not all who come to Agrigento and appreciate its beauty realize, however, that this remnant of an ancient Greek temple that they are so somberly contemplating is actually a pastiche of fragments from three separate buildings, erected by early excavators of the site in 1836.

So here, then, are photographs taken at the ancient cities of Selinunte and Agrigento. You are left, reader, to determine for yourself not only what, if any, truths they contain, but whether my account of our flight was true, or a bagatelle with which to draw you in, itself a pastiche of unrelated occurrences made to seem consecutive and related; you, as tourist, regarding my story, as the Temple of Castor and Pollux. Or, as one may wonder when considering the experiences of our tourists in Agrigento, do these details really matter at all?

[Proceed to the illustrations]