You may come across a shepherd with his flock and possibly a couple of other curious visitors, but any visit to the archaeological site of Iato will most likely be a deliciously solitary one.
Iato (which has also gone by the name of Iaitas, Ietas, Iaeta, Jetae, Giato and Jato) may not be the most impressive or temple-rich archaeological site in Sicily, but it must rank as the most spectacularly positioned and the most panoramic. Perched vertiginously atop its own mountain at a height of 850m above sea level, Iato’s immense vistas fan out in all directions taking in Lake Poma and the Gulf of Castellammare to the north and vast swathes of the Sicilian countryside to the south, east and west. A precipitous drop off the north edge offers a bird’s eye view of the Belice Valley and the town of San Giuseppe Jato far below.
Once you’ve got over the views, you’ll be impressed by the site too. Iato was inhabited from the end of the 9th century BC to the beginning of the 13th century AD. Originally an Elymian settlement, like Segesta, it gradually became more and more Hellenic from the 7th century BC. It later developed into a thriving Roman outpost before falling into decline for several hundred years. In Arab times, in the 10th century AD, it flourished once again and retained a strong North African identity during Norman times, a state of affairs that riled Frederick II, who sacked and destroyed the town in 1246, thus bringing to a close Iato’s two millennia of existence.
The ruins of Iato are plentiful, various and unique for their millennial stratification...
Spread over a site of some 40 hectares, the archaeological site of Iato is accessed via a 2km-long path from the car park. During the walk up you may well start to wonder how and why someone decided to build on top of what appears to be an inhospitable mountain. Then, as one passes the piles of rubble that were once lookout towers and houses, and arrives at the extensive high plain, it all becomes clear. The position of Iato was perfectly suited for controlling the Valley of the Belice, the main route between Selinunte in the south, and Palermo in the north.
The ruins of Iato, which were first excavated in the early 1970s by a group of archaeologists from the University of Zurich, are plentiful, various and unique for their millennial stratification. There is evidence of numerous architectural styles, remains from multiple different eras and a town plan whose evolution and expansion over the centuries is fascinating to trace.
The oldest remains, dating back to the 9th and 8th centuries BC, are simple stone and earth dwellings. These were succeeded in the following centuries by more classical Greek houses, whose size and sophistication increased as the town became more wealthy. By the 4th century BC, the single-storey, single-room abodes of the 7th century, had morphed into luxuriously decorated, multi-room dwellings on two floors, the best example of which is the Casa a Peristilio 1 (house with peristyle – a peristyle being a series of covered columns surrounding a building or a courtyard). Mirroring our present-day passion for extending and refurbishing houses, Casa a Peristilio 1 underwent continual modification, as construction technology and lifestyle fashions came and went.
Remains of mediaeval houses remind us that Iato was still thriving until the middle of the 13th century, but the core and the soul of the town is Greek. Signs of Hellenistic culture and religion are evident in the remains of a mid-6th century BC Temple of Aphrodite, an agora dating back to around 300BC, a 2nd century BC bouleuterion (council chamber) and, perhaps most impressively, a theatre carved out of the hillside, whose cavea could seat up to about 4,500 spectators.
After you’ve finished admiring and exploring the ruins, scramble up to the top of the hill behind the theatre, where an incomparable look-out point awaits. While memories of the archaeological ruins might fade with time, you will never, ever forget the views!
The archaeological site of Iato has lots to offer, but is also an excellent spot for a picnic. Why not pick up some sandwiches or rosticceria on your way there and enjoy a fabulous al fresco lunch with a view?