The Valley of the Temples
Once known to the Greeks as Akragas, Agrigento was founded around 580 BC on a plateau overlooking the southwestern coast of Sicily by settlers from Rhodes and Crete. Surrounded by fertile land ideal for agriculture, the city soon prospered into one of the leading trade and cultural centers in the Hellenic world. Its importance is demonstrated to this day by the extensive remains of the grand 5th century temples that still dominate the site.
Now one of the main archeological attractions in Sicily, Agrigento, in spite of its ridge-top location, has acquired the moniker of Valle dei Templi (Valley of the Temples). In addition to its seven honey-colored Doric temples in various stages of conservation, the complex also includes a necropolis and sanctuaries located outside the city walls. As is frequently the case on the island, it is not possible to establish to which god or goddess a given the temple was devoted, so that the attributions are merely a tradition established in Renaissance time.
Named for a Latin inscription found nearby, the Temple of Concordia, the largest and best preserved Doric temple in Sicily, was completed around 430 BC. It owes its exceptional state of preservation to a 6th century AD bishop of Agrigento who converted the temple into a Christian basilica, thus protecting it from the destruction of pagan places of worship. Although the spaces between the columns had been walled at that time, and a series of arches added along the nave, the Christian alterations were removed and the temple returned to its Doric grandeur in 1785. Since 2011, an oversized bronze statue of a fallen Icarus lies on the ground nearby, giving the impression of having been abandoned ages ago near the front of the Temple of Concordia. Originally part of the temporary exhibit of 17 works by Polish sculptor Igor Mitoraj, it was subsequently donated by the artist to remain permanently in place.
The nearby Temple of Hera Lacinia (or Temple D) on the southeastern corner of the Valley, 120 meters above sea level, didn’t fare so well, having been damaged by fire following the siege of Akragas by the Carthaginians in 406 BC. Dated around 450-440 BC, all that remains today is an impressive row of 30 columns, of which only 16 have retained their capital, and a long altar, originally used for sacrifices.
The Temple of Heracles, the divine hero, son of Zeus, was one of the most venerated deities in Akragas. Dated to the final years of the 6th century BC, it is the most ancient in the Valley. Destroyed by a long-ago earthquake, it consists today of only eight columns.
The Temple of Olympian Zeus was the largest Doric temple ever constructed. Built around 480 BC, it is characterized by the use of large scale Telamons (or Atlases), sculpted figures in the form of a man, which could take the place of a column. This temple was never completed and now lies in a jumble of ruins.
The Temple of Castor and Pollux (or the Dioscuri), the legendary twins born from the union of Zeus and the Queen of Sparta, is reduced to a corner consisting of four columns. It is in fact an early 19th century reconstruction achieved by repurposing pieces from various ruined temples nearby.
An Early Christian Necropolis
The cliff-line served as a natural defensive wall during the Greek period. Then during the late Roman and Byzantine times, the living rock was hewn to accommodate early-Christian sepulchers, known as arcolosia, characterized by their single arched recess. Today, this ancient necropolis also affords a lovely view of the Mediterranean below.
The Archeological Museum
Just outside the Agrigento city center, the Regional Archeological Museum illustrates the history of of the region from prehistory to the stage of hellenization. Its rich collection of local archeological finds notably includes the Telamon from the Temple of Olympian Zeus, an early sculpted column in the form of a man that stands over 7 meters (23 feet) high. Another exceptional piece is the so called Ephebe of Agrigento, a 102 centimeter meter (3.2 foot) high white marble nude of an adolescent youth, represented in the severe style and dated about 470 BC.
It also holds one of the most impressive collection of Greek pottery I have come across anywhere in the Mediterranean world, including a number of both red-figure and black figure vases and craters.
Good to Know
- Getting there—Agrigento is 130 kilometer (80 mile), two-hour drive south of Palermo via highway SS121 and SS189. Then a five-minute drive to the Valley of the Temples.
- Visiting—The Valley of the Temples, is open daily, year-round from 08.30 am to 7:00 pm. The Archaeological Museum (Museo Archeologico Regionale “Pietro Griffo”), Contrada San Nicola 12, Agrigento, is open daily, year-round from 9:00 am to 7:00 pm.