A journey through the archaeological wonders of Akragas in a dreamy landscape
Immerged in a landscape of rare beauty, amongst ancient olive groves, almond trees and Mediterranean scrub, the Valley of the Temples is what remains of the thriving city of Akragas, founded in the 6th century BC by Greek colonial settlers from Gela and Rhodes. The city was built on a wide plateau naturally protected by rivers to the East and West, by the Cliff of Atenea to the North and by a natural ridge to the South on which the majestic Doric temples arise. Continuing from east to west,along a rocky ridge facing the sea, they can be admired in order:
In the wide valley between the Temple of Dioscuri and Vulcan there is the Kolymbethra Garden: an enchanting reservoir in Greek age become today a luxuriant garden managed by the Fondo per l’Ambiente Italiano (Italian National Trust).
Unlike other Greek Polesis, the places of worship of Akragas were not concentrated in a central acropolis but they studded the perimeter of the city like gems on a diadem. Of the sanctuaries on the northern perimeter, dedicated to the divinities Zeus Atabyrios, Zeus Polieus and Athena Polias and mentioned by Polybius (2nd century BC), the only surviving trace is the base of a temple underlying the Church of St. Mary of the Greeks, situated in the old city centre. Hence, it is on the terrace looking out over the Mediterranean Sea that the glorious past of Agrigento awaits us: the Valley of theTemples, UNESCO world heritage site, testimonial of one of the most important Greek colonies in the Western Mediterranean, has been a source of inspiration for writers, travellers and philosophers over the centuries.
In the 18th century the monumental grandeur of the so well preserved Greek ruins located in a unique natural landscape made the Valley of the Temples a must-see destination of the Grand Tour. Goethe, Riedesel, Houel, Stolberg, Dumas, Friedrich and many other travellers have come to Agrigento anxious to rediscover the essence of the classical civilization and its majestic beauty has inspired memorable chapters, sketches and works of art. “Sitting by the road which runs at the foot of the astonishing rocky ridge, one is lost in dreams inspired by the greatest artistic culture of all times. The Temples seem to rise up out of the air, embraced by wide and magnificent scenery. They are, indeed, the eternal residence of the Gods.”
With these words, in the course of the spring of 1885, Guy de Maupassant described the Valley of the Temples during his journey in Sicily. Nineteen centuries earlier, Virgil had mentioned the same “astonishing ridge” in his Aeneid, describing the grandeur of the fortifications protecting Akragas: “Arduus inde Acragas ostentat maxime longe moenia” (Beyond, the towering Akragas displays its great walls”). The Polis thus had two defence systems. One was natural, composed of two hills and the two rivers Akragas e Hypsas which flowed around the city and into the sea; at the mouth of these rivers there was a strategic port, nowadays called San Leone.
The other was artificially constructed: rocky ridges were enforced by huge walls, defence towers and numerous fortified gates giving access to the city. Most of the temples, which were lined up along the walls and defined the city’s skyline, were built approximately a century after the foundation of the town. 480 BC represents a turning point both in the history of Akragas and of the entire Greek civilization: in two great battles Greeks from the Greek mainland and the Greek colonies in Sicily rivalled each other in an attempt to gain supremacy of the Mediterranean. While Themistocles, after the heroic sacrifice of Leonidas, succumbed to the army of Serse in the naval battle of Salamina, the allied forces of Theron of Agrigento and Gelone clamorously defeated the Carthaginians on the lowland of Himera (the modern town of Termini Imerese, Palermo).
The resounding victory brought home a fabulous boot and thousands of slaves. These precious resources and the religious desire to thank the Gods for their triumph inspired and enabled the city of Akragas to realize an ambitious project for the construction of imposing public buildings and places of worship. Furthermore, the ingenious architect Feace designed a sophisticated net of undergrounded aqueducts (Hypogea) to guarantee the efficient distribution of water to the city; these flowed into the Kolymbethra, a great reservoir embellished by swans and used for the cultivation of fresh water fish. Today the Kolymbethra is a charming garden with the possibility to visit the Phaeacean aqueducts.
The city of Akragas flourished under the rule of Theron and attracted important Greek poets such as Pindar, Midas and Aeschylus. The city’s agriculture, trade, philosophy and above all its arts are testified by numerous marvellous exhibits in Archaeological Museum “Pietro Griffo”. After the death of Theron, the illustrious philosopher Empedocle introduced a democratic constitution which lasted until the city was conquered by the Carthaginians in 406 BC. The Carthaginians, after a devastating siege which lasted for many months, ravaged the city and took revenge for the defeat inflicted on them 80 years before in Himera.
Only in 339 BC did Akragas regain its glory thanks to General Timoleon, the Corinthian governor of Syracuse who managed to free Akragas from the Carthaginians. The city flourished once more time. This rebirth of the city in hellenistic period are testified by the Theatre of Agrigento ruins. After a few years of alternating democracy and tyranny, the city of Akragas was swallowed up by the Roman Empire and in 210 BC it was re-baptised Agrigentum. For several centuries the town prospered as a rich Roman colony. The beautiful dwellings of the Hellenistic-Roman quarter, the ruins of a temple on podium close to the Archaeological Museum and other monumental buildings date back to the Roman age.
With the fall of the Roman Empire, Agrigentum was conquered by the Byzantines: in 535 AD Sicily was invaded from the East by General Belisarius. In the course of the following centuries the town gradually decreased in size and the centre of the medieval and modern town was moved up to the Hill of Girgenti. This migration from the valley to the hills between 7th and 9th century brought about the transformation of the valley into an extensive e paleochristian necropolis. In 840 AD, under Arab rule, the city was re-baptized once more and became Kerkent, a flourishing Arabian city which has left many traces in daily life and in the alleys of “Girgenti”: the old city centre of Agrigento.
the fertility cult area