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Unravelling the Mysteries of Agrigento’s Enigmatic Valley of the Temples

The ancient glory and forgotten triumphs of Agrigento’s Valley of the Temples awaits in Sicily. Unravel the mysteries of gods and mortals in this UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The silhouette of a woman in the foreground, admiring an ancient temple in good condition that is illuminated by spotlights. The night sky is a deep blue and the moon can be seen through two of the pillars.
Admiring the moon overlooking the Temple of Hera at the Valley of the Temples. Photo by Vittoria Urzetta.

Picture this: a moonlit night in Sicily, where the whispers of history mingle with the rustle of olive branches. It’s a night unlike any other, where the ancient stones of Agrigento’s Valley of the Temples—one of the most significant archaeological sites in the world—come alive with stories of gods and mortals. Once, the ancient Greek city of Akragas was on this land, often called Acragas or Agrigentum. Akragas, one of the most influential and prosperous cities in Magna Graecia (the Greek colonies in Sicily and Italy) was founded in 582 BC by Greek immigrants from Gela. Rich agricultural land surrounded the city, well-positioned on a plateau overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. Thanks to its ideal position, Akragas prospered as a hub of trade and commerce, especially in agriculture, ceramics, and textiles.

Akragas was well known for its exquisite architecture, which included striking Doric temples. The Valle dei Templi is the most well-known. Under the reign of dictators like Theron and his heirs, the city peaked in the fifth century BC. Akragas went through immense prosperity and cultural blossoming, drawing intellectuals, painters, and philosophers from all over the Mediterranean.

But enough of laying the scene; let’s step back in time for a few minutes to explore Agrigento’s UNESCO World Heritage Site (you know how much I love to talk about ancient places).

Valley of the Temples: A Gateway to Antiquity

As the sun sets over the Sicilian landscape, Agrigento’s Valley of the Temples (Valle dei Templi in Italian) emerges as a beacon of civilization’s ancient glory. Here, amidst the sprawling ruins, one can’t help but feel transported back to a time when gods and goddesses seemed to walk the earth and mortals worshipped at their feet. Walking amidst the ruins of Agrigento, one can almost hear the whispers of gods and heroes echoing through the centuries. 

A young woman can be seen poking her head out from behind ancient carved Doric columns that have fallen to the ground.
Vittoria peeking out from the ruins. Photo by Emily Fata.

After a hectic (and delayed) entry into the valley with my cousin, we made our way toward the ethereal presence of the Temple of Hera, with its weathered columns reaching towards the heavens as a testament to ancient architects’ ingenuity. There is no doubt that this is the very space where the ancient Greeks once paid homage to their deities; modern visitors can’t help but feel a sense of awe and reverence. It’s as if the air itself is alive with the stories of these ancient people, waiting to be discovered by those who dare to listen.

Temple of Hera (Temple of Juno)

The Temple of Hera, also called the Temple of Juno, is considered among the Valley’s oldest temples and is evidence of the ancient Greeks’ adoration for their goddess. Despite being worn down over time, its Doric columns exude majesty and grandeur and give visitors an insight into ancient religious rituals. Located in the Valle dei Templi, a section of the medieval city of Agrigentum, modern-day Agrigento, Sicily, is the ancient Greek temple known as the Temple of “Hera” or Roman Juno, also known as Temple D. Although this attribution has been linked to the goddess Hera, it actually originates from a misreading of a text by the Roman writer Pliny the Elder, which originally mentioned the Hera temple on the Lacinio point close to Crotone, Calabria. Built in about 450 BC, the temple is a notable example of Archaic Doric architecture, displaying the dominant style of the day.

Because Hera is the fertility goddess and the wife of Zeus, the Temple of Juno is also known as the Temple of Hera. According to mythology, the Milky Way was created when Hera bit Hercules' breast as she was nursing him. As well as a beautiful space for hosting weddings, this temple assisted women who were having difficulties getting married, maintaining relationships, or becoming pregnant. With marble being hard to come by in Sicily, the columns of the temples, which date back to the 5th century B.C., were painted white.

A front view of the remains of the Temple of Hera, illuminated in the warm glow of a spotlight. The night sky is clear and a dark blue.
The Temple of Hera. Photo by Emily Fata.

The audioguide even mentioned something about animal sacrifices; while the Carthaginians sacrificed their firstborn son by tossing him into a fire, the Greeks sacrificed animals, typically bulls (which they then consumed the remaining portion of the animal, sacrificing only a portion of it). Following their conquest of the Carthaginians in 480 BC, the Greeks forced the latter to abandon human sacrifice.

There has been evidence of a fire inside its structure, most likely caused by the Carthaginian invasion that followed the Siege of Akragas in 406 BC. The temple was restored while the Roman province of Sicily ruled over it. Most notably, the original terracotta roof was replaced with a marble one with a steeper slant on the eastern face.

Temple of Concordia

The Temple of Concordia, also called Tempio della Concordia in Italian, is another ancient Greek temple. As the most prominent and best-preserved Doric temple in Sicily and one of the world’s best specimens of Greek temple architecture, it remains a striking witness to Magna Graecia’s architectural prowess. This temple, dating to between 440 and 430 BC, is known for its exquisitely designed 1.8 metre by 4 metre (6 feet by 13 feet) column peristasis. Each column rises to a height of 6 metres (20 feet) and is embellished with twenty flutes and a beautiful entasis. Constructed on a sturdy foundation similar to the neighbouring Temple of Juno, it surmounts the untamed landscape’s particular, its earthquakes. Though the temple’s name comes from a nearby Latin inscription praising the goddess Concordia from the Roman Empire, its original dedication has yet to be discovered.

A green patina bronze statue of Icarus lying on his side is in the foreground. Behind him, to the right, is the illuminate and well-maintained Temple of Concordia. It is nighttime and the sky is black..
Polish sculptor Igor Mitoraj's Icarus statue in front of the Temple of Concordia. Photo by Emily Fata.

It changed over the ages, functioning as a Christian basilica in the sixth century while overseen by Agrigento’s bishop, San Gregorio delle Rape, and was dedicated to the apostles Peter and Paul. The temple’s construction was altered during this conversion, with internal walls removed and gaps between columns filled in. But in the late eighteenth century, the Prince of Torremuzza launched restoration operations to restore its classical form, stripping away Christian augmentations and restoring its historic magnificence.

In front, you can find a larger-than-life statue of Icarus created and donated by the Polish sculptor Igor Mitoraj. It represents this famed man's fall, flying too close to the sun despite his father's warnings, singing his wings off, and falling into the Mediterranean.

The Garden of the Kolymbethra

The tranquil haven known as the Garden of the Kolymbethra is located amid the picturesque Valley of the Temples. Within the vast orchard of historic ruins, this lush oasis provides tourists a quiet space to further reflect, thanks to the fact that it is rich in both natural beauty and history. The Kolymbethra, which was first farmed by the Greeks and then grown by the Romans, is evidence of millennia of human resourcefulness in using the fertility of the soil.

As you meander around the garden’s twisting paths, you’ll find a diverse array of plants, such as citrus trees, figs, pomegranates, and aromatic herbs, all flourishing under the Sicilian sun. The lovely aroma of flowers fills the air, and the sound of water trickling from old irrigation canals adds to the sense of tranquillity.

A stray cat lies on an old stone wall, with a prickly pear cactus to his left and greenery to his right.
A stray cat checks out tourists in the Garden of the Kolymbethra. Photo by Emily Fata.

The Garden of the Kolymbethra is not only a botanical paradise but also a living testament to Sicily’s agricultural heritage. Here, traditional farming methods are preserved and celebrated, offering visitors a glimpse into the timeless rhythms of rural life. From the careful tending of the soil to the harvesting of ripe fruits, every aspect of agriculture is honoured in this idyllic setting. Beyond its natural splendour, the Kolymbethra also holds archaeological significance, with ancient ruins scattered throughout the garden. Among these are remnants of an ancient Greek cistern, Roman aqueducts, and Byzantine-era structures, each bearing witness to the garden’s rich history.

As you exit, you’ll find yourself in front of the beautiful Villa Aurea, which was once the home of the English Army Captain Sir Alexander Hardcastle (who contributed to the resurrection of the Valley of the Temples throughout the early 20th century). While the structure was built on top of an early Christian necropolis and still has tombs and hypogea visible, it also has been hosting temporary exhibitions and events since 2008. While we visited, there was an exhibition of multiple paintings, one of which was Da Vinci’s stunning Madonna of the Rocks, on loan from the National Gallery in London. Fun fact: with just one security guard at the entrance who was half in a daze and some tourists eager to touch the paintings (*sobs*), I almost had a heart attack at the thought of people’s grimy fingers touching these masterpieces. But alas, I wasn’t about to smack someone in a foreign country and wind up getting myself arrested.

Temple of Heracles (Temple of Hercules)

A young woman in a blue, red, and white dress stands in front of ancient carved pillars that have fallen to the ground.
Standing among the ruins just outside of the Temple of Heracles. Photo by Vittoria Urzetta.

The Temple of Heracles, or Hercules, remains a monument to the might and power of the legendary hero (despite its partial collapse throughout the ages). Constructed during the 6th century BC, it formerly held a massive statue of Hercules, serving as a reminder of the mythical actions that once inspired reverence and wonder.

Perched atop the ‘hill of the temples’ on a rocky knoll close to Villa Aurea, this ancient Doric-style building is notable for its historical significance and exquisite craftsmanship. Despite the temple’s honorific name honouring the hero Heracles, contemporary attribution of its identification comes from Cicero’s reference to a temple "not far from the agora," which is said to have a famous statue of Heracles. According to traditional chronology, it dates to the late 6th century BC, but its architectural elements point to potential connections to the 570 to 554 BC reign of Theron, the Tyrant of Akragas. 

The temple was restored during the Roman Empire, but it did not lose its original magnificence. One of the changes made was to divide the naos into three portions. Restoration work in the 20th century concentrated on using anastylosis to rebuild nine of the temple’s columns. This revealed details about the interior architecture of the temple, notably the interior steps that allow for roof inspection, a trait that sets Akragantine temples apart. The temple predates other peripteros temples at Akragas (modern-day Agrigento) by several decades, which is indicated by its notable antiquity and its towering columns with wide capitals and a characteristic chasm between the stem and the echinus. The historical narrative of the temple is further enhanced by the remnants of a sizeable altar on the eastern side, which provides visitors with insight into the religious customs of the ancient Akragas.

Olympeion Field

Situated opposite the ancient city’s Golden Gate in the centre of the Valley of the Temples is the vast Olympeion field, a place rich in historical significance and fascinating archeological finds. This large plain has a number of areas that are currently being explored, such as a platea that has the ruins of a magnificent temple honouring the god Zeus scattered throughout it, as well as other buildings that may indicate the religious and civic activities of the prehistoric occupants. These include the ruins of a sanctuary, identified by a paved plaza and an intricate sacellum, as well as an enigmatic and intriguing tholos. Travelling around the site, one comes across a series of sanctuaries honouring Chthonic deities, an ancient sanctuary, and the mysterious colimbetra, which is home to an undiscovered entrance, before reaching the eminence where the Temple of Vulcan formerly stood.

The majestic Temple of Olympian Zeus, which formerly inspired awe and respect, lies at the centre of the Olympeion complex. Ancient writers like Diodorus Siculus and Polybius have written about this masterpiece. Sadly, the temple is now reduced to ruins due to centuries of damage that began in antiquity and continued into the 18th century, when it was used as a quarry to build the Porto Empedocle. Close by the temple complex’s southwest corner is a smaller structure whose origins and intended use are still up for question among academics. It is distinguished by its two naves, a deep pronaos, and an identifiable altar.

Remains of a fallen temple. One pillar stands to the left and the remaining pillars are crumbled and scattered on the floor.
Temple remains. Photo by Emily Fata.

Valley of the Temples: A Tribute to Olympian Zeus (Temple of Jupiter)

Originally designed to be among the most significant temples in antiquity, the Temple of Olympian Zeus, also known as Jupiter (Tempio di Giove Olimpico in Italian), is still incomplete. Despite its unfinished state, its enormous size and scope provide insight into the ambition of the ancient Greeks, who aimed to pay tribute to their principal deity with a monument worthy of his position as king of the gods.

Ruins now cover the site of the most incredible Doric temple ever attempted, despite never being completed in its construction. The temple, which is tucked away among several others, has a murky past. It was probably built to honour the crucial Battle of Himera, which took place in 480 BC and saw Greek forces from Akragas and Syracuse defeat Carthaginian forces under the command of Hamilcar. According to historical records, it was built using Carthaginian prisoners of war after the conflict. The temple remained incomplete because to the Carthaginian conquest of Akragas in 406 BC, which was made worse by later earthquakes. Many years of quarrying had reduced most of its structure by the 18th century, making it unusable for contemporary building projects.

A woman in a blue sundress leans against the leg of a giant, fallen atlas statue that is on its back.
A gigantic fallen atlas. Photo by Emily Fata.

All that’s left now is a broad stone platform strewn with tumbled boulders and pillars. The size, building techniques, and architectural features of the temple have caused a great deal of controversy among academics. Especially its enormous atlases, which are roughly 7.5 meters (24.6 feet) high and lean against the outer walls, are still mysterious and up to interpretation, representing a number of different historical and cultural stories. The interior design of the temple, which was influenced by Phoenician-Carthaginian architectural styles, had an expansive triple-aisled hall made of pillars, incomplete roofing, and ornate pediments that portrayed events like the fall of Troy and the Gigantomachy. The massive high altar’s pilastered substructure is next to the eastern façade, enhancing the temple’s intimidating presence and historical significance. What’s really amazing though, is that you can walk through it all, touching the fallen pillars and carved atlases that remain.

Temple of the Dioscuri, Gemini (Temple of Castor and Pollux)

Dedicated to twin brothers Castor and Pollux (Gemini, for the ancient Greeks), one mortal and the other immortal, the temple stands as a symbol of brotherhood and loyalty. Built in the 5th century BC, it is one of the few temples at Agrigento to have survived relatively intact, with its impressive columns and intricate friezes still visible to this day.

This temple also has sanctuaries for prayer to Demeter and Persephone, and nearby is the aforementioned Temple of Hephaestus (Vulcan), which also dates back to the 5th century BC. It is thought to have been one of the most imposing structures within the valley, but is now, sadly, one of the most eroded.

The ruins of a temple illuminated by spotlights against a black nighttime sky. Only four pillars stand on a brick foundation, with the edging of a brick roof on top.
The remaining corner of a temple. Photo by Emily Fata.

Temple of Asclepius (Temple of Esculapius)

Located outside the main archaeological park, the Temple of Asclepius, or Esculapius, was dedicated to the Greek god of healing and medicine. Though little remains of the temple today, visitors who come to pay their respects to the ancient god of health and wellness still feel its significance as a place of healing and spiritual renewal.

All in All

As we wandered through the Valley of the Temples, each step felt like a journey through time. From the Temple of Juno to the Temple of Zeus, every stone seemed to hold within it stories of ancient glory and forgotten triumphs, hopes, and sacrifices. Here, where history came alive to me beneath the moon’s light, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of wonder at the sheer magnitude of human achievement. And as the night wore on, I found myself lost in the beauty of Agrigento, forever enchanted by its timeless allure.


1 comentario

25 abr

Wow. I have not heard about this Greek World Heritage Site. It reminds me of the Roman Forum!

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