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The Valley of Temples in Agrigento

The rediscovery of Akragas was set going towards the end of the eighteenth century, when the first European travellers came here. They ventured into Sicily discovering unexpected and immense artistic and archaeological riches, despite those who, like the compilers of the Encyclopaedia, thought that on the island there was nothing interesting, apart from the villainous activity of the inquisition. What the travellers observed more than two centuries ago is still offered today to the eyes of visitors, and their descriptions are in many respects still topical: the temples, today as then, are lined up on the crest of a hill, and are the most evident symbol of a city, once among the most powerful in the world, whose richness and beauty were sung of by the greatest poets of the 5th century. Indeed, that was the period of greatest splendour for Akragas, which was founded in 528 BC by settlers from Gela and in the space of a century became one of the richest and most powerful cities in the Mediterranean, a cradle of arts and sciences, a city whose citizens, according to the philosopher Empedocles' happy definition, lived as if they were going to die the next day and
built as if they were going to live for ever.
Of this constructive fervour, the temples, built in the 6th and 5th centuries BC, are the most evident monumental expression, little remaining, unfortunately, of the Greek city, destroyed by the Carthaginians in 406 BC. Agrigento, though enjoying other moments of ephemeral splendour, never again returned to the ancient splendours and gradually became a provincial town like so many others - if it were not, precisely, for the temples. They afford an extraordinary sight, enchanting every visitor, especially at sunset, when the sinking sun seems to set them on fire and really very little is required to return with the imagination to the splendid city sung of by Pindar.
Proclaimed World Heritage by UNESCO in 1997, they are in the valley below the modern city, which maintains the medieval layout, constituting a remarkable archaeological walk.
To the right of the Golden Gate, toward the south and the sea, a path leads to the imposing ruins of the Temple of Olympic Zeus, which (together with temple G at Selinunte), was the most imposing one in the west (the surface area is almost 7000 square metres, bigger than that of the Roman basilica of St. Peter's). Its construction was undertaken in 480 BC and was characterized by the presence of Telamons, huge statues about eight metres high, which symbolized the force of nature subjugated by Zeus. Among the columns supporting the entablature, they were all destroyed except one, kept at the Agrigento Archaeological Museum (among the ruins there lies a cast). Ruined because of abandonment, bad weather and earthquakes, in the eighteenth century it became a sort of stone quarry: Agrigento workmen used the gigantic tufa blocks for the construction of a dock at Porto Empedocle. Near the temple there was a gigantic altar for sacrifices, on which up to one hundred oxen could be sacrificed at one time, and there was room for two thousand believers to watch.
Around the temple of Zeus there is a big sacred area, constructed in the 6th century BC and filled with buildings for worship but also private residences and shops. Here the temples proper are four but the only one immediately distinguishable from the non-religious buildings is the one referred to as that of Castor and Pollux, four corner columns of which are extant, raised in 1836; it is a very picturesque complex, so much that this temple is used as a symbol of Agrigento (480-460 BC). In a depression to the north of this temple there has been identified the Kolymbetra, a swimming pool that with its waters made it possible to irrigate the most fertile garden in the valley. The area, entrusted to the Italian Environmental Fund in 2001, has been restored from by the point of view of vegetation and fitted out with explanatory panels.
In the opposite direction, on the ridge of a low hill, three temples stand in a line.
The Temple of Hercules is believed to be the oldest (6th century BC); it has nine columns standing, on some of which the purple plaster with which the temple was painted is just visible.
Further on in all its beauty there stands the Temple of Concordia, one of the most perfect from the stylistic point of view in the whole Greek world "inexpressibly beautiful and picturesque" (F. Münther). The temple, which is the best preserved in the Greek world together with the Theseion in Athens and the Posidonion at Paestum, owes its integrity to a fortunate circumstance: unlike the other pagan temples more or less demolished by the Christians, this was converted into a church in the 6th century. So the structure remained intact and in 1748 the temple, which was exquisitely built in the 5th century in the Doric manner, was restored in its original forms (apart from some arches in the walls of the cell).
The road of temples - flanked by Christian-Byzantine hypogea - goes to the Temple of Hera Lacinia or Juno, at the extremity of the ridge, in a charming position. Its look is like that of the temple of Concordia: it was built more or less at the same time as the latter, and is a little smaller. On the walls of the cell you can still remarkably see traces of the fire that was started in the building by the Carthaginians in 406, during the sack of Akragas. East of the temple, the remains of the usual altar for sacrifices are found and a stretch of street deeply furrowed by carts.
If these are the essential stages of the visit, there are also a great many other remains of the ancient city to be seen: from the Temple of Aesculapius to the tomb of Theron and the Hellenistic- Roman district with the oratory of Phalaris, the ekklesiasterion and the bouleuterion, and finally the interesting Archaeological Museum at which precious items from Akragas are kept, like the lion's head gutters that adorned some of the temples to the splendidly painted vases, but also panels and models that give a more precise idea of the city and its monuments.

(taken from "Sicilian World Heritage")

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