The poet Pindar described the city the Greeks knew as Akragas as the “fairest of mortal cities”. You probably won’t disagree with the sentiment as you look upon the dramatic vestiges of the ancient city, where a row of temples follows a ridge above the sea and a valley littered with ruins set among olive trees. Unfortunately, the modern world intrudes upon this idyllic scene rather rudely. Modern buildings, constructed illegally, encroach upon the ruins. Workday Agrigento, which accuses a hillside above the ancient city, is undistinguished, hastily put up in the 1960s after overbuilding triggered a catastrophic mudslide. What brings visitors to Agrigento are the ruins of the ancient city spread across the so called Valle dei Templi (Valley of the Temples).
Valley of the Temples
In its heyday in the 5th century BC Agrigento rivaled Athens in splendor. Founded by settlers from Rhodes and Gela in 582BC, it provided a good harbour and fertile soil and soon flourished, first under the tyrannical Phalaris, a member of a bull cult who allegedly burned his enemies alive in a bronze bull, then under Theron, who by the early 5th century BC had defeated the Carthaginians and extended the power of Akragas over much of the Mediterranean. The city became known for its wealth and as a flourishing capital of 200.000 people who promoted the arts, philosophy and chariot racing. Empedocles, a native, developed the theory of the four elements (Earth, Air, Wind and Fire) and died when he dove into the crater of Mount Etna to investigate his premises. The philosopher had commented. “The city’s citizens enjoy life as they would die tomorrow, but they build palaces as if to live forever”. This prosperity, however, was short lived: Carthage sacked the city in 406BC, and Rome invaded in 201 BC. The arrival point of the Valley of the Temples (www.parcodeitempli.net) is Piazzale dei Templi. The site is divided into two zones: Eastern and Western. Start with the Easter zone, which has the main temples. The first and the oldest is The Tempio di Ercole (Hercules), dating from the 6th century BC and now a romantic jumble of ruins from which nine of its original columns still emerge. A statue of Hercules and a fresco depicting the young god grappling with serpents once graced the temple, but these have long since vanished.
Follow Via Sacra to the superbly sited Tempio della Concordia. Built around 450 BC, this is the best preserved temple at Agrigento (largely because it was converted to a Christian church in the 6th century), and one of the finest Doric temples of the ancient world. The stucco that once covered the temple has long since worn away, exposing warm, golden stone. At the end of Via sacra stands the Tempio di Giunone (Juno), which was built by the Greeks in 460BC, and restored by the Romans after the handsome structure was destroyed by the Carthaginians, the stones are still scorched from the fires the invaders set. Earthquakes have also taken their toll, though a sacrificial altar and 25 of the 34 original columns have been set back in place.
In the Western Zone the stony remains of the Tempio di Giove Olympic (Jove) are copious enough to suggest that this was indeed the largest Doric temple ever built. Enormous melanomas (columns fashioned in the shape of male figures) once supported the massive structure, and a reproduction of one of them, the so called Gigante, lies on the ground among the ancient debris. West of the temple is a puzzling quarter dotted with pagan shrines. The Giardino della Kolymbetra is a large and fertile garden of citrus and other trees which has been restored and creates a delightful diversione from the temples.
The Museo Archeologico and the Roman City
The Museo Archeologico Regionale holds a wealth of artefacts excavated from the Valley of the Temples. Delicate vases, terracotta figurines, and an alabaster sarcophagus designed for a young boy and etched with scenes from his childhood provide an evocative glimpse into life in the ancient city. One room is dedicated to the Tempio di Giove Olympic, with reconstructions of the temple and a reassembled telamon. Next to the museum spread the remains of the settlement that the Romans established when they took Agrigento permanently in 210BC. Many of the houses they contracted on the Greek streets still stand , and their mosaic flooring is remarkably intact.
The modern city also bears some traces of Agrigento’s ancient inhabitants: Santa Maria dei greci, a small basilica rising above the stepped streets of the medieval quarter, is built of antique materials on the site of a temple to Athena; several columns are imbedded in the walls of the church. Santo Spirito is the church of a late 13th century Cistercian convent whose nuns specialist in making almond and pistachio pastries (ring the doorbell marked ‘monastero’ next to the church to buy some. The church is rather dilapidated but inside has fine Baroque scutwork attributed to Giacomo Serpotta. Luigi Pirandello, Agrigento’s acclaimed 20th century novelist and dramatist, was born in the seaside suburb of Caos. His birthplace, the Casa Natale di Luigi Pirandello, is now a museum, and his ashes are buried beneath a lone pine tree in the garden.