VALLEY OF THE TEMPLES
Stretched out along a ridge, inappropriately referred to as “valley”, and nestling in the area to the south of it, are a series of temples which were all erected in the course of a century (5C BC), as if to testify to the prosperity of the city at that time. Having been set ablaze by the Carthaginians in 406 BC, the buildings were restored by the Romans (1C BC) respecting their original Doric
style. Their subsequent state of disrepair has been put down either to seismic activity or the destructive fury of the Christians backed by an edict of the Emperor of the Eastern Empire, Theodosius (4C). The only one to survive intact is the Temple of Concord which, in the 6C, was converted into a Christian church. During the Middle Ages, masonry was removed to help construct other buildings, in particular, the Temple of Zeus, known locally as the Giant’s Quarry, provided material for the church of San Nicola and the 18C part of the jetty at Porto Empedocle.
All the buildings face east, respecting the Classical criterion (both Greek and Roman) that the entrance to the cella (Holy of Holies) where the statue of the god was housed could be illuminated by the rays of the rising sun, the source and blood of life.
On the whole, the temples are Doric and conform to the hexastyle format (that is with six columns at the front), the exception being the Temple of Zeus, which had seven engaged columns articulating the wall that encloses the building. Built of limestone tufa, the temples provide a particularly impressive sight at dawn, and even more so at sunset when they are turned a warm shade of gold.
(The Greek form of the names of the divinities has been used to describe the temples, with the Latin equivalents given in brackets). It is advisable to start a visit with the archeological site around the Temple of Zeus, as this is open at restricted times.
Sacrificial altar – Just beyond the entrance, on the right, slightly set back, are the remains of an enormous altar, used for large-scale sacrifices. As many as 100 oxen could be sacrificed at one time.
Tempio di Zeus Olimpico (Giove) – Having been razed to the ground, the Temple of Zeus (Jupiter) was re-erected following the victory of the people of Agrigentum (allied with the Syracusans) over the Carthaginians at Himera (in about 480 BC) as a gesture of thanks to Zeus, it was one of the largest temples built in ancient times, being 113m long by 36m wide, and is thought never to have been completed. The entablature was supported by half-columns 20m high, which probably alternated with giant male caryatids (atlantes or telamons), one of which can be seen in the local archeological museum (see below). A reproduction of an atlantes is displayed in the middle of the temple, giving some idea of scale proportional to the vast building. Instead of the more usual open colonnade, this temple is surrounded by a continuous screen wall sealing off the spaces between the columns which, inside, become square pilasters. Some blocks still bear the marks made for lifting them into place: these are deep U-shaped incisions through which a rape was threaded and then, attached to a kind of crane, could be used to lift or haul the blocks one upon another.
Tempio di Castore e Polluce o dei Dioscuri – The Temple of Castor and Pollux or of the Dioscuri is the veritable symbol of Agrigento. Built during the last decades of the 5C BC, it is dedicated to the twins born from the union of Leda and Zeus while transformed into a swan. Four columns and part of the entablature are all that remain of the temple, which was reconstructed in the 19C. Under one edge of the cornice is a rosette, one of the typical decorative motifs used. On the right are the remains of what was probably a sanctuary dedicated to the Chthonic Deities (the gods of the underworld): Persephone (Proserpina), queen of the underworld, and her mother, Demeter (Ceres), the goddess of corn and fertility and patroness of agriculture. On the site are a square altar, probably used for sacrificing piglets, and another round one with a sacred well in the centre. This is probably where the rite of the Thesmophoria, a festival held in honour of Demeter, was celebrated by married women.
In the distance, last on the imaginary line linking all the temples of the valley, is the Temple of Hephaistus (Vulcan), of which little remains. According to legend, the god of fire and the arts had a forge under Etna where he fashioned thunderbolts for Zeus, assisted by the Cyclops.
Retrace your steps, leave the fenced area and follow Via dei Templi, on the other side of the road, on the right.
Tempio di Eracle (Ercole) – Conforming to the Archaic Doric style, the Temple of Heracles (Hercules) is the earliest of the group. The remains enable us to imagine how elegant this temple must have been. Today, a line of eight tapering columns stands erect, re-erected during the first half of this century. From the temple, looking south, can be seen what is erroneously called the Tomb of
Theron (see end of this section).
Continuing along the path, deep ruts in the paving can be made out on the left: these are generally interpreted as having been caused by cartwheels. The reason for them being so deep has been put down to water erosion.
On the right is Villa Aurea, formerly the residence of Sir Alexander Hardcastle, a passionate patron of archeology, who financed the reerection of the columns of the Temple of Heracles.
Necropoli paleocristiana – The Paleochristian necropolis is situated beneath the road, dug into the base rock, not far from the ancient walls of the city. There are various types of ancient tomb: loculi (cells or chamber for corpse or urn) and arcosolia (arched cavities like a niche), as often found in catacombs. Before the Temple of Concord there is another group of tombs on the right.
Tempio della Concordia – The Temple of Concord is one of the best-preserved temples surviving from Antiquity, thereby providing an insight into the elegance and majestic symmetry of other such buildings. The reason it has survived intact is due to its transformation into a church in the 6C AD. Inside the colonnade, the original arches through the cella walls of the Classical temple can still be made out. It is thought to have been built in about 430 BC, but it is not known to which god it was dedicated. The name Concord comes from a Latin inscription found in the vicinity. The temple is a typical example of the architectural refinement in temple building known as “optical correction”: the columns are tapered (becoming narrower at the top so as to appear taller) and have an entasis (a very slight convex curve at about two-thirds of the height of the column which counteracts the illusion of concavity); they are also slightly inclined towards the central axis of the temple façade. This allows the observer standing at a certain distance from the temple to see a perfectly straight image. The frieze consists of standard Classical features: alternating triglyphs and metopes, without further low-relief ornamentation. The pediment is also devoid of decoration.
Antiquarium di Agrigento Paleocristiana (Casa Pace) – Turn back through a section of the town, stopping perhaps to consult the various informotian boards set among the ruins that may be of interest: one in particular explains how the Temple of Concord was transformed into a basilica.
Antiquarium Iconografico della Collina del Templi (Casa Barbadoro) – In a modern but sympathetically designed building, are collected together a series of drawings, engravings and prints of the Valley of the Temples as seen in the past by travellers undertaking the Grand Tour.
Tempio di Hera Lacinia (Giunone) – The Temple of Hera Lacinia (Juno) is situated at the top of the hill and is traditionally dedicated to the protector of matrimony and childbirth. The name Lacinia derives from an erroneous association with the sanctuary of the same name situated on the Lacinian promontory near Crotone. The temple preserves its colonnade (albeit not in perfect condition), which was partially re-erected in the early 1900s. Inside, the columns of the pronaos and opisthodomos and the wall of the cella can still be seen. Built in about the mid-5C BC, it was set ablaze by the Carthaginians in 406 BC (evidence of burning is still visible on the walls of the cella).
To the east is the altar of the temple, while, at the back of the building (beside the steps), there is a cistern.
On the outskirts of the town are the so-called Tomb of Theron and the Temple of Asklepios (Aesculapius).
Tomba di Terone – Also visible from the Caltagirorne road. The monument, erroneously believed to have been the tomb of the tyrant Theron, in fact dates from Roman times and was erected in honour of soldiers killed during the Second Punic War. Made of tufa, it is slighly pyramidal in shape and probably once had a pointed roof. The high base supports a second order with false doors and Ionic columns at the corners.
Tempio di Asclepio (Esculapio) – Just beyond the Tomb of Theron, on the road to Caltanissetta. Look out for a sign (although obscured) on the right. The ruins of this 5C BC temple are to be found in the middle of the countryside. It was dedicated to Aesculapius (Asklepios), the Greek god of medicine, son of Apollo – who it was believed had the power to heal the sick through dreams. The interior, it is thought, harboured a beautiful statue of the god by the Greek sculptor Myron.
Telamons and Atlantes (or Atlas figures) – These imposing giants from Agrigento, more often referred to as atlantes, are sometimes called Telomons (Telamone in Italian) after the Latin word derived by the Romans from the Greek, Telamo(n) which indicated their function, that is to carry or bear, in this case the structure. Their supporting mole is accentuated by their position, with arms bent back to balance the weight upon their shoulders. The more common term alludes to the mythological figure Atlas, the giant and leader of the Titans who struggled against the gods of Olympus and was condemned by Zeus to support the weight of the sky on his head. When the earth was discovered to be spherical, he was often shown bearing the terrestrial globe on bis shoulders.