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Valley of the temples, Agrigento, Sicily: a visitor's guide

Updated on June 5, 2013
2500 years old . . . Valley of the Temples, Agrigento, Sicily
2500 years old . . . Valley of the Temples, Agrigento, Sicily | Source

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Getting there

We set off from Riposto on the autostrada (highway) and the journey took 2.5 hours. The highway across the island was in good condition with a dual carriageway for more than half the distance.

The landscape is quite barren although there are orchards in the east. These soon give way to bare hills and mountains, often ploughed, despite their steepness, and with no contouring at all - a recipe for disastrous soil erosion.

From the city of Agrigento, a road winds downhill for about five minutes to the Archeological Park.

There is a bushland parking area studded with spindly olive trees, a very basic demountable building housing toilets and an entry gate with market traders selling hats and souvenirs.

The first temple is up a slight hill but the rest of the temples are all downhill with wide smooth paths connecting them. These are suitable for prams or wheelchairs.

A free people-mover shuttles visitors from the lowest temple up to the entry gate every 15 minutes.

Agrigento, Sicily

Agrigento, Sicily
Agrigento, Sicily | Source

History

The temples once stood in the prosperous Greek city of Akragas, that sat majestically on a rocky ridge overlooking the sea.

Standing beside the imposingly huge temples, it is bewildering to imagine how the huge stones were cut into blocks and lifted to form the temples between 510Bc and 430BC.

Each stands up to 20m high and covers an area about the size of a soccer field. They were designed to be viewed from all sides.

As the buildings were laid out, the proportion of the width to the length was to a formula which set the number of columns across the width. This number was then doubled and one added, to determine the length. Thus a temple with six columns across the front will be 13 columns deep.

Column section showing the inset used to secure the column stone above.
Column section showing the inset used to secure the column stone above. | Source

FACT BOX:

Admission: €10 adults

Children/concession: €5

Opening times 9am-7pm.

Allow at least half a day to a day to see the Temples. There is a restaurant inside the park, which provides welcome cool drinks, coffee and meals. It also has clean toilets.

The Valley of the Temples site was acknowledged as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1997.

How to get there:

By car, take the autostrada (motorway) to Agrigento.

HINT – If you have a hire car, book a GPS or make sure your car has an inbuilt GPS.

Valley of the Temples, Agrigento

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Why?

Even more fascinating than the how question, is the why?

Each of the eight temples is dedicated to a different god or gods which the people believed ‘ruled’ over a different areas of life or the elements: earth, fire, water and air.

The temples were used for displaying statues of the gods and to house offerings. Sacrifices were made outside the temples, in order to beg the gods to be kind to them, or thanking the gods for their favour.

The temples here were built to Hera, the goddess of marriage, women and birth, Concordia, the god of understanding, Heracles (Hercules), the god of heroes, health and strength, Zeus, the king of gods, Castor and Pollux, the twin gods of immortality, Hephaestos, the god of blacksmiths, artisans, fire and volcanoes, Demeter the goddess of the harvest and Asclepius, the god of medicine and healing.

Temple of Concordia – this is the most intact temple in the park, having some of the internal walls as well as the columns and entablatures and roofs. It was built of calcarenite blocks, in Doric style (440-430 BC). It has 6 columns across the front and is 13 columns deep. The interior is divided into three rooms, a porch, on the front, a central room, the cella, and room at the back. Stairs lead from the central room to the room. Although the original temple was not used as a burial site, the temple was transformed into a Christian basilica towards the end of the AD600s and tombs were cut into the floor.

Temple of Castor and Pollux – This temple was rededicated as a Christian basilica and a necropolis (burial area) was cut into the rocky outcrop adjoining the temple base.

Temple of the Dioskourai – Only the foundation trench of this temple remains, along with some of the cylinders that once formed its columns and some ruins of the sacrificial altar.

As with many Mediterranean sites, the wealth of the city was highly prized and other civilisations fought over the city of Akragas.

The Valley of the Temples has been successively ruled by the Greeks, Roman Byzantines, Arabs and eventually the Normans in AD1087.

The fertile soils yielded grains, wine and olives, from which oil was pressed and further inland, the mountains were used for grazing animals.

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Sea port of Riposto, Sicily
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Mount Etna, Sicily

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