The Valley of the Temples – Glorious Greek Monuments in Sicily
Sicily is a beautiful and historic island separated from Italy by the Strait of Messina. It is also surrounded by two other seas - the Ionian and the Tyrrhenian. Set in the heart of the Mediterranean, it has long been a meeting place of cultures which has led to many archaeological sites. One of the most impressive is the Valley of the Temples. This UNESCO site dates from the 5 th century BC and is the largest archaeological site in the world.
History of The Valley of the Temples
The valley is found near the site of the ancient Greek colony and city of Akragas, now known as Agrigento. This was once one of the most important cities in Magna Graecia, a term meaning ‘Great Greece’ given by the Greeks to the areas that they settled in Italy. This Hellenic region was particularly prosperous and made an important contribution to the culture of the ancient world.
Ancient Akragas, despite its location, was Greek, both culturally and linguistically. It flourished for many decades in the classical period from 600 to 400 BC. As the city was on the frontline in the wars between the Greeks and the Carthaginians, and later in the First Punic Wars, it was destroyed twice, and its population sold into slavery.
Many of the temples of the valley lie in ruins (Wildman / Adobe Stock)
The city once again prospered under Roman rule and remained Greek in culture. It was occupied by the Vandals, Arabs, Normans, and Byzantines before it was abandoned.
The Monuments in The Valley of the Temples
The eight temples found in the valley all date from the 5 th century BC - the golden age of the Greeks in Sicily, before the coming of the Carthaginians and the Romans.
The majority of the temples are constructed from local sandstone and tufa rock, built around an open area. Within this sanctuary a statue of a deity was on display flanked by a colonnade of columns on three sides, typically on a number of steps. Apart from one, they are all based on the classical Doric style of architecture and are similar to temples and buildings built during the Golden Age of Athens.
The temples fell into neglect with the Christianization of the island, but some may have been used as Churches. A local noble, the Duke of Serradifalco, did much to conserve the temples and began the process of excavating the area in the early 19 th century. The present temples have been reconstructed from the original stones and materials.
The Once Magnificent Temples in the Valley
Temple of Concordia dating back to 420 BC was named after a Roman god but was most likely originally dedicated to a Greek god. It is regarded as one of the greatest surviving temples in the Doric style. Situated on a set of steps, it has many well-preserved fluted columns that are 20 feet high (6.6m). The temple is now roofless but is in otherwise great condition and is one of the finest examples of a Doric style temple.
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The Temple of Concordia, Valley of the Temples (crocicascino/ Adobe Stock)
The Temple of Juno, named after a Roman god, but perhaps originally dedicated to the Greek Goddess Hera, is 20 feet high (6.6m) and includes a portico lined with 6 columns on one side and 13 on the other, although some are badly damaged. The central shrine area can be seen as well as stairs.
Temple of Heracles (or Hercules) was once one of the most popular temples in ancient Magna Graecia. It was situated in the Agora, the main public space in the city. It is thought that it was the Carthaginians who destroyed the temple, but the floor plan and stairs have survived, as well as the front colonnade of the temple with its six impressive columns.
Three temples of which little has survived are the once enormous temple of Olympian Zeus which was intended to mark a great victory over the Carthaginians, the Temple of Castor and Pollux, and The Temple of Hephaestus (or Vulcan). Pillars, and rubble, floor plans, and an entablature are now the only remaining artifacts.
The Temple of Juno, Valley of the Temples (Leonid Andronov /Adobe Stock)
Apart from some broken columns, very little remains of the temple of Asclepius, but it is still possible to see the plan of the sanctuary where the pilgrims would gather in the hope of being cured by the God of healing.
The Tomb of Theron, which was a monument to Roman soldiers killed in the First Punic War is on display, along with the remains of gates dating back to the 4 th century B.C. A Roman and a Byzantine necropolis can be found on this large site as well as medieval remains, and a remarkable 500 years old olive tree.
Visiting the Largest Archeological Site
It is possible to join a group tour of the site or to organize a private visit with your own guide. Alternatively, audio headsets explaining the history of the site are available. The temples themselves are not in the valley but were built on a ridge and visitors are not allowed to enter the ruins of the temple. It takes about two hours to explore the remains.
Top image: Temple of Concordia, Valley of the Temples Source: romas_ph / Adobe Stock
By Ed Whelan
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Available at: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/arp.300
Hannah, R., Magli, G., & Orlando, A. (2017). Astronomy, topography, and landscape at Akragas’ Valley of the Temples. Journal of Cultural Heritage, 25, 1-9
Holloway, R. R. (2002). The archaeology of ancient Sicily. Routledge