Blog by Gillian Hovell, The Muddy Archaeologist www.muddyarchaeologist.co.uk
A wonderful day today, travelling across the heartlands of this, the biggest island in the Mediterranean. The journey is well worth it; not only as an opportunity to see more of this wonderful island – its ruby oranges and rich lemon groves, fields of vines and undulating green hills – but to reach a stunning site.
Two ancient temples perched on the hilltop peer down at you to greet you as you approach Agrigento. This town was once home to over 20 temples, and, in the 500s BC, ruled by tyrant kings, was a powerful base in Sicily. Tales link Acragas (as it was known then) to links with King Minos and Daedalus (of prehistoric Bronze Age Knossos in Crete fame).
It is the temples that dominate here now. One of the earliest stone temples was built here. Dedicated to Hercules, it’s hefty Doric columns were laid out in the old Archaic way with the short side with half as many columns as the long side. Other temples so-called Temple of Hera and Temple of Concord are glorious in their perfect Classical proportions (6 columns along the ends and 2 1/2 times (13 columns) along the edges that surround the triple-roomed building within.
A statue of the god/goddess would have stood in the inner room, out of bounds to all but the priest. Sacrifices were made on the great altar outside. The air would have been filled with the scent of burning animal bones wrapped in fat that wafted up as a gift to the gods while the devotees here below would have feasted on roast meat.
The splendour of this site is the almost complete state of the temples. The Temple of Concord joins Athens’ Temple of Hephaestus and Paestum’s temple as the most complete survivors of Greek temples anywhere.
The sandstone columns are eroded by wind and rain and time but they have never been lost to the soil and needed to be found by excavation.
Rare treats here include the traces of white that once gleamed in the Sicilian sun and the u-shaped cuts that reveal how pulleys heaved the massive stones into place.
The ancient city walls still line our almond-tree route along the hilltop. Now the cliff top walls are pitted with later Christian burial tombs.
Six hundred year old olive trees watch as we pass; what else have they seen over the centuries in this place full of history?
Beyond the remarkable Temple of Concord early Christian tombs (Fragapane Grotto) can be seen. Further still you can cross above the cart ruts in an ancient road (later made into a water course) and further still lie the remains of the inconceivably vast Temple of Zeus (over 110m long) which was decorated by the vast Telamons (supporting figures).
A visit to the museum is a must. Beautifully laid out, it traces the story of this region from its prehistoric beginnings through the age of the great temple building (from 500s BC) to the marvellous Classical vases and onwards to the Romans.The finds are impressive and evocative.
Ancient Agrigento is a highlight of a tour of Sicily. And well worth the journey.