Agrigento is one of the most important cities in Sicily, and is situated near the coast, half-way along the south-west side of the island.
The town is particularly well known and most visited because of the ancient temple complex of Agrigento, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the most impressive temple complexes to be found, a short distance outside the modern town.
Italy This Way comment: Agrigento is a very interesting destination, with the ruins of temples as well as several other buildings and artefacts to see, giving a vivid glimpse into life here 2500 years ago
The site at Agrigento is about two kilometres long, with a car park at either end. The easiest way to visit, especially on a hot day, is to park in the lower car park, get one of the shared minibuses to the higher end of the valley, and then walk back through the valley of temples. This does mean however that you will need to pay for parking, and minibus, and entrance to the valley...
A short history of Agrigento is useful when you visit, to help bring the temples and monuments to life and set them in context. Recent excavations have shown that the Agrigento area was inhabited from the Neolithic age and that the Greeks, coming perhaps from nearby Gela,where they lived in close contact with the Sicilians until the 7th century BC.
The Greek colony of Akràgas was founded in the first half of the 6th century (according to tradition it was in 580) by the inhabitants of Gela, and was a very important city: following the victory of Imera against the Carthaginians in the 5th century it became the second largest city in Sicily after Syracuse.
Thousands of prisoners were used in the construction of public works and in particular the great Temple of Olympian Zeus, of dimensions roughly equal to that of Selinunte (112.70 and 56.30 metres), although the temple remained unfinished and was heavily damaged by the Carthaginians in 406 BC.
From this time onwards the history of Agrigento follows the history of Sicily. In 210 BC it came under Roman rule (under the name Agrigentum), then it was conquered by the Vandals, Goths and Byzantines and, in 827 it was conquered by the Arabs and finally by Roger Guiscard (1031-1101). In the 18th century the city was under Bourbon control, then became part of the kingdom of Italy with the Unification of 1860.
The Valley of the Temples of Agrigento
Staring from the higher end of the Valley of the Temples, you first reach the Temple of Juno, one of the most complete temples on the site, and also one of the largest. Many of the original columns remain - although many are now fragments- and the top border on one side is still in place.
The temple is in the doric style, in an imposing location at the top of the hill, and entered via four steps. It is slightly hard to imagine now, but the interior of the temple originally had three separate rooms, with the central room having stairs to the roof.
On some of the stone blocks you can see red patches: these are very evocative when you know they are because of the Carthaginians setting fire to the town in 406 BC, which discoloured the rock. The temple was rebuilt after this event, but a later earthquake caused more damage. On the east side of the temple you can see the remains of the altar where sacrifices once took place.
Leaving the Temple of Juno and walking down the hill you will notce the large walls on your left. Originally there were 12 kilometres of walls around the city, in part formed from existing cliffs and in part built to complete the defences.The walls were a substantial structure, mostly built in the 4th century BC, with various towers and passages and the soldiers buildings against the inside of the walls.
In various places in the walls you can see cavities that have been carved into the stone. These were used as tombs but are much more recent than the original walls - the 'arcosolia' as they are called were added in the period 4th - 7th century AD, and orginally also had stone slabs to cover the cavity. You can also see a cemetery of tombs carved into the rock next to the walls behind the Temple of Concord.
Also here you can see two marble statues of Romans wearing togas. These are called the Togati statues, and were only discovered in 2005. Unfortunately the heads are missing, that prevents identification, but otherwise the statues are in evry good condition.
Your visit to the Agrigento Valley of the Temples continues with the best preserved temple of all, the Temple of Concord. The temple was (incorrectly) named after a Latin inscription that was actually added much later, probably in the Roman period of Augustus (63 B.C.-14 A.D.) or Trajan (53-117 A.D.), and was found near the temple.
The Temple of Concord is more than 40 metres long and 20 metres wide. The lintel of the temple is intact and supported by tapered columns, with friezes of triglyphs and metopes. Via a step about 50 cm high, you enter the cell where the statue of the god was held, on the sides of which there are two spiral ladders leading to the lintel, from where you can admire the countryside and sea.
You next reach a most surprising sight: a 19th century villa surrounded by luxuriant gardens. A captain in the British army called Sir Alexander Hardcastle came here to enjoy the climate and architecture and help organise the archaeological excavations in 1921 and lived here until his death in 1933, and during that tile was instrumental in the works of excavation throughout the site, and the re-erection of the columns in the Temple of Hercules.
Near the so-called Golden Gate (Porta Aurea) you can see the ruins of the Temple of Hercules. Originally this temple was even bigger than the Temples of Concord and Juno at 64 meters long and about 28 wide and it had 15 columns on either side, with two steps leading to the cell of the god and two sides of staircases leading to the lintel.
Inside the cell, according to the testimony of Cicero (106-43 B.C.), there was a bronze statue of Hercules, and formerly there was also a painting of Zeus, but unfortunately no trace of these remains today.
Across from the Golden Gate was the Temple of Olympian Zeus, the plan of which was made up of two squares. Not for nothing was it called The Palace of the Giants - 'giants' (statues) stood in the temple with raised arms to support the roof. One of these figures can be seen on the ground next to the temple and one has been reassembled in the Agrigento Archaeology Museum.
Not much remains of the Temple of Castor and Pollux but it was once a remarkable temple, although now just four columns and one lintel are left. Likewise, not much remains of the other two temples, including that of Aesculapius, where, according to Cicero, there was once a beautiful statue of Apollo.
The statue of Apollo was by Myron (480-440 B.C.). It was stolen by the Carthaginians, then returned and again stolen by Verres (120-43 B.C.) when he was proconsul in Sicily (he also tried, according to some evidences, to steal the bronze statue of Hercules).
Various other temples also once stood here as well as other buildings added in the Roman period but little remaians of these except rocks strewn across the floor.
Agrigento Archaeology Museum
After the Valley of the Temples you can visit the Agrigento Archaeological Museum, which has a truly outstanding collection of exhibits (you need to pay more for an entrance ticket if you are also visiting the museum).
The very important statue of the Agrigento Ephebe stands out as most interesting, but many of the artefacts are of an exceptional historical importance: the civilization of the 7th - 6th century BC. is represented with potterries, terracotta, metals (bronze figures, instruments and a small bull in bronze).
Gardens of the Kolymbethra
Towards the lower end of the Valley of the Temples behind the Temple of Castor and Pollux there is a large garden set in a deep sided valley. This is called the Gardens of the Kolymbethra (and also has an additional entrance charge). The Greeks established a garden here, around a large water reservoir that supplied the city and also formed part of the fortifications of Agrigento.
The garden was one of the highlights of a Grand Tour of Europe in the 19th and early 20th century, before becoming abandoned. Efforts are now being made to restore the garden to its former glory.
In the modern city of Agrigento you can visit the Norman Cathedral which has artistic contributions from many ages: Arabic, Gothic, Renaissance (bell tower) and Baroque (sanctuary). The church is in the form of a Latin cross, 100 metres long and 40 metres wide.
The cathedral Museum has a wide selection of artefacts ranging from the 12th to the 19th century, and a collection of paintings ranging in style from Mannerism to Baroque, Naturalism and Classicism. Among these the best known include San Carlo Borromeo in Prayer by Pietro D'Asaro (1579-1647), and the Adoration of the Child probably by Pompeo Buttafuoco (1578-1645).
Ferries to Lampedusa (one of the Pelagian Islands) leave from Agrigento.
You can find more local travel ideas in the Sicily guide.