There are few places in the world as diverse and rich in history as Sicily. You could spend weeks exploring this island and never run out of things to do. Fantastic beaches, perched little villages, exciting metropolis and an abundance of archeological sites. You may have seen ancient ruins before, but Sicily’s Valley of the Temples (Valle dei Tempi) will simply astound you. Along with the archeological remains in Taormina, Segesta and Syracusa, this incredibly well preserved series of temples and relics is one of Italy’s most impressive archaeological sites. It is also the finest example of Greek Doric temples found anywhere in the world, outside of Greece itself.
The temples date back to the 5th and 6th century B.C., when the ancient Greek city of Acragas (also known as Agrigentum) was one of the most powerful cities in the Mediterranean and the leading city of Magna Graecia. Huge walls once surrounded the city of Acragas and the temples that spread along a hilltop overlooking the sea.
Sicily’s Valley of the Temples is overwhelming in its grandeur. Almost as if giants lived here. Imposing sandstone columns frame the temples, leaving a void space in the absence of the walls that got lost to erosion and war. As you walk through this extraordinary site of megalithic structures you can’t help but wonder how were they ever constructed? Who were the people who built these temples? And what inspired them to erect such monumental places of worship?
- 1 History of the Valley of the Temples, Sicily
- 2 What to See at the Valley of the Temples in Agrigento
- 3 Practical Information for Visiting Sicily’s Valley of the Temples
History of the Valley of the Temples, Sicily
The city of Acragas (today’s Agrigento) was founded by the Greeks around 580 B.C. Due to its strategic position – overlooking the Strait of Sicily – Acragas was a sought after prize. Therefore, over the centuries the city was conquered by Carthaginians, Romans, Arabs and Normans. All these civilizations left their mark on Agrigento and the Valley of the Temples.
The Valley of the Temples in Agrigento contains the remains of seven temples: Temple of Concordia, Temple of Juno, Temple of Heracles, Temple of Olympian Zeus, Temple of Castor and Pollux, Temple of Asclepius, and Temple of Vulcan. Six of them are set along the crest of the hill and one – the Temple of Asclepius– is located on the banks of the Acragas River.
The archeological site was discovered at the beginning of the 19th century. Much of the excavation and restoration of the temples was due to the efforts of Domenico Antonio Lo Faso Pietrasanta, a Sicilian archaeologist. There is still a lot to be excavated in Agrigento, so one can only imagine how grandiose this place must have looked in the ancient world.
During World War II when Italy was invaded, the allies bombed heavily the modern town of Agrigento. Thankfully though, the Valley of the Temples was spared by the wrath of the US and British forces.
What to See at the Valley of the Temples in Agrigento
Sicily’s Valley of the Temples is actually not a valley, but a hilltop. The visit starts at the eastern gate and follows a gentle downhill path till it reaches the base of the Temple of Juno. From here it starts climbing up and then continues slightly downhill for two kilometers.
As you walk along the path you can see remains of the old Greek city wall that once surrounded the temples and the town of Acragas (today’s Agrigento). Originally the temples were covered in marble and painted in bright colors, but today only the limestone remains. Just three of the seven temples are well preserved. The others are in ruins, as their stones were used to build the nearby Porto Empedocle.
Temple of Concordia
The largest and best-preserved structure in the Valley of the Temples is the Temple of Concordia ( 440–430 B.C.) It is almost entirely intact – only its roof is missing. Except for the Parthenon in Athens, there is no better preserved Greek Doric Temple anywhere in the world. The temple sits on a solid base designed to overcome the unevenness of the rocky terrain. In the 6th century the bishop of Agrigento converted the temple into a Christian basilica dedicated to the apostles Peter and Paul. That helped it survive the destruction of pagan places of worship that took place during the persecution of pagans, in the late Roman Empire.
Temple of Juno (or Hera Lacinia)
Although not the best preserved, the Temple of Juno (450 B.C.) has the most impressive position in the Valley of the Temples: high up on a rectangular platform, 120 meters above sea level. Today 30 columns of it are standing, but only sixteen with their capitals.
Temple of Heracles (or Hercules)
The Temple of Heracles (about 470 B.C.) is the second-largest temple at Agrigento. In antiquity the temple was famous for its statue of Hercules which a notorious art thief attempted to steal around 73 B.C. The Temple was damaged by fire at some point in antiquity and later renovated by the Romans.
Temple of Olympian Zeus
The Temple of Zeus was once the most grandiose Doric temple in the ancient world. Unfortunately not much of it remains today. The temple was built around 480 BC to celebrate Agrigento’s victory over the Carthaginians at Himera, but was never fully completed. All that’s left of it is a large base with five steps, an external wall with Doric half columns, and two stone giants that once stood upright. Now they are both lying on the ground.
Temple of Castor and Pollux (or the Temple of the Dioscuri)
The Temple of Castor and Pollux was actually completely destroyed. The northwest corner that can be seen today is but a mere reconstruction from the early 19th century, created with pieces from various other temples. It includes four columns and a beam. The temple was Doric, with 6 x 13 columns, dating from the 5th century B.C.
Other Remains in Sicily’s Valley of the Temples
Besides the temples, the archeological site contains a number of ancient houses, tombs, and monuments. At the western tip of the Temple of Concordia there are parts of an ancient burial place. The burial holes that date from the late-Roman and Byzantine eras, have been built on some old cisterns.
A little further away in the valley you can see a square mausoleum. For a long time historians believed this was the tomb of Agrigento’s tyrant, Theron. However, more recent research proved that the tomb was actually newer (from the 2nd century B.C.). Nonetheless, the tomb kept its name.
The Ancient Goats of Agrigento
As we were roaming the grounds of the Valley of the Temples, we noticed some strange looking goats grazing around. They looked like no other goats we have ever seen, with long white hair and spiraling twisted horns.
These are the ‘Capra Girgentana,’ an old goat breed that came from the Middle East. It is not clear if they arrived in Sicily with the Greeks, more than 2,500 years ago, or were brought here by the Arabs in the 8th century. Fact is that they became established in this part of the island and were once a very common domestic animal. However, the breed is near extinction today, as only a few hundred of them remain in Sicily.
Practical Information for Visiting Sicily’s Valley of the Temples
We arrived in Agrigento by car via SS189, as we were driving down from Palermo to the southeastern part of Sicily. The current city of Agrigento is perched atop a hill overlooking the Valley of the Temples. The temples can be spotted from the distance and they appear quite spectacular! There are two entrances for the archeological park. One is Porta Quinta in Contrada Sant’Anna, close to the Museum of Archeology. The other is the eastern entrance on Via Panoramica, next to the Temple of Juno. I suggest you use this one to start your visit at the Valley of the Temples.
Be advised that parking is not allowed along the road leading to the entrances. The area is patrolled by the police and you are very likely to get a parking fine. There are however parking lots next to both entrances, but they are difficult to spot.That’s mainly because they don’t look anything like parking lots, but rather like dirt fields next to the road. You’ll notice them only as you get within 50 feet from the entrance. Parking fee is €2.00/car.
If you don’t have a car, there is a bus from Agrigento that will drop you at the eastern entrance, next to the Temple of Juno. Or you can take a taxi for about €4. However, you can easily walk on Via Panoramica to this entrance. It’s an easy 20 minute downhill walk (3.3 km) from town. When you return to Agrigento, rather than coming back the same way and walking uphill, use the Porta Quinta entrance in Contrada Sant’Anna.
There is a visitor’s center, a snack bar and toilets in the park. There is also an Archaeological Museum that can be visited. If you want to visit both the museum and the archeological site, you should plan to spend the entire day in the Valley of the Temples.
What to Expect in the Archeological Park
There is a 2 km walk along the ridge top on which the main temples are located. Wear comfortable shoes as the terrain is rocky and uneven. If you visit Sicily’s Valley of the Temples in summer, be prepared for walking in treacherous heat. Luckily there is a small bus that drives people up and down the hill for 2 euros per person. However, the bus comes only every 20 minutes and is sometimes full. My advice would be to start your day as early as possible to avoid the heat. Also, plan to visit the temples in the morning when it’s cooler, and spend the afternoon in the museum.
Hours & Admission
The archeological park is open daily from 8:30 am until 7:00 pm and the entry fee is €10 for adults. For members of the European Union the fee is €5 and for local residents the fee is just €1. The fee to rent an audio guide is €6. Entrance fee for the Archeological Museum is €8.00, but you can buy a combined ticket which is a better deal, €13.50/person.
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