Akragas to the Greeks, Agrigentum to the Romans, Kerkent to the Arabs, Girgenti in the Middle Ages, and finally back to Agrigento on Mussolini's orders. A fragment of Pindar (119) praises Theron under whose rule Akragas reached its acme of prosperity - he and his son-in-law Gelon, tyrant of Syracuse defeated the Carthaginians at Himera in 480 BC (the same year that their compatriots in mainland Greece were beating back the Persians) - and who crowned his career with a victory in the chariot race at the Olympic Games in 476 BC:
Like Syracuse, the modern city occupies only a fraction of the land covered by ancient Akragas; it has a population of about 56,000 compared with a former 200,000. It was founded in about 580 BC from Gela - hence Pindar's reference to Rhodes, whence Gela itself had been founded. Its prosperity can be seen in the set of temples which were built in the 5th century BC along a low ridge marking the southern extent of the town - known today as the Valle dei Templi.
The best time to visit the temples in the early morning or at sunset - both for the light and the freedom from crowds - and they are at their best in early spring when the almond trees are flowering or late autumn (November, the alternative spring, my favorite time for visiting Sicily). And if you park at the eastern end near the Temple of Hera, you can even avoid the excessive car-parking charges (still, I hope!). The main ridge has free access - you have to pay to visit the Temple of Zeus and the western end of the site, for some strange reason.
Starting from the east, then: the Temple of Hera is a romantic ruin, dating from about 450 BC. The Temple of Concord (so-called: there's no evidence for its dedication) is the best preserved Greek temple anywhere: only the Hephaisteion in Athens can be compared (and is roughly contemporary with it - around 440 BC). Originally the honey-coloured sandstone would have been covered with stucco made with marble dust, to make it look more like a "proper" temple. We can be grateful to the splendidly-named Gregory of the Turnips (S. Gregorio delle Rape) Bishop of Agrigento for its excellent preservation: he turned it into a Christian church in the 6th century AD.
The Temple of Heracles is a ruin whose columns were re-erected in the 1920s; it's the oldest of the temples, and was originally mauch larger than the two already visited. Its main claim to fame is that it was from here that Verres attempted to steal the statue of Heracles in 73 BC: according to Cicero, the townspeople found out about his plot and stoned the soldiers he'd sent to remove it, thus saving it - which they'd been unable to do with the famous staute of Apollo (by Myron, no less) which Verres had already stolen from the Temple of Asclepius. (This was the second time it had been stolen - the Carthaginians had removed it in the sack of the city in 406 BC, and it had been brought back by Scipio Aemilianus in 146 BC.)
The Temple of Asclepius - quite small - dating from about 420 BC. It was from here that Verres purloined the statue of Apollo. Not much to see (excavations in progress): it's south of the main ridge: good views from there, however, back to the ridge. Close to the Temple of Heracles is the "Tomb of Theron" - it isn't: it is a Roman funerary monument. But it's understandable that the Agigentines should want it to be Theron's - he was by far their greatest and most successful ruler - and a benevolent one.
The mighty Temple of Zeus was never finished - it would have been the biggest temple ever built - covering an area (112.6 x 56 metres) almost large enough for a football (soccer) pitch , or to stable a jumbo jet. It's purpose was to commemorate victory over the Carthaginians at Himera in 480 BC, but it was still incomplete when the Carthaginians had their revenge and sacked Akragas in 406 BC - and since then earthquakes and stone-robbing have finished it off (much of the stone was taken to build the port of Porto Empedocle in the 18th century). Not that it is not still impressive: there is a single vast Doric capital to be seen amid the rubble - and in the centre, like Gulliver in the land of Lilliput, lies one of the 38 telamones which once helped support the walls - a unique feature of this temple. Gulliver is not the original but a copy - the actual one is in the museum. He is 7.6 metres tall.
The Temple of Castor and Pollux is a nonsense - assembled from various sources in the early 19th century; this has not stopped it adorning numerous posters as a symbol of ancient Sicily! In fact there were several temples in this area - among which were those originally in the Sanctuary of the Chthonic Deities (Dionysus, Demeter and Persephone/Kore). These were probably the earliest buildings on the site
The Temple of Hephaistos (two columns standing) is the other side of a ravine (through which the railway runs) - this little valley was once a garden with an artificial lake, to provide fish for Theron's dinners - the Kolymbetra, dug by Carthaginian prisoners captured at Himera, but later filled in. It has recently been restored, and opened as the Kolymbetra Garden.
A visit to the Museo Nazionale Archeologico is essential - it's a very fine one, even by Sicilian standards, which are extremely high (as you'll know if you've already visited Syracuse and Gela). Opposite the museum are extensive remains of the Hellenistic city - all to be absorbed before you climb up the hill to the modern/medieval city! The prize exhibit is the Telamon, but there are some wonderful red-figure vases (including pots by the Pan Painter, the Edinburgh Painter and the Leningrad Painter; the best is a massive volute crater depicting an Amazonomachia - including Penthesilea -, with a Centauromachia round the rim) and much else, all superbly arranged. From March 2006, visitors can have a robot as their guide. The robot - an innovation in museum technology - can navigate the museum smoothly without bumping into things, and deliver an enthusiastic commentary, which will eventually be available in languages besides Italian. Story here.
The Via Atenea is a fine street with pleasant bars and good shops - reminiscent of the Corso Vittorio Emanuele in Taormina. You will have earned a long sit here if you've visited the Temples! My diary (1993): "the centre of Agrigento is is smart and sophisticated - the height of Sicilian male fashion seems to be the English public school house-master look, with houndstooth sports jacket, cavalry twill trousers, cravat, cloth cap ...". Nothing much had changed when Leon and I had a protracted sit on the Via Atenea in 2001. It's an energetic but worthwhile stroll up to the top of the city (a taxing drive though!) up ramps, steps and steep, narrow streets. S. Maria dei Greci - like the Duomo at Syracuse - incorporates a Temple from the 5th century BC - columns can be seen inside and out. The huge Duomo is just a little further on.
Two great men came from Agrigento - Empedocles (who has unknowingly donated his name to the unwholesome Porto Empedocle which you can see from the Valle), the magician/philosopher (c.492 - 432 BC) who first postulated the four elements - earth, air, fire and water, and who allegedly died while exploring the crater of Mount Etna; and Luigi Pirandello (1867 - 1936) prolific author of Sei personaggi in cerca d' autore (Six persons in search of an author), written in 1921, and winner of the Nobel Prize for literature. His birthplace at Caos is now a small museum, and is worth a visit
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