• Jenny

Greek History in Sicily | Agrigento and the Valley of the Temples

Did you know that some of the most impressive and best preserved Greek temples are actually on the Italian island of Sicily?

Since I’m a teacher and a history nerd, we must as always start with a little background. In Greek mythology, Agrigento was discovered by Daedalus after his fateful flight from Crete where his son Icarus flew too close to the sun and fell to his death after the wax on his wings melted. Some versions of the story say Daedalus's famous landing site is located just outside the modern day city of Agrigento, known as the Valley of the Temples. A sculpture depicting the downfall of Icarus lays in a tragic position on the ground in front of the site’s most well preserved temple, the Temple of Concordia.

Icarus's broken wings prop him up on the ground outside the Temple of Condordia

In reality Agrigento, or Akragas as it was called in Greek, was founded by settlers from Rhodes and Crete around the year 580 BC. Although it is located very close to the sea, the original inhabitants of Agrigento did not come directly by water, perhaps due to the steep, rocky cliffs along this particular stretch of Sicily’s southern coastline. Agrigento was actually settled by people who came by land from the nearby city of Gela, which had been founded 100 years earlier. This left Agrigento to be the last major Greek colony in Sicily to be settled.

Agrigento sits majestically atop a plateau overlooking the Mediterranean Sea, with two nearby rivers, the Hypsas and the Akragas, its name being derived from the latter. The second part of its modern name comes from a hill to the north called Colle di Girgenti. Agrigento had its heyday during the golden age of Ancient Greece and was widely known for its inhabitants’ extravagant lifestyle and contributions to philosophy and the arts. Most notably, Agrigento was the birthplace of the philosopher and scientist Empedocles. During this time, historians estimate its population to have been between 200,000 and 800,000 people! Can anyone say "Ancient Party Town"?

Although many of the other Greek cities in Sicily suffered from the wars that erupted between Athens (Greece) and Syracuse (Sicily), Agrigento remained neutral and thrived until almost 400 BC, when the Carthaginians invaded and all but destroyed it.

Agrigento is not the bustling metropolis it once was; however, that’s a part of its modern day charm. Cobblestoned streets that meander down between tall, narrow houses with painted doors and laundry hanging from balconies welcome you as if you’ve come home. Street side cafes, pastry shops and restaurants with stunning views of the surrounding valley fulfill your every gastronomic desire. Medieval churches restored with baroque facades are remnants of times of old, while modern street art installations remind you that this ancient city still has a vibrant future.

How to Plan Your Weekend in Agrigento

Friday: The Valley of the Temples

You absolutely can not visit Agrigento without stopping at the Valley of the Temples, a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of the most impressive and best preserved archaeological sites of Greek civilization in the world.

Temple of Juno, Valley of the Temples

The Valley of the Temples refers to the remains of the ancient city of Akragas, which as we learned earlier became what is known today as modern day Agrigento. This extensive archaeological site is comprised not only of temples dedicated to mythical gods and goddesses, but also the remnants of city walls and gates, a rock sanctuary, fallen statues, evidence of underground tombs, and an Archaeological Museum built on the site of a ruined Cistercian monastery.

One of the most interesting aspects of this site is the stark contrast of evidence from various civilizations spanning across thousands of years, all sitting side by side. A temple built to worship Greek gods next to a medieval church, just down the path from Roman catacombs and a Christian monastery. Talk about a hodge-podge!

For me, the most impressive of a