Sicily’s Ancient Greek Ruins: Valley of the Temples

Light shining on Greek ruins at the Valley of the Temples
Light shines through a temple at the ancient Greek ruins of Agrigento

Sicily is an island steeped in ancient history and ruins of the past. Its identity relies heavily on narratives created by outside influences that have become part of the Sicilian story and of its people. Some of the grandest empires of the past laid claim to Sicily, scattering the land with the remnants of a vast and impressive multi cultural history.

Of all the cultures to leave a physical mark on Sicily, Ancient Greek ruins in particular dot the Sicilian landscape. The ancient Greek city of Akragas in what is now modern day Agrigento holds the mecca of all Sicilian Greek ruins – the stunning Valley of the Temples.

Temple of Castor and Pollux at Valley of the Temples
Temple of Castor and Pollux with a view of modern Agrigento in the background

Ancient Greek ruins are so common in Sicily that as a Sicilian native it is all too easy to take them for granted. They are literally everywhere on the island! I remember groaning when we went on family excursions to visit these wonders of the ancient world when I was an adolescent child. In some small way I appreciated them, but to be completely honest ruins DO all start to look the same to a 12 year old.

Only now as an adult living in a country where the architecture is relatively new, can I see the stupidity of my preteen self dragging her feet across the ancient soil of some of the most marvelous wonders of the world. Now I not only cherish the memories of those family excursions, I appreciate them in a new way. It is a lucky thing to grow up surrounded by all of that beauty and history.

Large doric columns in ruins at the Valley of the Temples
Doric columns lay in rubble at the Valley of the Temples

The Valley of the Temples, or Valle dei Templi in Italian, is an ancient site that truly shines, even in a place like Sicily where you may very well stumble across ruins on a walk in the country side. The site has grown into a major tourist destination and looks very different from when I visited as a kid, but its memorable impact is the same. It is nothing short of magical, a journey back in time as you walk in the steps of those who came ages before. The imagination ignites as you picture people of the past worshiping their gods in temples that were once at the height of Greek civilization.

The Land of Gods and Temples

Akragas was founded by the ancient Greeks around 582 BC and quickly became one of the largest Greek cities on the Mediterranean. Sitting on a hilltop, the site of the Valley of the Temples unwinds along a road littered with ruins and temples at every turn. A total of seven distinct doric style temples can be found at the UNESCO world heritage site: Temple of Concordia, Temple of Juno, Temple of Heracles, Temple of Zeus, Temple of Castor and Pollux, Temple of Vulcan and Temple of Asclepius.

Temple of Heracles at the Valley of the Temples in Agrigento
Temple of Heracles – Valley of the Temples in Agrigento, Sicily

The Temple of Heracles, although only partially intact, strikes a commanding presence. It is generally believed to be the oldest structure at the Valley of the Temples, and according to ancient history the god Heracles was particularly important to the people of Akragas. Heracles was the Greek predecessor to the Roman version Hercules, son of Zeus.

The Temple of Zeus was the largest of the temples, though now it’s easy to walk past while mistaking it for a pile of old rocks. The temple fell during an 18th century earthquake and most of its remnants were used to help construct nearby buildings. Scholars agree that even during its time the temple of Zeus was never fully completed, but still it must have been a site to behold. Unlike the other structures the temple of Zeus was held up by giant atlases, human-like figures in between the columns, whose arms bore the weight of the temple entablature.

Rubble from the fallen Temple of Zeus at the Valley of the Temples
Rubble from the fallen Temple of Zeus

Though some of the temples have been reduced to rubble, the most magnificent among them, the Temple of Concordia, is considered one of the best preserved Ancient Greek temples outside of the Parthenon in Athens. The temple served as a Christian church at one point in its history, a fact that helps to explain its excellent preservation.

The magestic Temple of Concordia at the Valley of the Temples
Temple of Concordia – Valley of the Temples

A stunning bronze statue of the fallen Icarus lies in front of the Temple of Concordia. Created by Polish artist Igor Mitoraj and added to the ancient site in 2011, the statue depicts the mythological story of Icarus at the moment of his demise. As the legend goes, Icarus flew on wings constructed of feathers and wax created by his father, Daedalus, as both attempted to flee the Greek island of Crete. Icarus ignored his father’s warning not to fly too close to the sun because the waxed wings would would melt, and he fell into the sea and drowned. While the mythology surrounding Icarus is varied, he is thought by some to have drowned on his way to Sicily.

Statue of Icarus at the Valley of the Temples in Agrigento
A bronze statue of the fallen Icarus lies in front of the Temple of Concordia at the Valley of the Temples
Closeup of the state of Icarus at Valley of the Temples
Detail of Icarus by artist Igor Mitoraj

A visit to Sicily’s Valley of the Temples is definitely one for the bucket list. Its beauty and history are easily appreciated by all and its lasting impact inspired a return visit for me recently. We visited in the late afternoon as the sun was just beginning to drop, creating the most gorgeous golden glow on the ruins and temple facades. By the time we reached the Temple of Concordia the sun was setting, and it was indescribably beautiful.

The Valley of the Temples also has night tours with the temples and ruins lit up in a stunning display. For information you can visit the Valley of the Temples website at http://www.valleyofthetemples.com/ and for more reading on ancient Agrigento you can visit https://www.ancient.eu/agrigento/


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