Valley of the Temples, Agrigento, Sicily

 

The Valley of the Temples is the world's largest archaeological site. It has some of the best-preserved Greek temples anywhere. It's a UNESCO World Heritage Site. What it's not, is a valley. It's located along a high ridge facing the modern city of Agrigento.

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And no, I have not found a coherent explanation of how it got to be named Valley; it's only one of Agrigento's many mysteries, which include actual information about which gods were worshipped in which temples. The names we call the temples by are just guesses; the Temple of Concordia, one of the best preserved, is called that because the word appeared on a nearby inscription.

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The archaeological park is huge; it covers almost 1300 hectares—the whole area of the ancient city—the vast majority of which has not been excavated. It lies there, under the surface, under farmland and open fields. Perhaps someday, funds and interest will come together at the same time! The area is so large that the best way to see it is to park your car and take a 2 km taxi ride to the top and begin walking your way down.

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As we did, we found many extensive signs explaining what we were seeing, or at least what someone thought we were seeing. I say that, looking as I write, at a photo of one sign describing the arcosolia, the arched niches you see in the pictures. It explains that they are believed, but without much evidence, to date to the early Christian age.

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Or, equally with little evidence, 18th century scholars believed they were Roman, only to be tut-tutted in the 19th century by a scholar, equally sure of himself, who insisted they had been used by ancient Greeks at the time Agrigento was founded as a Greek colony in the 6th century BC.

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Some of the confusion is probably due to the fact that until the 19th century, no one thought of the buildings on the hill and under its soil as a precious archaeological site. Century after century, it served mostly as a place to harvest stone for building, to find shelter and raise small crops, and other purposes. The nearby port of Porto Empedocle is said to have been built mostly with such stones.

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Nevertheless, it's a fascinating place to walk; its present state seems serene and timeless. That's actually a bit of an illusion; over the past few years, the city and the park administration won court fights and were able to clear the site of hundreds of illegally built houses and sheds, a few of which remain, hardly distinguishable as modern.

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The early diggers and discoverers in the 19th century brought the area to public attention, and began to give names and guesswork to what they had found. They also did a certain amount of restoration work on some of the buildings, unfortunately without any real knowledge of what fit where. Sort of like assembling IKEA furniture without a diagram and not all the parts.

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When the Valley was put up for approval as a UNESCO site, the submission that was accepted made clear that restoration that didn't meet modern standards of how to do it, was to be redone. 

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After the Greeks, came the Romans. For them, it was an important port on routes from Africa to Rome, as well as for the export of produce from Sicily. In Christian times, Agrigento continued to grow on the hill, behind its strong walls. But sometime before the 10th century, most of the city's activity had moved a distance away, to where the city is now, and the Valley sank into obscurity.

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Much of the focus for visitors seems to be on the temple called Concordia, which is perhaps the best preserved, largely because it was heavily vandalized by an early Christian bishop who made it his own by throwing out the 'pagan' gods and turning it into a church that was active into the 11th century. That, at least, kept it standing while its fellows crumbled to fragments.

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The Temple of Concordia has two 'modern' companions. The most recent is a statue by the late sculptor Igor Mitoraj. He called it Ikaro (or Icarus); it fits with his constant theme of the impermanence of human endeavor. Comically, it's often referred to as a statue of a fallen angel, and in one published source it's identified as the remains of an ancient statue.

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The other, slightly less modern, element is an 800-year-old olive tree.

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But the temples are not all that's been in the Valley of Temples for a long time: a roadside sign calls attention to the native goats, once common and now endangered. An organization is raising funds for their support. In typical fashion for Agrigento, the goats are also a mystery. They are originally from Northern Afghanistan or Baluchistan, but opinion is divided on whether they arrived during Greek times, or were introduced when Muslims ruled Sicily in the 8th century.

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One of the most important figures in the 20th century history of the valley was an English Navy officer and amateur archaeologist, Alexander Hardcastle, who became fascinated with the area during World War I. In 1920, he moved to Agrigento, built a house (below) called Villa Aurea, and began spending on digging up walls and re-erecting columns.

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These are some of the columns he had re-erected from parts where they had fallen. His house is now a research and education center, and its gardens are open to the public.

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This one is alleged to be the remains of the Temple of Castor and Pollux, but it's equally possible that it isn't, and even that the stones may come from several different buildings.

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The best part of every trip is realizing that it has upset your expectations

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