AGRIGENTO, ANCIENT AKRAGAS, A GREEK CITY
by Jeremy Dummett
(Extract from Sicily, Island of Beauty and Conflict)
Agrigento is a hilltop town and provincial capital, with a population of 60,000, located close to Sicily’s southern coast. It is famous for being the site of Akragas, which in the fifth century BC was one of the largest Greek cities on the island. The legacy of Akragas is an array of imposing Doric temples, among the finest around the Mediterranean to have survived from antiquity. Agrigento is a busy place, Sicily’s top tourist attraction, with over 850,000 visitors in 2017. It was made a World Heritage site by UNESCO in 1997.
Over the centuries, the city has had several names. The Greeks called it Akragas, the Romans Agrigentum and the Arabs Kerkent, which in Italian became Girgenti. In 1927, Mussolini decreed that it should be called Agrigento. The modern town, which is set apart from the main site, suffers from bad planning and ugly apartment blocks, but is worth visiting for its historic centre and the remains from the Greek era. Visitors are well served by a variety of hotels on the slopes below the town.
Agrigento overlooks the Valley of the Temples, the archaeological park containing the temples. The view from the hills above has enchanted visitors for centuries. Edward Hutton, who was here in the 1920s, recorded: “There can be few more wonderful sights left in the world than the spectacle which lies before one from the hills of Girgenti…You look down over a sea of almond blossom to a line of temples”. Today, this view is particularly evocative seen floodlit by night, with the temples silhouetted against the background of the sea.
The ancient city
Akragas was one of the later Greek cities to be established in Sicily, its foundation taking place, according to Thucydides, in 580 BC. Its founders were Aristonous and Pystilus and the city took its name from the river nearby. Colonists for the new settlement came from Gela and from the islands of Rhodes and Crete.
The site was chosen for its fertile land, the supply of fresh water, the proximity of a small port and for the protection offered by a steep rock formation to the north. Below this formation, the land sloped down to the sea with a ridge halfway down divided by two rivers, the Hypsas to the west and the Akragas to the east. This location placed the settlement some five kilometres inland from the sea, about halfway along the south coast between the cities of Gela and Selinus.
An acropolis was built on the rocky hill known as the Rupe Atenea (Rock of Athena), containing a sacred enclosure with temples to Zeus and Athena. This was the settlement’s original site, from where it gradually spread down the hill into the valley with residential districts and public buildings. The ridge across the valley became the location for the city’s principal temples. The city’s perimeter, from the acropolis above to the ridge below, was defended by strong walls interspersed with towers and gateways.
The Akragantines were a remarkable people who created a magnificent city in a short period of time. Their prosperity was built on their agricultural produce which they traded with Carthage. As Diodorus noted, the city possessed extensive vineyards and olive groves, the produce from which was sold to Carthage. As Libya’s agriculture was undeveloped at this stage, the Akragantines were able to build a highly profitable export trade.
Their wealth allowed them to develop their interests in the arts, as demonstrated by their architecture and sculpture. Literature also played its part, for both the Greek poets Pindar and Simonides spent time here. The city was represented by emblems which appeared on their coins. The first was an eagle, the sacred bird of Zeus, representing the rocky hill on which the acropolis stood. The second was a freshwater crab, representing the river Akragas and the river god of the same name. Later, another emblem was added to the coinage, a racing chariot, representing the city’s status as a participant in the Olympic Games.
The archaeological park
The ancient city occupied part of the rocky hill as well as the land between the two rivers, today’s Sant’Anna and San Biago, which meet near the coast to flow into the sea. It is a complex site, with the location of the Greek acropolis now occupied by the modern town, and the slopes below filled with modern hotels. Busy roads and car parks cut across the valley, making it difficult to identify the contours of the ancient city. The archaeological park, known as the Valley of the Temples, contains most of the ancient remains.
Several of the most important monuments are connected by the Via Sacra, a path reserved for pedestrians which crosses the valley. At its western end lies a group of temples, the most notable of which is the Temple of Zeus, the Olympieion. This was the crowning glory of Akragas, the largest Doric temple ever built, demonstrating according to Diodorus, “the grand manner of the men of that day”. It was larger than the Parthenon in Athens, which it predated by some twenty years. Between its columns, gigantic male statues, known as telamones, were incorporated to assist in supporting the roof. Diodorus described pediments in which scenes from the battle of the gods and the fall of Troy were portrayed. Only an impression can be gained of the temple’s original magnificence, for today it lies in ruins, its huge blocks of stone strewn across the ground. Its destruction, which began with the Carthaginians, was completed by earthquakes and pillaging in the eighteenth century to build the harbour at Porto Empledocle. The temple dates from around 480-470, probably started before the battle of Himera, mostly built by Carthaginian slaves following the battle and never fully completed.
Shrines which lie nearby formed the sanctuary of the Chthonic Divinities, gods who lived beneath the earth, whose columns became a symbol of classical Sicily. Its origin is probably pre-Greek, part of an earlier Sicel site. The remains of the Temple of Castor and Pollux, or Discouri, can also be found here.
At the start of the Via Sacra, a footbridge leads to the Temple of Heracles, which lies largely in ruins, in which traces of fire can be seen. It dates from around 460. Nine of the temple’s columns are standing, eight of them thanks to Hardcastle’s restoration work. Further down the Via Sacra stands the Villa Aurea, with bougainvillea overflowing its garden walls, the home of Alexander and Henry Hardcastle in the 1920s. Today it is used for cultural events and special exhibitions. Alexander’s bust stands in the garden.
Beyond the villa rises the magnificent outline of the Temple of Concord, the most celebrated of all the site’s monuments, dating from 450-440. It is one of the best-preserved Doric temples in existence, with all 34 of its columns and its pediments, in place. Its preservation was due to having been converted into a Christian church in the Byzantine era. The name Concord comes from a Latin inscription found nearby which has no connection with the temple. The god or goddess, to whom the temple was dedicated, is unknown.
The Temple of Hera Lacinia, towards the end of the Via Sacra, is partly in ruins with 25 of its original 34 columns standing. A classic Doric building, it was built in 460-440 and shows signs of burning. Smaller and earlier than the Temple of Concord, it follows a similar design.
To the north of the Via Sacra are two monuments celebrating Demeter, goddess of the earth, sacred to the ancient Greeks who were dependent upon the harvest for their livelihoods. The Temple of Demeter is partially incorporated in the medieval church of San Biago. Its origin was established by busts of Demeter, and her daughter Persephone, which were found on the site. The temple may have been built by Theron in the aftermath of the battle of Himera in 480 BC. Hardcastle excavated the site and discovered numerous votive items. He also uncovered nearby a paved road with deep incisions cut by the wheels of passing chariots.
Steps located near the church lead down to an earlier monument, the sanctuary of Demeter, another site sacred to the goddess, reminiscent of the sanctuary of Malaphorus in Selinunte. When discovered, it was filled with votive offerings and statuettes. It probably dates from before the founding of Akragas and served as a shrine to the goddess until the sacking of the city in 406.
To the north of the Via Sacra, near the church of San Nicola, lies an extensive enclosure containing the remains of the Hellenistic and Roman period. The residential quarter uncovered relates to the time of the Roman occupation, from the second century BC to the fifth AD. This was the location of Roman Agrigentum.
In 2017, came the news that archaeologists had been waiting for. Traces of a Greek theatre had been found close to the Hellenistic district. The announcement claimed that a theatre from the Hellenistic period had been identified, with a structure extending in a semi-circle facing the valley and the sea. Excavations to unearth the theatre are continuing, aided by archaeologists from Catania and Bari.