Everything You Need to Know About the Valley of the Temples in Sicily
Arguably Sicily’s star attraction, the Valley of the Temples, or Valle dei Templi, is an archaeological site in Agrigento on the island’s southern coast. Listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997, it is considered one of the finest examples of Greek architecture outside of Greece itself. Its story and history match its grandeur, and visitors can be treated to fascinating learning experiences and stunning photo opportunities.
WHAT IS THE VALLEY OF THE TEMPLES?
Funnily enough, the temples do not actually sit in a valley as you might expect, but on a ridge just outside the town of Agrigento. The site consists of eight temples and various other remains: the Temple of Hera, the Temple of Concordia, the Temple of Heracles, the Temple of Olympian Zeus, the Temple of Castor and Pollux, the Temple of Hephaestos and the Temple of Demeter can all be found in the same area, while the Temple of Asclepius can be found on the banks of the Akragas river.
Southern Italy once had several colonies of city-states belonging to ancient Greece. They were known collectively as Magna Graecia (Great Greece). They were formed to reflect the Greeks culturally. This included the building of temples dedicated to Greek Gods, and though the Greeks are long gone from the land, their impressive architecture remains 2,500 years later.
Not only are the temples an impressive site, they are an invaluable source for historians to learn about the culture, traditions and talents of the Greek people who developed the area into one of the leading cities of the Mediterranean world. They remain to this day one of the finest testaments to the Greeks, and one of the best preserved archaeological sites from the time. Some consider the site second only to Athens’ Acropolis in its significance as an archaeological site associated with the ancient Greeks.
THE HISTORY OF THE VALLEY OF THE TEMPLES
The city of Akragas was founded as a colony in the 6th Century BC and developed into a leading city of Magna Graecia during the golden age of Ancient Greece. Estimates put the population of the city at anywhere between 200,000 and 800,000 people. Now known as Agrigento, the importance of the city is highlighted by the temples for which its modern-day fame can be attributed.
Settlers, mainly from Rhodes and Crete, initially benefitted from rich lands in the region ideal for cultivating olives, grapes and cereal. This led to the city prospering and developing into one of the most culturally advanced Greek cities in the Mediterranean region. The temples themselves were built between 510BC and 430BC.
True of many successful areas and cities, its prospering glory brought trouble and rivalries as well. Dionysius of Siracusa allied with Hannibal and the Carthaginians to lay siege to Akragas in 406BC. The city fell after eight months of resistance and its citizens were removed.
Around 264-262BC, Akragas became embroiled in the First Punic War when it was disputed between the Romans and the Carthaginians. The Romans laid siege to the city and captured it, defeating a Carthaginian relief force. However, disputes continued, and it returned to Carthaginian hands in 255BC, before Rome was handed control of Punic Sicily and with it Akragas following the Treaty of Lutatius.
It was not long before strife was brought to the city again, though, and much damage was caused during the Second Punic War with Rome and Carthage fighting to control it. Eventually, in 210BC, the Romans captured the city once more and renamed it Agrigentum. Although it remained a largely Greek speaking community, it prospered under Roman rule. Its citizens were given full Roman citizenship following Julius Caesar’s death in 44BC.
After the Western Roman Empire fell, the region passed through the hands of the Vandalic Kingdom, Ostrogothic Kingdom of Italy and the Byzantine Empire. For reasons unknown, though speculation suggests to avoid damaging coastal raids of the Saracens, the people in the area moved to the acropolis atop the hills of the city.
The Normans conquered Sicily and the population of modern-day Agrigento dwindled before a resurgence following the Medieval period. When European explorers arrived from the late 18th Century onwards, they were shocked to discover such archaeological heritage. The Valley of the Temples are today considered one of the most important testimonies of ancient classical culture and are without equal in Sicily.
VISITING THE VALLEY OF THE TEMPLES
Agrigento, though not as attractive as other Sicilian cities, attracts large numbers of tourists due to being the gateway to the Valley of the Temples.
The temples can be found less than two miles from the city, so certainly within walking distance for many visitors, although the Sicilian heat can make it seem a longer walk than it is.
Most visitors choose to take the bus from Agrigento. The Number 1 bus runs regularly and is a cheap, reliable option for travel. Taxis are an alternative option, although they will be the more expensive choice.
Tickets to the temple are inexpensive, costing roughly twelve euros with free admission to under eighteens. Fast-track tickets for those wishing to skip the queues are available online in advance and audio guides are an optional extra for a small cost.
The temples are open to visitors every day of the week and have longer opening hours during the summer season to allow visitors to experience sunset among the remains.
The Valley of Temples park is split into two zones: the East Zone and the West Zone. It covers a large area, although it is possible to pay for a shuttle service if mobility is an issue.
WHAT TO SEE AND DO WHEN VISITING THE VALLEY OF THE TEMPLES
The Valley is home to eight temples and other remains, as well as a museum and the Kolymbethra Gardens. Here are the very best things you must make sure you check out when visiting.
Temple of Hera
Also known as Juno Lacinia or Temple D, the Temple of Hera was built sometime around the year 450BC. Signs of a fire have led historians to believe the temple was damaged in the Siege of Akragas in 406BC. Originally dedicated to the Greek God Hera and later to the Roman God Juno, the temple’s northern colonnade is completely preserved.
Temple of Concordia
The largest and best-preserved Doric temple in Sicily and one of the best-preserved Greek temples anywhere in the world, the Temple of Concordia was named after the Roman Goddess of harmony due to a Roman-era Latin inscription found nearby. Built between 440 and 430BC, the temple was converted into a Christian Basilica in the 6th Century and dedicated to the apostles Peter and Paul.
Temple of Heracles
Widely believed to be the oldest of the temples in the valley due to its stylistic characteristics, it is thought that the Temple of Heracles dates back to the latter years of the 6th Century BC. Now consisting of just eight columns, much of the structure was destroyed in an earthquake.
Temple of Olympian Zeus
Intended to be the largest temple in the valley, construction was never completed and what did stand before now lies in ruins. The Temple of Olympian Zeus was built in 480BC to celebrate victory over Carthage. Its most unique point was its use of large atlases, a support sculpted in the shape of a man rather than a traditional column. It is thought by some that the temple was possibly built with the intention of displaying the extravagant capabilities of the Greeks at the time.
The Temple of Castor and Pollux
Now considered a modern symbol of Agrigento, the Temple of Castor and Pollux has only four remaining columns. Castor and Pollux are twin half-brothers in both Greek and Roman mythology. They are both sons of Leda, but Castor is the mortal son of Tyndareus, King of Sparta, while Pollux was the divine son of Zeus.
Temple of Hephaestos
Also known as the Temple of Vulcan, the deity to who this temple was dedicated is unknown. It dates to around 430BC and apart from four steps and two columns, little remains of the temple today.
Temple of Demeter
Believed to have been built between 480 and 470BC, the base and outer walls of the temple are to some extent still preserved. The temple was used as a sacred enclosure and combined with adjacent structures. Archaeologists have made significant finds within the boundaries of the Temple of Demeter, including busts suspected to represent the goddess of the harvest.
Temple of Asclepius
Located in the middle of the San Gregorio plain, the Temple of Asclepius is a small temple dating back to the late 5th Century BC. The sanctuary did house a bronze statue of Apollo, a gift to the city by Scipio, a Roman General often considered one of the greatest military commanders in history.
Regional Archaeology Museum
The museum is one of the most important and popular museums to visit in all of Sicily. Eighteen rooms consisting of over 5,600 artefacts tell the story of the Agrigentan territory from its beginnings to the end of the Greek-Roman period. With information provided about the artefacts in Italian and English, the museum is the ideal place to learn of the history of the region as well as how our modern day understanding of the temples and artefacts has been formed.
Found at the heart of the Valley of the Temples, the Kolymbethra Gardens stretch for over five hectares. A wide variety of fruit grows within the gardens, with bananas, mulberries, citrus fruits and pomegranates among others. Almond trees and olive trees line the foot of limestone cliffs. The archaeological site is of great historical and natural interest and a true picture perfect for relaxing in.
VALLEY OF THE TEMPLES FACTS
- The Valley of the Temples has been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1997.
- At around 1,300 hectares, the park is considered one of the largest archaeological sites in the world.
- The term ‘Valley’ is a misnomer. The site is actually located on a ridge outside the town of Agrigento.
- Archaeologist Domenico Antonio Lo Faso Pietrasanta (1783-1863), the Duke of Serradifalco from 1809 to 1812, was responsible for much of the excavation and restoration of the temples.
- Many of the names of the temples arise from tradition rather than inscription.
- Agrigento, the modern name of the Akragas, was a prominent Greek colony and, at its peak, the largest and most prosperous city in the Mediterranean.
- When the Greeks colonised parts of Sicily, they brought their culture, traditions and religion to the island. This included the construction of temples and the Doric style which can be seen in the Valley of the Temples.
- The best-preserved temple is the Temple of Concordia, which avoided the demolition suffered by other temples after being converted into a church during times of Roman inhabitation.
- There are still many secrets hidden in the area known as the Valley of the Temples. Some parts of the site reman unexcavated and therefore not fully explored.
TIPS FOR VISITING THE VALLEY OF THE TEMPLES
- Sicily can get very hot. It is, of course, one of the many attractions to the island. However, you need to be prepared for the heat when you are exploring the Valley of the Temples as there is limited shade amongst the ruins. Take a hat, wear sun cream and make sure you drink plenty of water.
- If possible, avoid visiting during the hottest times of the day (12-3pm).
- Visiting the temples at different times can give you a different taste and atmosphere for them. For example, if you can visit at sunset, you will be treated to sublime views and impressive backdrops.
- Try and plan your trip to allow times of rest along the way. The park covers a big area and, combined with the heat, can be energy-sapping for visitors of all ages and capabilities.
- Remember that the ruins are very old and of huge historical significance. Though many have withstood huge impacts over time, they may be fragile and all park rules should be respected.
- You can skip the queues by purchasing specific tickets ahead of time online. Be aware that some attractions can come at an added cost.
- The park is split across two zones and if you are driving, you may have to walk back on yourself to return to your vehicle. This will increase the time you spend at the park, and the amount of ground you need to cover.
- Different buses run to different points outside the park at varying frequencies. Check timetables before you travel to avoid lengthy waits before or after your visit.
- You should allow around three hours for your visit.
An outstanding example of Greek art and architecture, the Valley of the Temples is a truly unmissable and invaluable experience for any visitor to Sicily. With so much to offer and such an extraordinary history, they feature near the top of any ancient history enthusiasts to see list and represent an opportunity for an enviable trip.