Following the traveller’s trail through Sicily means you can’t resist street food, postcard beaches and a reflective mirror of blue surrounding the Italian island. But if you follow the trail far enough, you’ll be transported into the time of Greek mythology when Olympians were waging war against the Titans as looming temples stood in the distance. While the gods may be gone or lounging on Mount Olympus, the temples still stand as an ode to Ancient Greece in the Valle dei Templi. Valle dei Templi, also known as the Valley of the Temples, stands tall in Agrigento, Sicily on a sloping hill rather than an actual valley. This small Sicilian city, Agrigento, looms, similarly to its most popular tourist attraction, on a hilltop in southwest Sicily.
Considered one of the largest archaeological sites in the world, The Valley of the Temples is a blast from the past that will take you all day to explore its many temples, tombs and other remains from a time long long ago.
History of the Valley of the Temples
Well before the Roman Empire and the Italians created a stronghold, Sicily was under the rule of the Greeks, which is why present-day Sicily feels like a hybrid of the two cultures. Thus, Agrigento and the Valley of the Temples is actually a 2,000-year-old fossil from Ancient Greece. Around 580 B.C. the city of Akragas rose to prominence with over 500,000 inhabitants. Until the destruction by the Carthaginians in 406 B.C., Akragas was affluent and prosperous. Thereafter, Roman, Arab and Norman control were heavily sought and imposed at various points throughout the centuries because of Akragas’ geographic location overlooking the Strait of Sicily. Walking through present-day Agrigento and the Valley of the Temples feels like walking through a portal into each of those times and cultures. But until the 19th century, the Valley of the Temples and its rich history remained a hidden treasure from modern society.
Thanks to archaeologist Domenico Antonio Lo Faso Pietrasanta, Sicily has yet another means of enticement for travellers, while curious wanderers have another mystical ruin to explore with its seven impressive temples, and other artefacts and points of interest. Years and years after Mr Lo Faso Pietrasant excavated the beginnings of what is now known as the Valley of the Temples, the park was acknowledged as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1997 – and for good reason. It’s one of the most encompassing and expansive digging sites in the world, and even still has a lot left to unearth. And for some reason, the Valley of the Temples remained untouched by bombs in World War II even though Agrigento was heavily targeted by the Allies. Is there a past yet to be discovered lurking in the shadows of one of the many temples?
Speaking of these stoic masses of limestone overlooking Agrigento…
Temple of Asclepius
Built as early as the sixth century B.C., the Temple of Asclepius stands in honour of Asclepius, and quite possibly Apollo too. Asclepius was the Greek God of Medicine and the son of Apollo the Healer. Pilgrims sought the Temple of Asclepius in hopes of remedies, cures and purification rituals. Although not open to the public, it’s Doric-style, a Greek and roman architectural characteristic of simple circular columns, remains still creates an impression from a distance.
Temple of Castor and Pollux
This Temple is thought to stand in devotion to Demeter and Persephone and festivals honouring the mother/daughter goddesses of harvest and the Spring season. As an area open to the public in the northwest corner of the park, visitors are able to experience two very different histories. While the original foundation from the second half of the fifth century B.C. was completely destroyed, the partial reconstruction between 1836 and 1852 replicates its doric-style columns with four new columns and a beam. This Temple symbolizes the bridging of modernity with the tradition of ancient times.
Temple of Concordia
When visiting the Valley of the Temples you cannot miss the Temple of Concordia, the namesake of the Roman goddess of harmony, because the massive limestone structure stands as tall as the goddess Athen when she led soldiers into battle. It is frozen in 440 B.C. as one of the best-preserved Greek temples in the entire world – it’s only superior rival being the Parthenon in Athens. It’s so well preserved partially because the bishop of Agrigento in the sixth century converted the temple into a Christian basilica dedicated to apostles Peter and Paul, which subsequently helped it avoid destruction during the destruction of the Roman Empire. With only its roof missing, there are 78 columns total measuring about 20 feet (6 meters) vertically that are detailed intricately with flutes and ridges. Its highest point stands 55 feet (17 meters) tall! You can also find a weathered statue of Icarus at the foot of the Temple of Concordia, probably admiring its mystical presence just like the rest of the tourists. The piece of art by Polish artist Igor Mitoraj is the only installation remaining from a 2011 exhibit focusing on modern interpretations of classical styles from Ancient Greece – there were 17 others.
Temple of Olympian Zeus
While the elements and time have not been as kind to the Temple of Olympian Zeus, it is still a crucial stop along your Valley of Temples tour. In 480 B.C. the Temple of Olympian Zeus towered and shone above all of the other Doric temples just as the Olympian god did amongst the other gods, goddesses and titans. In celebration, the Temple of Olympian Zeus rose when Agrigento fended off the Carthaginians at Himera. The temple’s spirit still stands through the remains that tourists can openly view at the Valley of the Temples. The remains include two stone giants, a few Doric half-columns and five steps. Within the park, the temple is housed in Olympieion field, where you can also wander amongst a sanctuary, a holy enclosure and a tholos – simply, just more portals into the past you can enjoy.
Temple of Hera
The Temple of Hera is also known as the Temple of Juno but either way, the temple honours the same goddess of marriage, birth and protection. She was also the Queen of the Gods and Zeus’ counterpart. Just as the goddess on Mount Olympus, the Temple of Hera is perched high on a platform observing from the park’s highest point. As an appendage of Ancient Greece and 450 B.C., the withstanding artefact stands at the most eastern point of the park with 30 doric-style columns perched on its pedestal watching the throngs of explorers admire its impressive presence amongst the other temples dotting the hillside.
Temple of Heracles
A dedication to Heracles (also known as Hercules), the son of Zeus and one of the greatest heroes in Greek mythology, the Temple of Heracles is quite fittingly one of the grander fixtures in the Valley of the Temples. As one of the oldest temples dating back to around 470 B.C., it has withstood the elements. From a damaging fire that the Romans later repaired and a destructive earthquake, only eight columns still remain. Although they stand just as proud and defined as their namesake. When looking upon this ancient mirror, you can only see the immense details of weathered history written in the columns, feel the heaviness of war sinking into the foundation and hear the stomping of Greek gods upon the Earth
Temple of Hephaestus
The Temple of Hephaestus is the great mystery of the Valley of the Temples. Dating back to the fifth century B.C. with very little remains and an unknown deity. While it only offers two columns to marvel, it makes up for with its aura of mystery as one of the least preserved sites. Go to the Valley of Temples to try to find out how the Temple of Hephaestus found its place in Ancient Greek society.
What Else to Explore:
While the temples usually get the most attention, hence the name Valley of the Temples, this Sicilian must-do has plenty to do beyond columns and gods. Like mentioned previously, Valley of the Temples is very easily an entire day kind of trip. After you’re done peering up at the Temple of Hera, you can meander through the Paleo-Christian Necropolis imagining the buried stories of those in the tombs. And if not too much of a mood killer, find the Necropoli Giambertoni. Several sarcophagi, or the beautifully detailed coffin-like resting places most commonly associated with Ancient Egypt, have been discovered in this very burial ground. You can also find the Tomb of Theron near here, although you’ll have to view from afar as it is not open to the public. Try to spot a Carpa Girgentana or a very old goat breed that hail from the Middle East. They have large twisting horns with long white hair, and no one knows if they arrived with the Greeks or the Arabs in the 8th-century but spotting them in the Valley of the Temples is the intertwining of the present and the past. Also, make sure to suck in the sweet smells of the Garden of Kolymbethra, and its canopy of citrus and olive trees. Although be warned, there is a separate entrance fee of three euros for this experience – but it’s worth it!
Or find glimpses of the Church of Saint Blaise, Roman Hellenistic Quarter or the theatre.
And if you had the choice to time travel, and you would transport yourself to Ancient Greek and Roman times, then make sure to stop by the Pietro Griffo Regional Museum of Archaeology too! If you go do during the summer months, you also have the opportunity to experience this all at night when the temples are illuminated for all of Agrigento to see.
When you finally book your trip to Sicily be sure not to miss out on this excursion because the moment you enter the Valley of the Temples, you will walk among the myths and magic of gods and goddesses, you will feel the pull of ancient cultures and you will be small amongst the remains forever etched in Agrigento. But with such an adventure, comes great responsibility and here are a few things to remember to keep you happy, and those resting in the tombs even happier:
The Valley of the Temples is open all year round, but with different closing times at various points throughout the year. During the summer, the park is open from 8:30 a.m. and closes at 10:00 p.m. so tourists can catch the shining temples at night! The off-season’s hours are still generous as the park is open from 8:30 a.m. until 7:00 p.m. You do have to buy tickets to gain entry – adult prices are 10 euros, while children under 18 get in for free. Tickets can be bought at the Porta Quinta Sant’Anna or Temple of Juno entrance. These entrances also have parking, which is two euros ahead. Speaking of driving, if you don’t have a car don’t worry! There are buses in Agrigento that can drop you off at the top of the hill or snag a taxi for only a few euros. For those up for a lot of walking, the Valley of the Temples is also a manageable feat from town. The entire park is about 1.5 miles or 2.5 kilometres with a lot to see so be prepared to walk, but if you’re unable or just not feeling the hike then you can pay a small fee for a bus to bring you up and down the hill.
And the best times to visit are either during the offseason to avoid crowds and the summer heat, or if you just need that summer getaway then be sure to get to the Valley of the Temples early in the morning or later at night.
But either way, just get to the Valley of the Temples as soon as you can – it’s worth it!