Valle di Templi

Location: Agrigento
Weather: Clear, cold, windy

Dad and I got up about 8. We’re both jet-lagged and off-balance a bit. We had an okay breakfast of fruit, yogurt, and pastry in the hotel. The Sicilians invented cannolis, and even here in this hotel, which is sort of a beach-front Holiday Inn, they’re pretty good. We both limited ourselves to half of one, which was a good idea.

We drove up to the Valle Di Templi around 9:30. Imagine, if you will, a steep hill on the left as you drive north and inland, and across the base of that hill, extending off to the right, is a long cliff. This cliff gradually becomes higher and steeper as it proceeds from left to right. The top of this cliff is marked in places by ruined walls, and it is crowned by a series of temples or the ruins of temples, built in a soft brown sandstone. This is the remains of ancient Akragas.

We climbed on the ruins of the temple of Hephaestus first. The temple’s ruins are about the size of a full-length basketball court, and perhaps a dozen columns remain standing to the height of their capitals, perhaps 2 1/2 stories tall. Following that we walked up the Strada di Templi to the temple of Concordia, and then the temple of Hera. The temple of Concordia is in the best shape, because Concordia was a divinity the Christians could get behind — so they converted her temple to a church in the 4th century CE. The temple of Hera is in much worse shape, but it’s in the best location, right at the highest point of the cliff, where it turns northeast-ward to become the west wall of a deep river valley. Following a couple of signs from there, we visited the city’s Byzantine and pre-Christian graveyard, and then climbed the city’s old main street. now it runs through olive and almond groves. I had wanted to visit the residential district which they’ve excavated, and which has almost a dozen first-rate mosaics. Alas, it’s closed. So is the Rock Sanctuary of Demeter, and the Gate of Gela, which is the city’s best preserved city gate. Oh well… I guess that means I have to come back some day!

We got lost for a little while among the olives, but an old man with bad teeth and a bunch of keys on a lanyard around his neck set us straight. We walked back down through the olive groves and crossed the busy street with the tour buses to see the temple of Zeus, and the shrine of the Dioscuri.

The remnants of the temple of Zeus were confusing. It appeared that there were columns around a base the size of a football field, and the telemones, or male architectural statues, supported the roof of the inner part of the precinct. One telamon survives in the museum; a replica of that of cast plaster has been assembled near the temple’s ruins. There’s little to see of the temple. The base, a few columns, a piece of the architrave. From one point of view, the temple of Zeus is nothing more than an impressive pile of impressively-sized stone blocks. The head of one column with its flutes was visible, and indeed the flutes were deep enough for me to stand in. That’s big.

As we approached the temple of the Dioscuri, it started to rain. Dad, who is suffering from a wet cough, chose to go back to the car. I chose to go on to the temple, and to see the well of Demeter and the Chthonic Deities. It turns out that offerings to Olympian or sky deities are made on an altar or bomos, while offerings to ancient gods of the earth, the chthonic deities, are made to a well or a pit, called a bothros. Akragas is one of the few places in the world where there is a bomos and a bothros more or less intact and clearly located. I wanted to see it, and the turnstiles seem to be a one-way ticket. You go out, and there’s no re-entry on the same day; no hand-stamps allowed.

There’s not much to see, especially as the rain got heavier. Everyone was moving away from the site, and I was the only one going there. The temple of the Dioscuri, or what remains of it, consists of five columns with a piece of the entablature above it, and part of the pediment. Today it serves as the symbol for the city of Agrigento. You can see the Mediterranean in the background. I found the bothros of Demeter and Persephone fairly easily, and it wasn’t terribly difficult. It also wasn’t very impressive. If you didn’t know what you were looking at, it would just be twenty-six stones put together to form an inner circle and a cross joining the inner circle to the outer circle. Not unusual or impressive at all, I’m afraid.

I’d brought my divinities poetry with me — the hymns to Hera, Concordia, Mars, Demeter, Persephone, and Apollo. Over the course of today, I had the chance to read the ones to Hera and to Concordia at their temples, and that felt ok. Here, though, I read the hymn to Magna Mater, the poem to Great Mother Earth, at the opening in the earth that the people of Sicily thought mattered most. There wasn’t even an opening in the earth, either. It was just a symbolic hole in the ground, if you will.

The skies cleared instantly. When I took out the paper from my pocket, it was pouring like mad. When I started reading, it stopped. The skies cleared. There was glory — you know, the beams of light that comes through the clouds — shining on the hilltop and on the Mediterranean in the distance. Reading it felt… well. I have to admit, it felt kind of egotistical, reading my poem to a goddess who hasn’t really been seriously worshipped in thousands of years. And yet, it felt right. It felt good. It felt excellent.

It didn’t start raining again when I was done. That would have been too much. But I walked back to the car, after first going through the Kolymbettra gardens. It’s hard to believe that the ancients understood ecology, but they did. In the valley to the west of ancient Akragas, below the acropolis, they built this garden (admittedly with labor from prisoners-of-war after the battle of Himera in 480 BCE). The garden had as its center a pool, seven stadia in circumference and twenty arms deep. That translates into about 50 feet deep, and around 4200 feet around. The nearby rain runoff, local springs and water sources were channeled into teh Kolymbettra to create a fish and bird farm, which also raised aquatic herbs and spice-plants. As time passed, the pool filled with soil, and the ancients transformed the garden into a farm supporting oranges, lemons, almonds, pistachios, spanish broom, willow and mulberry trees. Although most of the trees were cut down and destroyed at some point in the 1900s, in 1999 the Italian Fund for the Environment (FAI) paid for the replanting of the Kolymbettra, and it’s remarkable. I picked and ate an orange right off the tree. Delicious!

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