Awed in Agrigento
The magnificence of the Greek colonies in the western Mediterranean becomes readily apparent when approaching the site of Agrigento as the ruins of one temple after another emerges above its ancient walls. No matter how many times I have done this drive, I still get goosebumps. Agrigento is a good example of how a number of Greek colonies in Sicily founded further colonies of their own. In this case, citizens from Gela established themselves at the site, probably displacing an indigenous settlement in the process, by 580 B.C. Agrigento would eventually become even more prominent than her mother city. In order to save the best parts of the site for the last, we began our visit at the archaeological museum to become oriented with the ancient city, its history, and the artifacts found with it.
The museum has a particularly large collection of painted vases that were imported both from Athens and from the Greek colonies of the southern Italy that were preserved because they were buried in the city’s tombs. Many are shapes that were used for banqueting and consuming wine, and they are decorated with variety of mythological subjects, such as Perseus’ dramatic rescue of Andromeda from the sea monster. The museum also houses the abundant offerings, often mold-made from terracotta, that were uncovered in the city’s many sanctuaries, including those we were to visit in the afternoon – the so-called “Valley of the Temples.”
Teaching students about architecture in a classroom is a very tricky thing to do because images on a screen never quite give one the true feel of an architectural space. Thus, it is really a treat to be able to visit structures in person, and today our New Paltz “colonists” had the introduction of a lifetime to Greek structures. Most surviving Greek temples were constructed using either one of two relatively consistent architectural orders – the Doric or the Ionic – that allows us today to reconstruct a temple’s original appearance with only a few key components. Essentially, one might think of it as playing with a set of very large, very heavy set of Legos. Using floor plans, the students began to learn how to read an ancient building. Agrigento (known in ancient Greek as Akragas) had a veritable boom in temple construction, starting around 460 B.C., roughly a generation after it participated in a major defeat of the Carthaginians, thereby securing most of Sicily under Greek control. A feature of a number of Greek colonies in the west is the practice of clustering large numbers of temples together within a designated space in the city grid, many more than one would expect to see in a city of the Greek mainland. Two factors seem to underlie this phenomenon – the Western Greeks’ determination to almost over-demonstrate their Greek identity and their financial means to do so through success in trade.
We began at the highest point in the Valley of the Temples, at the so-called Temple of Juno. (It is in fact unknown to which deity the temple was originally dedicated, but Poseidon, god of the sea, seems a possible choice.) We saw on the temple’s large altar to see some of the traces of burning on the stones as a result of the Carthaginian sack of the city in 406 B.C. We practiced using various architectural terminology and saw our first example of what a standard feature of many Agrigentine temples – a double spiral staircase leading up to the roof level.
Our next stop was probably the most visually striking one – the Temple of Concord – built using almost the identical floor plan as the Temple of Juno, but only twenty years later. It is one of the best preserved Greek temples in the world, thanks to it being converted into a Christian church in the sixth century A.D. As with the previous temple, the name is a misnomer, coming from a much later Latin inscription found in the area that had no real connection with the temple itself. According to local tradition, when the local bishop Gregorius converted the structure into the church, he had to first expel two pagan demons named Eber and Raps. He then dedicated it to Saints Peter and Paul. The continuation of a double dedication suggests that the temple originally honored a pair of divinities, such as the twins Castor and Polydeukes.
However, just LOOKING at ancient Greek architecture is one thing – getting to CLIMB on it is when the magic starts to happen, which we got to enjoy today at the Temple of Heracles, the earliest of Agrigento’s surviving temples. The remains, in their tumbled state, suggest that the temple was destroyed by an earthquake at some point, perhaps in late antiquity. It was here that I learned that an unofficial New Paltz admissions requirement is that all students must have the agility of mountain goats, allowing them to scamper up the most precarious piles of stone blocks with the greatest of ease, lending itself to some excellent photo ops.
We saved the largest temple for last, the Temple of Olympian Zeus, one of the biggest Greek temples ever built, over the size of a modern-day football field in length! It was constructed (but never completed) to commemorate the city’s victory over the Carthaginians at Himera in northern Sicily in 480 B.C. This major success not only flooded the city’s coffers with spoils of war, but also provided it with an influx of slave (i.e. very cheap) labor in the form of Carthaginian prisoners of war. The temple was revolutionary in its design, without a freestanding colonnade around the exterior, but instead engaged (attached) columns between which were gigantic male figures that appeared to support the roof, perhaps symbolizing the defeated Carthaginian enemy. The toppled columns alone made one feel as tiny as an ant, and the jumbled state of most of the wall blocks allows one to see the U-shaped grooves in them used to lift them into place with ropes and cranes.
Our bed and breakfast this evening outside of the city had a garden that looked out onto the Valley of the Temples, allowing us to watch the temples glow red-orange in the sunset. Originally, the stones would have been covered with plaster mixed with marble dust to give them the appearance of being built of much more expensive imported marble from the islands of the Aegean Sea or the Greek mainland. However, one might well argue that they are even lovelier now, a testament to the achievements of architects and builders long ago.