Located on a plateau overlooking Sicily’s southern coast, Agrigento was founded as Akragas around 582 BC (BCE) by a group of colonists from Gela, who themselves were the immediate descendants of Greeks from Rhodes and Crete. The area was inhabited much earlier; a female skull (that of the “girl of Mandrascava”) found near Cannatello is half a million years old. A Mesolithic village at Point Bianca, farther down the coast toward Montechiaro Castle, dates from 6000 BC. The Sicanians may have descended from that civilization. Akragas was renamed Agrigentum by the Romans, and Girgenti by the Arabs, only to be christened Agrigento in 1927, but the place is the same.
Greatly enlarged by Berbers beginning in the ninth century, the medieval city of Agrigento is not without a certain charm. High in the historical center of the city, the Romanesque Gothic cathedral, built during the fourteenth century, still displays some of its medieval character, as does the thirteenth-century Church of San Nicola (St Nicholas). Unfortunately, the Saracen fortress believed to have stood at Agrigento has not stood the test of time. The Greek temples, theatres and ruins, and even the archaeological museums, are located outside the city proper.
Akragas, named for the nearby river, flourished under Phalaris (570-554 BC), and developed further under Theron (488-471 BC), whose troops participated in the Battle of Himera in 480 BC, defeating the Carthaginians. Agrigento was destroyed several times during the Punic Wars, suffering particularly extensive damage during a siege by Roman forces in 261 BC, but always rebuilt. The Greek poet Pindar (518-438 BC) described Akragas as “the most beautiful city of the mortals.” Akragas’ most famous citizen was the philosopher and scientist Empedocles (490-430 BC).
In the Valley of the Temples are the ruins of numerous temples but also necropoli, houses, streets and everything else one would expect to find in an ancient city. There is a small amphitheatre, as well as several auditoria, and a fine archeological museum. Unfortunately, most of the temples at Agrigento are in ruins, with pieces strewn about, and several appear to have never even been completed. Part of the Temple of Hera (Juno), built around 450 BC, is still intact. Its style has been compared to that of the temples at Paestum, near Salerno. The Temple of Concord (named retroactively), built around 440 BC, is in far better condition, and at night the illuminated temple is a sight to behold. A number of telamons (large segmented stone columns in the form of human figures) have been preserved.
Ancient Agrigento’s importance declined under the Byzantines and Saracens, who encouraged settlement of the medieval city (present-day Agrigento) several kilometers from the Valley of the Temples. The Normans, however, recognized its importance, and it was during the Norman rule that beautiful churches were constructed in and around the city.
The ancient city’s architectural character seems more Greek than Roman. What’s missing are the thin, reddish bricks so typical of Roman sites like Solunto and Taormina. Despite its location virtually in the shadow of a modern city, the Valley of the Temples is surrounded by olive groves and almond orchards that render its ambience altogether natural, though a number of illegally-built houses mar the landscape. The almond blossom festival held in February is a spectacular event full of folklore.