Discovering the Greek temples of Sicily: majestic ancient ruins that stand proudly between sky and sea as echoes of a rich, glorious past.
Sicily, a fertile land surrounded by sea and crossed by southerly winds, a place where, over the centuries, different civilisations left permanent traces. Its gentle beauty, suspended between past and present, was not overlooked by the many travellers who, from the 18th century onwards, strayed from the usual itinerary of the Grand Tour and headed south to admire this land. Even Goethe, during his Italian journey, was unable to resist the call of Sicily’s ancient heritage and landed in Palermo on 2 April 1787 to visit the island and the Greek temples of Sicily.
To recount the millennial history of this land we need to go back in time to the 8th century, when Ancient Greece settlers left their homeland to find new fertile territories. Some of them sailed to Anatolia (modern Turkey), while the most audacious unfurled their sails and headed to Sicily and southern Italy. There, they founded a complex web of colonies that were politically independent but had strong cultural ties with the Greek homeland. A territory that would go down in history as Magna Grecia.
The Greek Temple
In the urban fabric of the increasingly wealthy and powerful poleis, the cities of Magna Grecia, art started playing a new, central role. It is in the archaic period that the first buildings were designed by architects, with close attention to the proportion and balance of elements. The structure that best exemplifies the spirit and the architecture of Ancient Greece is the temple, the earthly house of deities, built on the ideal of rationality and balance, beauty and perfection.
Although the internal structure of an ancient Greek temple may vary based on the period and the place it was built, two elements are always to be found: the nàos (or cella), that is the chamber housing the cult statue or statues, and the prònao (from Ancient Greek pro, ‘before’ and nàos), namely the portico leading to the nàos.
Celebrations and rituals were held outside, on altars built around the temple, which, based on the number and arrangement of columns in the prònao, might be of different types. A classification of temples was provided by Vitruvius in his work De Architectura: a distyle in antis is a temple with two side walls and two columns enclosing the nàos, a double anta temple comprises a second prònao at the rear of the nàos, a prostyle temple is one that features four or more columns before the antis,an amphiprostyle features both a front and rear portico, a dipteral temple has double rows of columns on each of the four sides, while a monopteros has a circular colonnade.
Greek Temples in Sicily: the Valle dei Templi in Agrigento
Having briefly described the structure of Greek temples, we shall go back to the words of Goethe to describe, through images and impressions, what visitors felt upon arriving in Agrigento, like Goethe did in April 1787:
“Such a glorious spring view as we enjoyed at sunset to-day will most assuredly never meet our eyes again in one lifetime. […] From our window, we looked over the broad but gentle declivity on which stood the ancient town, which is now entirely covered with gardens and vineyards, beneath whose verdure it would be long before one thought of looking for the quarters of an ancient city. However, toward the southern end of this green and flourishing spot the Temple of Concord rears itself, while on the east are a few remains of the Temple of Juno. Other ruins of some ancient buildings, which, lying in a straight line with those already spoken of, are scarcely noticed by the eye from above, while it hurries over them southwards to the shore, or ranges over the level country, which reaches at least seven miles from the sea-mark”.
One can only imagine Goethe’s astonishment when, with his diary in one hand, he admired the view of the Valley of the Temples, eager to make a note of the beauty in front of him.
The city of Agrigento, once known as Akragas and described by Pindar as “the finest city of mortals”, is home to some of the most important ancient ruins, declared a UNESCO World Heritage site.
The city was founded in 580 BC on a plateau overlooking the sea. Between the 6th and 5th century BC a great number of construction projects were completed, including the majestic city walls and many of the temples that can still be admired today, such as the Temple of Juno, the Temple of Concordia, the Temple of Asclepius, the Temple of Hercules, the Temple of Olympian Zeus, the Porta V (‘fifth gate’), the Sanctuary of the Chthonic gods, the Temple of the Dioscuri, the Temple of Vulcan, the ruins of the Theatre, the Ekklesiasterion, the Oratory of Phalaris and the Bouleuterion.
The temples of Segesta and Selinunte
Near Trapani, set among lush hills, stands the majestic temple of Segesta, one of the world’s best-preserved ancient remains.
Bewitched by the temple, the French author Guy de Maupassant described it as the work of “a man of genius who had the revelation of the exact place where it had to be erected, enlivening the vastness of the landscape, which comes out vivified and extraordinarily beautiful”. The temple was built by the Elymians, an ancient Italic tribe, between 430 and 420 BC and it features 36 doric columns.
A third, unmissable destination for those who want to discover the archeological beauties of Sicily is the Selinunte archeological site (Parco archeologico di Selinunte), in southwestern Sicily. Immersed in a breathtaking natural scenery, the archeological park takes the visitor to a dimension that is far removed in time and space, thanks to its 270 hectares and seven Greek temples, recounting the glorious past of the island. The remains of the ancient city of Selinunte are found in three places: the Acropolis, the East hill and the sanctuary of the Malophoros, consecrated to the goddess Demeter.
A wonderful villa holiday to discover the Greek temples of Sicily
Agorà is a luxury villa with private pool near Agrigento. Thanks to its location, it is the ideal base to explore both the Valley of the Temples and the seaside. Between cultural excursions and a walk through the city centre, you will be able to enjoy a relaxing time at Agorà.
Set amid the beautiful lush hills in the countryside near Trapani, Tangi is a splendid luxury villa with private pool. Surrounded by calm and silence, you can enjoy a relaxing time outdoors, just wandering through the well-tended garden and sunbathing by the infinity pool.
Situated between Eraclea Minoa and the nature reserve of Torre Salsa, Villa Domizia is a splendid villa in Bovo Marina. Its exclusive swimming pool with whirlpool and its spacious, panoramic terraces, offer pleasant views over the surrounding area and sea, which is only three kilometres away.
A stone’s throw from the beach of Marianello is Villa Pales, a charming villa with private pool near Licata. Its terraces offer a splendid, sweeping view of the sea, whose scent is carried on a gentle evening breeze.
A refined design, comfort and calm is what awaits you at Camemi, a splendid villa with swimming pool situated near Ribera. From its panoramic terrace and the wonderful pool, you will enjoy an astonishing view of the sea.