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Agrigento: Ancient Greek Temples in Sicily

Sicily, Italy

In 500 BC, Agrigento, on the south coast of Sicily, was the third city in the Greek world. Its ridge is lined with temples — once a religious ensemble serving your every need. Today these substantial ruins offer a textbook study of the elements of the classic Greek temple.

Complete Video Script

A two-hour drive takes us the city of Agrigento, and the most impressive ancient site in Sicily: Its ridge lined with Greek temples.

Little survives of ancient Agrigento beyond a few grand temples. In the fifth century BC, Agrigento was the third-largest city in the Greek world — after Athens and Syracuse, another Sicilian city. Its protective wall, carved right out of the hillside, was seven miles long, fortifying what was a huge city.

To think that 2,500 years ago, two of the top cities in the Greek world were here in Sicily, is another reminder of the importance of this island in ancient times. Back then, when tough times hit, Greek society basically told its landless sons, “Go west.” And “west” was Sicily. This was their land of opportunity; they came here and created a new “greater Greece” — it was Magna Graecia.

Imagine the grand impression this ridge, lined with temples, must have made on sailors from all corners of the Mediterranean as they approached by sea.

It was a religious ensemble: about a dozen temples, for a dozen gods, each serving a different role. Here at Agrigento, you were fully covered.

The Temple of Concordia is the best preserved. Like all Greek temples, it followed the same basic layout: The temple always faced east. The design is called “peripteral,” which means “ringed by columns.” It sits on a raised base with steps. An inner room, the cella, was reserved for priests and gods. Regular worshippers gathered outside.

As there’s no marble in Sicily, temples were built of limestone. Columns each consist of four drums — aligned by interior pegs — capped by a capital.

Once the drums were stacked, the grooves were carved — that’s called fluting. And then, a layer of plaster was added to make it look like marble. Finally, the temple’s decorative features were painted with bold colors.

The massive Temple of Zeus once stood here. The size of a football field, it was the largest Doric temple in the ancient world. As it was used as a quarry for its pre-cut stones, very little survives today.

These stones supported a massive sacrificial altar, always at the east end of the temple. It was said they could sacrifice 100 oxen at once, as thousands gathered — and with the meaty feast that followed, there was always a good turnout.

Wandering through the evocative remains of this huge temple, you can only marvel at how wealthy and developed this mysterious Greek world must have been 2,500 years ago.