Agrigento and Selinunte

This is an excerpt from the book “Sicily”.

Agrigento Temple - Photo © laurenz
Agrigento Temple – Photo © laurenz

Two of the great cities of Magna Graecia — or what’s left of them — can be explored along Sicily’s southern coast. Both Agrigento and Selinunte knew greater glory than they experience today, but the remains of what they used to be are still relatively rich in spite of the looters and conquerors who have passed through. Of the two, Agrigento is the far greater attraction.

Once known as the Greek city of Akragas, Agrigento has seen many conquerors in its day, from the Romans to Byzantines and Arabs. The year 1087 saw the arrival of the Normans.

Agrigento’s remarkable series of Doric temples from the 5th century B.C. are unrivaled except in Greece itself. All of the modern encroachments, especially the hastily built and often illegal new buildings, have seriously dimmed the glory of Agrigento, but much is left to fill us with wonder.

Ancient Akragas covers a huge area – much of which is still unexcavated today – but is exemplified by the famous “Valley of the Temples” (actually a misnomer, as it is a ridge, rather than a valley).

Agrigento

This comprises a large sacred area on the south side of the ancient city where seven monumental Greek temples in the Doric style were constructed during the 6th and 5th centuries BC. Now excavated and partially restored, they constitute some of the largest and best preserved ancient Greek buildings outside of Greece itself. They are listed as a World Heritage Site.

The best preserved of the temples are two very similar buildings traditionally attributed to the goddesses Juno Lacinia and Concordia (though archaeologists believe this attribution to be incorrect). The latter temple is remarkably intact, due to its having been converted into a Christian church in 597 CE. Both were constructed to a peripteral hexastyle design. The area around the Temple of Concordia was later re-used by early Christians as a catacomb, with tombs hewn out of the rocky cliffs and outcrops.

It was scarcely possible to be more judicious and fortunate than the Agrigentines were in the choice of a situation for a large city; they were here provided with every requisite for defense, pleasure, and comfort of life; a natural wall, formed by abrupt rocks, presented a strong barrier against assailants; pleasant hills sheltered them on three sides without impeding the circulation of air; before them a broad plain watered by the Acragas, an agreeable stream from which the city took its name, gave admittance to the sea-breeze…… the port or emporium lay in view at the mouth of the river….

Henry Swinburne, Travels in the Two Sicilies

Where to stay in Agrigento

There are hotels, B&Bs, villas and apartments available, check them out and make a reservation here.

Selinunte - Photo © pablolemosochandio
Selinunte – Photo © pablolemosochandio

Selinunte

Selinunte, in contrast, was never built over as Agrigento was, and holds extensive remains of the acropolis, though none quite equal the charm of Agrigento’s Valley of the Temples.

As you stand in the midst of a carpet of mandrake, acanthus, capers, and celery growing wild at Selinunte, you’ll have to work hard to imagine what the city must have looked like at the apex of its power.

According to the Athenian historian Thucydides, Selinus was founded by people from Megara Hyblaea, a city on the east coast of Sicily, in the 7th century BC. The city had a very short life (about 200 years). During this time its population grew to a total of about 25,000. A wealthy trade center, Selinus was envied by the Carthaginians.

Selinunte - Photo © pablolemosochandio
Selinunte – Photo © pablolemosochandio

Selinus had an almost permanent conflict with Segesta, which allied itself with Athens. However, the Athenians were defeated by the Syracusans, and Segesta now asked help from Carthage.

Diodorus Siculus tells that the Carthaginian commander Hannibal (not to be confused with his more famous namesake), in 409 BC destroyed Selinus after a war that counted about 16,000 deaths and 5,000 prisoners. The city was besieged for nine days by an army of 100,000 Carthaginians.

Where to stay in Selinunte

There are hotels, B&Bs, farm stays and villas available, check them out and make a reservation here.