Alexandria's founded by Alexander

Alexandria's founded by Alexander the Great (by year BC): 334 Alexandria in Troia (Turkey) - 333 Alexandria at Issus/Alexandrette (Iskenderun, Turkey) - 332 Alexandria of Caria/by the Latmos (Alinda, Turkey) - 331 Alexandria Mygdoniae - 331 Alexandria (Egypt) - 330 Alexandria in Areia (Herat, Afghanistan) - 330 Alexandria of the Prophthasia/in Drangiana/Phrada (Farah, Afghanistan) - 330 Alexandria in Arachosia (Kandahar, Afghanistan) - 330 Alexandria in Caucasus (Begram, Afghanistan) - 329 Alexandria of the Paropanisades (Ghazni, Afghanistan) - 329 Alexandria Eschate or Ultima (Khodjend, Tajikistan) - 329 Alexandria on the Oxus (Ai-Khanoum, Afghanistan) - 329 Alexandria in Margiana (Merv, Turkmenistan) - 326 Alexandria Nicaea (on the Hydaspes, India) - 326 Alexandria Bucephala (on the Hydaspes, India) - 325 Alexandria Sogdia - 325 Alexandria Rambacia (Bela, Pakistan) - 325 Alexandria Oreitide - 325 Alexandria in Opiene (confluence of Indus & Acesines, India) - 325 Alexandria on the Indus - 325 Alexandria Xylinepolis (Patala, India) - 325 Alexandria in Carminia (Gulashkird, Iran) - 324 Alexandria-on-the-Tigris/Antiochia-in-Susiana/Charax (Spasinou Charax on the Tigris, Iraq) - ?Alexandria of Carmahle? (Kahnu)

Saturday, July 5, 2014

The Valley of the Temples at Akragas, Sicily

My first glance of these temples is quite exciting as I discover them on a high ridge above the road, playing hide and seek with the passing trees. According to my map, the string of temples at Akragas (modern Agrigento) are located between two rivers, the Hypsas and the Akragas, but why this place high up the ridge is called “The Valley of the Temples” I don’t know. It doesn’t make sense to me.

Roughly, all these temples were built within a period of one hundred years, somewhere between 500 BC for the Temple of Heracles and 400 BC for the enormous Temple of Zeus. The sixth and fifth centuries BC were definitely the most prosperous times for Akragas, which was founded as a colony of Gela in 580 BC to become one of the leading cities of Magna Graecia counting as much as 100,000 to 200,000 people. The Carthaginians captured the city in 406 BC and burnt it to the ground, selling its inhabitants as slaves. Soon afterwards Akragas fell victim to the disputes between Rome and Carthage during the First Punic War. After besieging the city and defeating the Carthaginians in 261 BC, the inhabitants were once again sold as slaves this time by the Romans. Six years later the Carthaginians recaptured the city but in the end they had to surrender it to Rome, ending the Second Punic War. In 210 BC the Romans took possession of Akragas and renamed it Agrigentum, although Greek was still the common language. Those were hard times for such a proud city!

The temples we see here today do not tell this gruesome story and only testify of Magna Graecia’s grandeur. The best known is the Temple of Concord, simply because this is the best preserved sanctuary of the Greek world after the Temple of Hephaistos in Athens. It was built around 430 BC and suffered only slight damage from the Carthaginian invasion. It is a rather standard construction in Doric style counting 6x13 columns nearly 7 meters high that has kept its cella nearly intact thanks to the fact that it was converted into a church. This sounds familiar after seeing what has been done to the Temple of Apollo in Syracuse with that difference however that here, except for the arches in the nave, the building has been entirely stripped of its Christian additions. Its location is absolutely superb as it shines there at the end of the Sacred Road, even without the coat of original white stucco that was enhanced with red, blue, green and yellow details. It must have been visible from quite a distance!

When I enter ”The Valley of the Temples”, my first stop however is at the Temple of Hera, clinging to the edge of the cliff. For security reasons, I am not allowed inside. It is slightly smaller and about 20 years older than the Temple of Concord, although it counts as many columns. This temple is in poorer condition with only parts of the columns and the cella walls still standing as it suffered from the (still visible) devastating Carthaginians fires in 406 BC. In fact, it is surprising that so much of the temple has survived after all.

As this Temple of Hera lies on higher ground, I have an excellent view over the city walls which are generally an extension of the steep cliff that has been hollowed out to leave only a wall of some sort. More to the right and parallel to this wall runs the said Via Sacra that leads to the Temple of Concord and beyond that to the Temple of Heracles and across the modern road to the enormous Temple of Zeus. It is a beautiful walk among the blossoming trees and high grasses, overlooking the valley below.

Passing the Temple of Concord, I reach the end of the Via Sacra at the Temple of Heracles that has only one row of nine columns left to fuel my imagination. This is by far the oldest temple of Akragas built around 500 BC and is a little larger than the two previous ones counting originally 6 by 15 columns. It also has suffered badly from the Carthaginian destruction of 406 BC and traces of fire are still visible. In its heydays it contained a painting by the most famous artist of the ancient world, Zeuxis. I wonder what this must have looked like.

Across the modern road are the ruins of the Temple of Olympian Zeus that defies my wildest imagination. It was built in Doric style by the Carthaginians taken prisoners during the battle of Himera in 480 BC and measures as much as 110x53m, i.e. a double square and for that reason it is unique among the Greek temples. It counted 7x14 columns rounded on the outside and square on the inside, a staggering 4m across and 16.7m high. In between stood statues of colossal Telamones  (male caryatides), 38 pieces in all. A few of these Telamones  or parts of them have been recovered and give an idea of the oversized proportions of the temple. Archeologists have not yet agreed on the final lay-out of this temple that has suffered from repeated earthquakes and from quarrying for several local projects. This Temple of Zeus was not finished in 406 BC when the Carthaginians arrived and we know that it was converted into a fortress in 255 BC so the inhabitants and the Roman garrison could take shelter here from the Carthaginian attack. Walking among these huge blocks, it is very difficult to mentally reconstruct this sanctuary and the remains of a few Telamones stretched out in their full length around the temple add to the general confusion about its true proportions. Luckily the local museum shows a model reconstruction of the temple, at least one of the possibilities, putting things more or less in perspective. The benefit of visiting these remains lies in the details for when you see the shear size of the triglyphs or the large U-shaped incisions on some of the stones that were used to lift the enormous blocks, you can somehow visualize the biblical proportions of this temple that certainly deserves the addition of Olympian to the name of Zeus.

Further to the west are the poor remains of the city of Akragas from the 6th century BC divided by three five-meter wide north-south streets. Much of the city was rebuilt in Hellenistic times but only the base of the walls remains visible. At the far end of this plain dotted with patches of flowers of all colors, one can see the Sanctuary of the Chthonic Divinities (the gods of the earth), in which two temples of the 7th century BC have been erroneously assembled together in 1836. It is easy to recognize the two large altars in front of this reconstruction belonging to the same period, a round and a square one. There are more remains of other temples but I cannot properly figure them out.

Behind this section of the Chthonic Sanctuary lies a small valley that separates me from the two columns that belong to the Temple of Hephaistos which I can see among the trees. Down below lies the so-called Kolymbetra Garden where a pool was dug by the same Carthaginian prisoners mentioned above, taken at Himera in 480 BC. It was meant to serve as a water reservoir and a pond for fresh fish. This pond was rather short lived as approximately one century later it was drained to become a garden where Arabs cultivated oranges. Unfortunately there is no time to visit the Garden or the poor remains of the Temple of Hephaistos.

The site of Akragas and its “Valley of the Temple” covers an area of approximately 4.5 x 3 kilometers, and this means that even a full-day’s visit is not enough to see it all. But a stop to the local museum is an absolute must, were it only to see the one original re-erected Telamon. I feel dwarfed next to this enormous statue, and even next to the three rescued Telamon-heads! Together with the abovementioned reconstruction of the Temple of Zeus, these definitely are the highlights of the museum. Yet there are several other artifacts that deserve attention. For a start there is a terracotta Dinos with triangular pattern from Gela belonging to the end of the 7th century BC, a pattern that still stands as a symbol for the triangular shape of Sicily and that is reproduced in colorful copies for the tourists. Then there is a lovely marble head of a veiled goddess, probably Demeter from the end of the 5th century BC; a marble statue of a warrior in a style typical for 480-475 BC; a delicate statue of a young athlete, smaller than life-size and thought to be victorious at the Olympic Games dated to 480 BC; a small headless statue of Aphrodite bathing and wringing her hair in late Hellenistic style from Rhodes; fragments of Archaic architectural terracotta elements from the sixth century BC, probably belonging to the Temple of Zeus; a rather static Kouros-head from around 450 BC; and a wide range of terracotta heads, amphorae and craters from the fifth and fourth century BC. Quite a number of showcases are not lit, whether this is for economical reasons or because of some defect, I don’t know.

Strangely enough this museum is partially built over what once was the Hellenistic ekklesiasterion that could hold 3,000 citizens for assemblies. It looks very much like an eroded semi-circular theatre as it was leveled to accommodate the foundations of a later Roman temple. The 13th century church of San Nicola built with materials from nearby Roman constructions does not help to get a clear view of this area.

I take one last glance back to where I came from. “The Valley of the Temples” with the Temple of Concord are beautifully framed by the trees on the foreground. What a place to truly taste the past!

[Click here to see all the pictures of Akragas and here for all the pictures of the Museum of Agrigento]

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