AGRIGENTO, Italy – The Valley of the Temples archaeological park in Agrigento, Sicily, announced that the statue of Atlas will rise again at the Temple of Zeus.
“The re-installment of the statue of Atlas is the culmination of a more comprehensive restoration,” says Roberto Sciarratta, director of the Valley of the Temples archaeological park. Sciarratta added that “it is an extraordinary project, which belongs to the world but which was born here in the Valley of the Temples.”
The Valley of the Temples is located on Sicily’s southern coast in the area the Romans called Magna Graecia, or “Greater Greece,” a region that ran from the western tip of Sicily to modern-day Apulia at the “heel of the boot” formed by the Italian peninsula. Settlers brought Hellenic civilization to the region around 800 years BCE. The local Italic peoples became Hellenised and adopted Greek culture. Greek is still spoken in parts of Italy because of the Hellenic diaspora.
The Valley of the Temples is the result of massive efforts by the 100,000 or so local inhabitants, whom Plato would describe as building like they would live forever and partying like it was their last day. The building in the Valley – which might be better referred to as a ridge – represents some of the best-preserved examples of art and architecture surviving from Magna Graecia, despite ancient attacks by Carthage.
The archeological site was re-discovered in the 19th century, and it remains a site of excavation and study.
The Valley contains seven temples with Doric columns, including temples to Asclepius, Castor and Pollux, Concordia, Heracles, Hephaestus, and Juno Lacinia, along with the Temple of Olympian Zeus. There were also temples of Demeter and Athena, as well as chthonic gods.
The Temple of Concordia is the best preserved of the temples, likely because it was converted to a church around 600 CE. The site was not only ravaged by ancient wars but also exploited as a source of brick and stone for building early parts of the surrounding city and a nearby Roman marina, now the harbor at modern Porto Empedocle about three miles southwest of Agrigento. During the Roman period, Agrigento was called Girgenti, and prior to that, Akragas.
The Temple of Olympian Zeus is the largest of the set and was never completed. It was likely founded to memorialize the Battle of Himera in 460 BCE, when the cities of Akragas and Syracuse defeated the Carthaginians.
Architecturally different than the other temples, the Temple of Olympian Zeus – regrettably, now mostly rubble along the Olympieion field – was the largest in the complex, being about 570 feet (112 meters) by 184 feet (56 meters) in size. It did not have freestanding Doric columns. Instead, because of the size and weight of the bands over the columns, continuous stone curtains were used to support the weight. The columns were immense, as high as 63 feet (19 meters) tall.
While the temple is still being excavated, there appears to have been a succession of gates at the temple site, as well as at the main sanctuary and a series of smaller sanctuaries to various other gods. There appears to have been a paved sacellum, the holy enclosure, as well as a tholos, a central rounded structure built upon steps that might serve as a central stage.
Giant Atlases supported the weight of the curtain columns from the exterior. They were sculpted in the form of a man and were used in-between columns to help reinforce the temple structure. The Atlases appear to have appear to have been recessed along the temple curtains’ edges. The Atlases alternated between bearded and clean-shaven, all nude with their arms outstretched above their heads forming the support. The statues bear the name of Titan who holds up the sky.
The Atlases have seen damage from both weather and human attack over the centuries, and they have not survived in complete form. One of the Atlases will soon be reconstructed and placed at the entrance of the temple park during the coming year.
Sciaretta said that it has taken some ten years to get to the point that the Atlas can be displayed again. “In the last decade, we’ve recovered and cataloged numerous artifacts that were once a part of the original structure,” he said. “The goal is to recompose piece-by-piece the trabeation [post and lintels] of the Temple of Zeus to restore a portion of its original grandeur.”
Sciaretta said, “The idea is to reposition one of these Atlases in front of the temple, so that it may serve as a guardian of the structure dedicated to the Father of the Gods.”
Editor’s note: The Valley of Temples can be visited online using Google Maps Streetview. The entire site can be “walked” along the trails giving access to close-up views of the temples and the interpretation.