walking tour: Florence, Rome, Milan, Venice, Naples



Agrigento is a city on Sicily’s southern coast. It is situated on a plateau surrounded by low cliffs and overlooks the confluence of the Drago (ancient Hypsas) and San Biagio (Acragas) rivers, and is dominated from the north by a mountain with twin peaks. Agrigento was a prosperous ancient city founded by Greek colonists from Gela in 581 bce. It was ruled by the legendary dictator Phalaris, who was said to have had individuals burnt alive in a brazen bull, from 570 to 554 bce, and it reached its zenith in 480, when the tyrant Theron, in collaboration with Syracuse, won the pivotal Battle of Himera over the Carthaginians. Tyranny was replaced by democracy in 470. Empedocles, the philosopher-politician, was born in Agrigento. During the reign of despotism It was a significant center of the arts under the regime.The city was neutral in the conflict between Athens and Syracuse until it was destroyed by the Carthaginians in 406 bce, a calamity from which it never fully recovered. Refounded in 338 by the Greek general and statesman Timoleon, it had some local prominence in the early third century bce but was sacked by the Romans (262) and the Carthaginians (255), before surrendering to Rome in 210 bce. Its agricultural richness and the exploitation of neighboring sulfur mines maintained a modest affluence under Roman rule. Its residents retreated to the relative safety of the medieval hilltop town of Girgenti, the nucleus of modern Agrigento, in late antiquity. Girgenti was occupied and colonized by the Saracens in 828, but was captured in 1087 by Count Roger I, the Norman conqueror of Sicily, who founded a Latin bishopric.

The Temple of Zeus, which included a massive altar in front of it, was one of the largest and most original Doric structures; it was still unfinished in 406 bce. Its ruins were mined between 1749 and 1763 to build the jetties of Porto Empedocle, and very little remains now. Many relics of archaic worship buildings can be seen at the Sanctuary of Demeter and Persephone (previously known as the Temple of Castor and Pollux). At the foot of the cliffs where the Temple of Demeter, which lies beneath the Church of San Biagio, is located, there is a pre-Hellenic cave sanctuary. There are also ruins temples of Hephaestus and Asclepius (Aesculapius); the “tomb of Theron,” a late Hellenistic funerary monument; and the “Oratory of Phalaris,” a 1st-century ce hron (“heroic shrine”) adjacent to the 13th-century Church of San Nicola. A significant portion of the Greek and Roman settlement has been unearthed a little distance to the east of the latter, although aside from enormous remnants of aqueducts and cisterns, nothing is known of Greek civil or domestic architecture. Beyond the walls are older classical cemeteries.

The 14th-century cathedral, the 13th-century Churches of Santo Spirito and Santa Maria dei Greci (overlying remnants of a Doric temple), Baroque churches and palaces, and the rich archeological museum are among the city’s notable medieval and modern structures. However, illegal development and landslides have caused harm to certain local sites.

The economy of Agrigento is built on sulfur and potash mining, agriculture, and tourism. Porto Empedocle, 9 miles (15 kilometers) southwest, is the best harbor on Sicily’s southwest coast and Italy’s main sulfur port. Municipal population (as of 2006): 59,111.