In the Valley of the Temples

I have now visited ancient Greece, although we have not left the Italian island of Sicily. I can happily report that “one of the most important archaeological sites in Europe” lives up to its reputation. Magnificently. Even glimpsed from a distance, as we have seen it every day on our walks through the eucalyptus grove near Stathis and Elettra’s house, the “Valley of Temples” looked like something so lovely and classical as to seem almost unreal. And actually standing in the shadow of those temples was even more awesome than I had imagined it would be. Ancient Roman ruins impress me, but ancient Greek ruins move me.

I’m not sure whence it derived its name, but strictly (or even loosely) speaking, the Valley of Temples is not really a valley, but more like a ridge. The Greeks, like many other people, including Mormons, typically built their holy places on hills. Hills are, well, holier. Closer to heaven. More awe-inspiring. And easier to defend too, when it comes to that. As apparently it did for Agrigento on multiple occasions. The Temple of Hera, for example (below), still bears fiery traces of the Carthaginian invasion of 406 B.C. Later invasions by the Romans and Saracens also took their toll on the temples. While what still stands is overwhelming, one can only imagine its original glory based on the quantity of huge fallen stones strewn all over the several square kilometers of the “valley.” It looks as if giants had been building there.

Axa was most impressed by the colossal temple of Zeus, which was never finished, and has now mostly fallen down, but retains a majestic, ruined grandeur. It once bore a large and detailed wall relief of the battle of Troy (always a winner for Axa), and was held up by a massive statue of Atlas. From outside, the temple now resembles a mountain of massive stones. But a pathway winds in through to its heart, where crumbling steps and rooms suggest half-guessed purposes, and poppies gently toss their heads in an eternal stillness of memory and antiquity.

For Dominique, the main attraction was climbing stairs, hills, and stones, and finding sticks to serve as swords. Miraculously, he only fell down and drew blood twice.

We were fortunate to have with us the best possible person with whom to visit a ruin such as this: a Greek architect (our friend Stathis). He explained the features of the Doric temples, and how the ancient Greeks built every temple with slightly different proportions, in their eternal quest for the most perfect and beautiful shape. In the Temple of Concordia (above), which is the dramatic centerpiece of the site, the space between each of the supporting pillars is slightly different, decreasing as they move toward the corners, to fool perspective and entice the eye into perceiving them as equal in size. The Temple is preserved so well because in the sixth century A.D., in response to a papal edict, it was converted into a Byzantine basilica. The Christians pulled down all the pagan statues, closed up the entrances other than the Western one, and built an inner wall on each side, with twelve arches for the twelve apostles. It looks like the ancient Greeks have the last laugh here, since nobody comes to see it now except to celebrate its rich and glorious pagan-ness.

Last and highest stands the Temple of Hera (above), or what is left of it after the Carthaginians had their way with it, and the Romans remodeled it. Since Hera is the goddess of marriage, it was originally the place where nuptials were celebrated. When I consider the importance placed on marriage and family in my own faith, I can’t help but wonder if the elevated placement of the shrine honoring the goddess of marriage had special significance. As we approached the Temple of Hera, we saw a modern bride and groom having photos taken in front of it. It was one of those many moments in Italy when time seems to have stopped aeons ago, and past, present, and future merge into one beautiful, fully-lived now.

Our day was not devoted only to the monumental. We also took some time to enjoy a Mediterranean culinary masterpiece originating in Spain, but perfectly suited to the marine bounty of Sicily. Stathis and Elettra, besides their architectural and artistic talents, are also excellent cooks. They treated us to a lovely and delicious paella, created by themselves (in what they told me was their first attempt, which I had no choice but to believe. I was impressed not only with their culinary prowess, but also with their brilliant audacity in making an untried recipe for guests). Elettra also graciously provided all the photos for this post after Tony’s photos were eaten by our camera.

We leave for Tunisia (or home. We’ll call it home) tomorrow. Sicily has been enchanting. If we didn’t already have a Mediterranean paradise, we would certainly consider moving to this one. Thank you, Stathis and Elettra, for making our stay enjoyable in every way. And our door is always open for you, wherever in the world that door should happen to be located.

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