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Mark Savage MW reports from ‘The Valley of the Temples’ in Agrigento

I am happy to report that the Institute’s Sicilian Expedition was rather more successful than the Athenian one which resulted in the complete destruction of their army and their fleet in 414BC. There is a bonus to be derived from good wine by getting inside the skin of the place and the people concerned with its production and by examining viticulture in the context of a more general culture. It was therefore a bonus that this ‘study trip’, action packed as it was with vineyard and cellar visits, interesting tastings and lectures, also managed to allow an hour and a half for a wander through the so-called ‘Valley of the Temples’ at Agrigento.

Some countries have a very recent wine culture, but others have an ancient and profound one. The great Greek historian Thucydides writing in the 5th century BC made the point that the Greeks emerged from barbarism and started to become civilised when they began to cultivate the vine. Sicily became a focus of serious colonisation from the Greek mainland during the 6th and 7th centuries BC, to such an extent indeed that it was simply known as ‘Magna Graecia’. And of course both the vine and the olive would have found conditions there to be ideal. It is no wonder that Sicily thus gave to birth to cities of great wealth and renown in antiquity and the great temples of Agrigento are the most obvious proof of this. Pindar, one of the most revered poets in Ancient Greece, living there around 485BC, regarded Akragas, to give it its ancient name, as the finest city on earth and though he would have to revise his opinions rather sharply downwards today, I fear, we can at least try to imagine its former glory and it remains the most visited archaeological site in Sicily. At its height, it could boast the largest number of temples of any city in the Greek world with as many as ten such sites. The skyline from offshore must have made it the Manhattan of the Ancient World, a rival to Siracuse itself which might be considered the New York of antiquity, a magnet for so much artistic and scientific talent, from Aeschylus to Archimedes.

We were allocated a guide for our visit, but his rather vestigial grasp of the English language proved something of a handicap and fortunately we were able to glean much of the essential information from various information panels at the different locations. We entered the ‘Valley’ (which is not a valley at all in fact but rather a plateau with an open view of the sea) by the east gate where our focus fell on the temple of Juno, built c 460BC. 25 of its original 34 columns remain. From there we headed west to the Temple of Concord, one of the best preserved of all the Greek temples, Doric, mid 5th century BC, almost intact, with 34 columns. With time rapidly running out, some of us managed to take a quick look at the remnants of the Temple of Olympian Zeus, claimed to be the largest in Ancient Greece, though it was never quite completed. It must have occupied the space of a football pitch and the height of the columns has been estimated at 53 feet. Just as well then that there was plenty of slave labour to be had at the time. The local osteopaths must have been kept busy treating all the bad backs that must have resulted from such labours. We owe those unsung heroes a debt indeed for the beauty and magnificence of such sites. It was only a pity that our crowded schedule did not allow for a slight detour to look at the temples of Selinunte and, in this writer’s view at any rate, the finest of all at Segesta. Nevertheless it gave us an insight into the glory days of ancient Sicily and while the treasures of its architectural past are unlikely to be rivalled in the present era, there is a strong probability that Sicily may be about to witness a golden age for its wine industry as it now begins to realise the true potential of its viticultural heritage. The ancients might not think much of our modern architecture but I think they would have approved of the wine being made in Sicily in the 21st Century A.D.

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