Girgenti – Greece Travel

The reported luxury of the Sikeliot cities in this age is, in the double-edged saying of Empedocles, connected with one of their noblest tastes. They built their houses as if they were going to live for ever. And if their houses, how much more their temples and other public buildings? In some of the Sikeliot cities, this was the most brilliant time of architectural splendor. At Syracuse indeed the greatest buildings which remain to tell their own story belong either to an earlier or to a later time. It is the theater alone, as in its first estate a probable work of the first Hieron, which at all connects itself with our present time. But at Akragas and at Selinous the greatest of the existing buildings belong to the days of republican freedom and independence. At Akragas what the tyrant began the democracy went on with. The series of temples that line the southern wall are due to an impulse which began under Theron and went on to the days of the Carthaginian siege.

Of the greatest among them, the temple of Olympian Zeus, this is literally true. There can be little doubt that it was begun as one of the thank-offerings after the victory of Himera, and it is certain that at the coming of Hannibal and Hamilkon it was still so far imperfect that the roof was not yet added. It was therefore in building during a time of more than seventy years, years which take in the whole of the brilliant days of Akragantine freedom and well-being.

To the same period also belong the other temples in the lower city, temples which abide above ground either standing or in ruins, while the older temples in the akropolis have to be looked for underneath buildings of later ages.

It was a grand conception to line the southern wall, the wall most open to the attacks of mortal enemies, with this wonderful series of holy places of the divine protectors of the city. It was a conception due, we may believe, in the first instance, to Theron, but which the democracy fully entered into and carried out. The two best preserved of the range stand to the east; one indeed occupies the southeastern corner of the fortified enclosure.

Next in order to the west comes the temple which bears a name not unlikely, but altogether impossible and unmeaning, the so-called temple of Concord. No reasonable guess can be made at its pagan dedication; in the fifteenth century of our era it followed the far earlier precedent of the temples in the akropolis. It became the church of Saint Gregory, not of any of the great pontiffs and doctors of the Church, but of the local bishop whose full description as Saint Gregory of the Turnips can hardly be written without a smile. The peristyle was walled up, and arches were cut through the walls of the Bella, exactly as in the great church of Syracuse. Saint Gregory of Girgenti plays no such part in the world’s history as was played by the Panagia of Syracuse; we may therefore be more inclined to extend some mercy to the Bourbon king who set free the columns as we now see them. When he had gone so far, one might even wish that he had gone on to wall up the arches. In each of the former states of the building there was a solid wall somewhere to give shelter from the blasts which sweep round this exposed spot. As the building now stands, it is, after the Athenian house of Theseus and Saint George, the best preserved Greek temple in being. Like its fellow to the east, it is a building of moderate size, of the middle stage of Doric, with columns less massive than those of Syracuse and Corinth, less slender than those of Nemea.

Again to the west stood a temple of greater size, nearly ranging in scale with the Athenian Parthenon, which is assigned, with far more of likelihood than the other names, to Herakles. Save one patched-up column standing amid the general ruin, it has, in the language of the prophet, become heaps. All that is left is a mass of huge stones, among which we can see the mighty columns, fallen, each in its place, overthrown, it is clear, by no hand of man but by those powers of the nether world whose sway is felt in every corner of Sicilian soil.

These three temples form a continuous range along the eastern part of the southern wall of the city. To the west of them, parted from them by a gate, which, in Roman times at least, bore, as at Constantinople and Spalato, the name of Golden, rose the mightiest work of Akragantine splendor and devotion, the great Olympieion itself. Of this gigantic building, the vastest Greek temple in Europe, we happily have somewhat full descriptions from men who had looked at it, if not in the days of its full glory, yet at least when it was a house standing up, and not a ruin. As it now lies, a few fragments of wall still standing amid confused heaps of fallen stones, of broken columns and capitals, no building kindles a more earnest desire to see it as it stood in the days of its perfection.