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Sicilian delights: The Greek Temples of Sicily

Sicily is home to many stunning Greek temples, in fact there are more found there than anywhere else in the Mediterranean.

by Heinrich Hall

Temple E at Selinunte (Photo (c) P. Sommer)

There are at least a thousand reasons to visit Sicily, the great island – indeed the largest in the Mediterranean – that forms the triangular football to the boot that is the Italian peninsula.

They are all very good reasons, including amazing landscapes, a uniquely complex and delicious cuisine, a history that is diverse and multifaceted beyond belief, excellent wines, a vast array of archaeological sites, an even vaster one of historical towns and villages. But one key reason to visit the island is missing from the list above: Greek temples!

Greek temples are one of the earliest well-defined expressions of what we now recognise as the Western tradition in architecture, and one of the most influential ones by a vast margin to this day. They go back to the 8th or 7th centuries BCE, and, as the name entails, they are indeed a key achievement of the Archaic Greeks. They originated in what is the south of modern Greece, namely the Peloponnese and Central Greece, where Greek temple architecture appears to have its main roots, probably derived from local wooden predecessors.

The Greek mainland’s architectural style is the Doric one, considered to be the most austere and ‘male’ in character. The eastern Aegean and Asia Minor were famous for their own development, the more elegant and ‘female’ Ionic style, conceived about a century after the Doric one. Its most prominent examples at Samos, Ephesus and Didyma (much better preserved than the other two) are also marked by their vast monumental size. What’s so remarkable about the Greek temples of Sicily then?

The short answer is simply that Sicily possessed a greater density of monumental temples than any other area of the Mediterranean, and now contains more well-preserved examples than anywhere else. Not only do they make for an unusually rich ensemble of particularly impressive ancient monuments, but moreover, each of them has its own distinctive character and peculiar features, its own history and its own specific setting within a town or landscape.

Concordia Agrigenta. (Photo (c) Peter Sommer)

The reason for Sicily’s wealth in such a specific type of monument lies in the early history of the island. In the 8th century BCE, Sicily became a target of the movement known as Greek colonisation, which affected much of the Mediterranean and Black Sea.

Greek settlers, mostly from the city states of the Southern Greek mainland, set off to found a whole series of new cities on the island, including Syrakousai (modern Syracuse), Akragas (Agrigento), Messene (Messina) and Selinous (Selinunte). In fact, Sicily (and the south of the Italian mainland) received so many Greek colonies that the region was later called Megale Hellas or Magna Graecia (Great Greece).

These settlers brought their Greek identity, lifestyle, culture and traditions with them, a package that also included their religion. The great temples of Sicily are the most striking expression of that package. First of all, they fulfilled the practical need of providing a place of worship or sanctuary with a house for the statue of the respective god or goddess. At the same time, the choice of an architectural type from the ‘motherland’, the Doric temple, served as a clear indication of the colonists’ background and cultural alignment. Soon, the size, format and individual characteristics also began to express the ‘new’ cities’ wealth, ambition and specific Sicilian identities.


To read further about the temples at Syracuse, Agrigento, Selinunte and Segesta:

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