There’s a modern town called Agrigento on Sicily’s southern coast, but alongside it, in a fertile valley, lies an ancient Greek city also called Agrigento.
These cities give their name to the Sicilian Province of Agrigento.
Agrigento was founded around 582–580 BC by Greek colonists from nearby Gela, who named it “Akragas”.
In its heyday, Akragas was the richest city in the Mediterranean, containing a staggering fourteen temples with vast statues, monuments galore and spectacular levels of international shipping trade, as well as agricultural production.
Its population was several hundred thousand, which made it a colossal metropolis for that long-ago time before modern water and sewage systems, or public transport. Some historians think it was larger than ancient Rome.
The city stayed neutral in the conflict between Athens and Syracuse, but its democracy was overthrown when the city was ravaged by the Carthaginians (also called Phoenicians, as Phoenicia or Lebanon was where they originally came from) in 406 BC.
Neutrality in those days was nothing but a sign of weakness.
Akragas was successively invaded by the Romans and the Carthaginians. Being in the middle of these two rival superpowers, and such a grand prize, it just couldn’t keep itself out of trouble.
As we all know, wars are expensive, rebuilding is even more expensive, and this experience put the city into a state of steady decline.
The Romans eventually captured Akragas in 210 BC and renamed it Agrigentum, although it remained a largely Greek-speaking community for centuries.
Agrigentum became prosperous again under Roman rule, and its inhabitants received full Roman citizenship after the death of Julius Caesar in 44 BC.
After the fall of the Western Roman Empire, the city successively passed into the hands of the Vandals, the Ostrogoths of Italy, and then the Byzantine Empire. These were times of constant war and invasion in the Mediterranean region. With a power vacuum left by the fall of the Roman Empire, it took a very long time for things to settle.
Akragas never fully recovered its former status, though it was briefly revived to some extent under a ruler called Timoleon, in the latter part of the 4th century.
In the Christian era, the orthodox Greeks of Sicily succumbed to atrocious Byzantine administration, and the corruption and disorganisation which characterised it.
Byzantium (previously called Constantinople and nowadays called Istanbul) was a European power that used red tape instead of military might to suppress its subjects. Agrigento went into ongoing decline under the suffocating stranglehold of the inefficient and corrupt, until it was populated by shepherds, grazing their sheep among its ruins.
They even abandoned the coastal side of the town altogether because the attacks from the sea, by pirates as well as anyone else fancying a quick raid, were impossible for them to fight off. This was possibly the lowest point in the city’s history.
The Greeks became the poor of Sicily, even more so when they were enslaved by the Muslims who invaded and conquered the island from their base in Egypt.
The Muslims were saddened to see such a magnificent city reduced to its dismal state. They restored some of it, focusing in particular on a beautiful botanical garden with a reflective pool which they saw as paradise.
They filled it with exotic citrus species and all the plants they could find, restored and augmented the channels of its irrigation system and used it as a sanctuary of peace and beauty. It was called the Garden of the Kolymbetra.
The Normans only allowed this to go on for a couple of centuries. Following the Norman conquest of Sicily, the city’s name was changed to the Norman version Girgenti.
In 1087, Norman Count Roger I established a Latin bishopric in the city and the Normans built the Castello di Agrigento to control the area. The population declined steadily during much of the medieval period.
Agrigento now flourishes thanks to tourism. It’s so vast that you see few other tourists in the way of your photos, even in the peak of summer when coach-loads of them are brought in. I think this is very surprising since it’s a UNESCO world heritage site.
The nearby town has atrocious level of unemployment because, sadly, the ancient city doesn’t create many jobs.
So if you do go down to visit, will you think about popping into the modern town and helping the local restaurants and shops with a bit of tourist cash?