A Tyrant’s Garden

I woke up with the peacocks the next morning.  A slightly less screechy wake-up call would have been nice, but I didn’t really mind.  Today I was going to visit Kolymbetra, the garden of the ancient Greeks, and the temples those Greeks built on the ridge overlooking the garden.


From my window the screeching peacock was nowhere to be seen, but in the distance there was one of the temples.

When I told the young woman who brought me breakfast about walking over to Kolymbetra the evening before, her eyes opened wide.  If one of the custode had caught me without a entrance ticket…


My idea of breakfast. Freshly-squeezed juice, croissant just out of the oven, cappuccino and a fabulous view.

Still, it was tempting.  The walk through the olive grove had been such a pleasant experience and it was so much closer by foot than by car and I really did not want to drive along that narrow lane any more times than absolutely necessary.  But I also didn’t want to run into an unfriendly custode before I reached the ticket office.

My plan was to tour the garden first and then the temples, so I parked in the lot at the south end of the ‘valley’, close to the temple that overlooked the garden.  With my ticket, proof that I had not entered illegally, and map in hand, I set out for the temple.  According to the map it was called the Temple of Castor and Pollux.


From almost any part of the garden, you can catch a glimpse of the Temple of Castor and Pollux.

There is something about the number ‘3’.  Photography has the ‘rule of thirds’; in our gardens we’re urged to plant ‘in threes’.  E così via.  And on and on.  ‘Three’ is symmetry, beauty and harmony.  So maybe the Temple of Castor and Pollux would be even more compelling if it only had three columns.  But, you might object, it’s a ruin.  You can’t fault a ruin for not following the principles of design.  Fine – except that this ‘ruin’ is a made-up 19th century pasticcio.

In the early 1800’s Domenico Antonio Lo Faso Pietrasanta Duca di Serradifalco, who mercifully usually went by the name of Serradifalco, was put in charge of the excavation and restoration of Sicily’s major archeological sites, including Agrigento.  He suspected that a treasure trove of ruins lay under the rubble and earth that had accumulated over the centuries and set his workers to digging.  When they hit – probably literally – some columns, he had three of them mounted on bits and pieces from various temples and called the newly minted ruin the Temple of Castor and Pollux.

And the fourth column?  It was added much later, a few years before his death.  Was it his decision?  Or maybe a younger colleague, eager for his bit of glory.  And which of the columns now standing was the later addition?  No idea.  And why, after all the bother they’d gone to, hadn’t they done something about the unsightly, white splotches?  In any event, notwithstanding the supernumerary column, the new ruin was a great success, and before long was adopted as the official symbol of the Valley of the Temples.


‘Ruins’ of the Temple of Castor and Pollux, official symbol of the Valley of the Temples.

I found out later that the ‘unsightly splotches’ are what’s left of a stucco coating that protected the sandstone and that also just happened to create a marble-like effect similar to the real thing on temples back in Greece.

Concidentally, while I was putting this post together, TVO rebroadcast ‘Lone Twin’, a beautifully moving documentary in which writer/director Anna Van Der Wee, seeks the answer to a question that has haunted her since the death of her twin brother in a tragic accident when he – and she – were twenty:   When a twin dies, is the surviving twin still a twin?  In the intro she talks about twins throughout history, including Castor and Pollux, twin brothers from Greek mythology.

Like most Greek myths, especially ones involving Zeus, the story line is terribly complicated, but in a nutshell, after Zeus seduces the swan, Leda, she gives birth to the twin brothers, Castor and Pollux, who are, according to some versions, both half-immortal (whatever that means).  In other versions, Pollux gets all the immortality gene and Castor is left mortal.  Inevitably, the one who ends up wounded in battle is Castor.  Overcome with grief after Castor’s death, Pollux begs Zeus to reunite him with his brother.  For a character who spent so much time getting up to no good, the king of the gods came up with a surprisingly brilliant solution –  he transformed them into Gemini, the constellation of the twins.  None of which explains why the temple was named for the twins.

I was making slow progress.  A good thing the entrance to the garden was nearby.


Plaque at the official entrance to Kolymbetra.

In ‘The End of Your Life Book Club’ Will Schwalbe describes how his mother, the other member of this very exclusive book club, would read the end of a book first.  While I have always felt some kind of moral obligation to start where the author intended (although I have, at times, guiltily raced through many pages to get to the end), I can relate to her strategy.  When confronted with plaques like the one at the entrance to Kolymbetra – no matter how interesting or how well written – I start losing focus after the first line or two.  I can’t wait to get to the end – the garden.  So I take a photo and read the material after I’ve visited the garden.  Preferably sitting somewhere with a nice view and a glass of wine.


From here it was easy to see the path (on the left) I had taken into the garden the day before. Doesn’t it seem rather wide for an illegal entrance?  In the distance, the modern city of Agrigento.

But the people in charge were on to visitors like me.  Throughout the garden were more plaques, each with a very palatable bocconcino of info.  The canny people who had put up these plaques work with FAI,  Fondo Ambiente Italiano (Foundation of the Italian Environment), a national non-profit organization with a mandate similar to that of the British National Trust – the promotion and protection of green spaces, historical buildings and all the other elements of Italy’s rich heritage that are ‘fundamental to our roots and our identity’.


In the top left corner of each plaque, the symbol of FAI, the Italian equivalent of the British National Trust.

Towards the end of the 20th century, the whole area had fallen into such a serious state of neglect – the peasants having abandoned the hardships and subsistence existence of farm work for an easier life in the city – the local authorities decided the only way to save it would be to hand it over to FAI.  FAI’s restoration efforts have been so rapid and so successful that Kolymbetra has already been among the top 10 finalists of the annual ‘Most Beautiful Parks in Italy’.


Even in full daylight it was hard to tell where the tree ended and the rock began.

For those of you who have left reading the plaque for later, the ground I was standing on was once the site of an enormous Kolymbetra –  ancient Greek for ‘swimming pool’.     The pool had been the idea of the Greek ‘tyrant’, as the leaders of the Greek settlements in Magna Grecia were called, Terone.   Some of the tyrants lived up to the name – Phalaris was a particularly unsavoury brute, who took delight in roasting his victims in a iron bull.  Although as ambitious as his predecessor, Terone seems to have been of a more humane temperament.  A less tyrannical tyrant.  Rather than roast his enemies, he preferred to use them as slave labour.

After defeating the Carthaginians in the 480 B.C. Battle of Himera (not to be confused with other Battles of Himera between the Greeks and the Carthaginians – 409 B.C., 405 B.C. and 310 B.C. – how do people keep these things straight?) in addition to the other spoils of battle, Terone found himself with an enormous supply of slave labour (all those captured Carthaginians).   Perfect for the urban renewal and beautification projects he had in mind.  He started with the temples.  But in addition, aware that absolute power can only get you so far if the citizens you rule don’t have the basic necessities, he took advantage of his new work force to build a system that would provide the city with a reliable and sufficient supply of water.


Some of the captives were set to work digging a series of ipogei, (tunnels) in the hillside.  Water droplets that transpired from the porous tufa, flowed along the channels to holding tanks.  The water in the tanks was used to replenish the water in the great vasca, an enormous pool ‘seven stadiums large and 20 braccia (arms) deep’ that had been dug out by others of their wretched compatriots, and to water the lush garden, full of marvellous fauna and flora, that surrounded the pool.  When finished, it was a luxurious holiday resort that even the most ambitious of tyrants would have been happy to call his own. But Terone was no ordinary tyrant.  His bit of paradise was open to all – the local women would come here to do their laundry and gossip and all were free to refresh themselves in the cool, limpid waters.


A few minutes later, a group of Grade 1 students from a local school arrived at the ipogeo. One of their teachers told me Kolymbetra was the perfect outing.  A bit of culture and then the students would be back in time for their parents to pick them up for lunch.

A century later Terone’s great vasca was filled in and the area planted with vegetables and fruit trees.  Enough water still flowed through the ipogei to irrigate the entire garden, even in the dry season. As it does to this day.

In 1100, around the beginning of the Dark Ages – an expression that seems oddly out of place in this sun-filled locale – the area was transformed again, this time into a cannetto and the vegetables and fruit trees were replaced with sugar cane.


These workers, who were struggling to remove the plants which were threatening to take over the garden, may have had an opinion or two about the idea of planting sugar cane in the hot, sheltered valley.


What if Disney had been Italian instead of American? Would some of the talking trees in his movies have been olives?

Five centuries later, the property was taken over by an abbey and planted with vegetables and herbs. And in the 17th century, when vast tracts of Sicily were being planted with fruit trees, a citrus grove was added.


Carved into the hillside, beyond the citrus grove, the cave church I had seen the day before.

As I meandered through the citrus trees, I thought about how these fruits, which we have grown so used to and see everyday in our grocery store, originally came to us courtesy of the Arabs, whose civilization was, for so many centuries, far advanced of any in Europe.  A thought which, if anything, made the current situation in the Middle East seem even more tragic.


The diminutive femminello (little female) seems a peculiar choice of name for a lemon – or anything for that matter – known for its ‘extraordinary’ fertility.


A serendipitous succession of yellows and greens.

I’d always been confused about the word ‘cedro‘ (chay-droe).  I knew it was a lemon, so why not limone (lee-moh-nay)?   And I had never heard of a Citron Tree before. I’d always thought of ‘citron’ as see-tro(n) – French for lemon.  Or maybe a paint colour.  Things would have been a lot less confusing if Pliny had just left the names of these things alone.


The pomegranate is not one of my favourite fruits – so much work for such a tiny bit of juice.  Persephone would certainly have fared a lot better if she hadn’t eaten any – but aesthetically, it has a lot going for it.  A few nice, big, red pomegranates look great in fall and winter planters and I even like its bright orange (not a colour you’ll find in my garden) flowers.


The Pomegranate.  Depending on when and where you lived, a symbol of friendship and democracy or fruit of the dead.

Given the disaster that followed Persephone’s eating just a few seeds, I was surprised to learn that in modern times the pomegranate has been given a new, more positive spin.  In Greece it’s now considered a symbol of abundance, fertility, and good luck, often given as a house-warming gift.


Even when you know the life cycle, it’s hard to imagine this will one day be a large, round, gorgeous-looking fruit.

At the far end of the garden was one of the ancient channels used to irrigate the garden.


Nearby, a few unnaturally square chunks of rock jutted precariously out of the hillside.  This was the site of a latomia – a type of cave from which the Greeks extracted the building blocks for their temples.


At this rate I was never going to get to the temples and this was my last day in the area.  I slowly made my way up the ridge and out of the ancient garden.


Next – The Temples.



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