The Kolymbetra Garden

Valley of the Temples

"A corner of the promised land"

The pool of the gods
Next to the Valley's dry arboricultural landscape of almond and olive trees, where most water sources are usually in the vicinity of rural buildings, there are irrigated citrus groves and orchards which, however, give life to an irrigated arboricultural landscape. Of all the Valley's citrus gardens, that of Kolymbethra has extraordinary additional historical and archaeological value. The 'garden', as traditional orchards are known in Sicily to highlight their beauty and usefulness, grows in a small valley at the western end of the Hill of the Temples, between the Temple of Castor and Pollux and the Temple of Vulcan, at the site identified with that of the Greek pool (κολυμβήθρα = pool, bath, tank, fish pond) about which Diodorus Siculus wrote in the first century AD, referring to the work undertaken by the Carthaginian slaves after the Battle of Himera (480 BC). They 'adorned the city and the land... they cut the stones with which not only the greatest temples of the gods were built but also the aqueducts for the outlet of the city's water... Overseeing these works was the man nicknamed Feace who ensured that, because of his reputation for construction, the aqueducts came to be called Feaci. The Agrigentines also built a sumptuous pool, with the circumference of seven stadia and twenty cubits deep: the waters of rivers and springs were channelled into it, making it into a fish hatchery. This provided many fish for sustenance and pleasure; and because many swans flew down towards it, its view was delightful. But later it was neglected, obstructed and finally destroyed by the passage of time, and the inhabitants transformed the entire region, which was fertile, into land planted with vines and covered thick with all kinds of trees, so as to obtain a large revenues”.

The traditional citrus grove of Kolymbethra

Ancient cave church

A glimpse of the lost arable-tree planted landscape, planted with trees: the ancient olive alongside arable cultivation (broad beans).

The farmer's vegetable garden amid ancient orange trees, a source of healthy food for the farmer's family at the time of the subsistence agriculture economy.

The citrus garden
When citrus was added to the fruit plants in the vegetable garden, it took the name of 'garden', to emphasise, as is done in Sicily, the coincidence of usefulness and beauty in a cultivated field. This is at least what happened in the years – in the “pleasure times” of Arab and later Norman kings – when the most important species of citrus were introduced, and also when, from the mid-nineteenth century, monoculture targeted at northern markets took hold. This testifies to how the cultural functions – not detached from the productive functions – were recognised, based on the aesthetic and sensory pleasure driving from the shape of the trees, from the colour and taste of the fruits, from the striking and fragrant flowering of the blossom, and from the shade and coolness ensured by the evergreen foliage.

The limestone walls of Kolymbetra

Uncultivated for twenty years, the Garden of Kolymbethra was at risk of disappearing, and with it a material culture and a landscape which was increasingly endangered every day. Until 1998, when FAI (Italian National Trust) signed an agreement with the Sicily Region, under which the latter handed over the area for 25 years in exchange for environmental and landscape restoration of the 'garden'. On completion of the project, the Garden of Kolymbethra was opened to the public on 9 November 2001 with the goal of giving back an invaluable agricultural and cultural landscape to visitors. Abandonment had hidden a long and productive history based on the fertility of the alluvial soil, the abundance of water and a microclimate that the limestone walls kept mild all year round year. In the steeper areas, garrigue and Mediterranean shrub, there are examples myrtles and oaks of exceptional dimensions, while degradation hid – up the point of smothering – what was left of a cultural landscape of great historical, agronomic and landscape value. On the valley floor, beyond the small perennial river bordered with reeds, there is a Mediterranean garden in the sense of a garden-orchard and, in particular a citrus grove, and, in the non-irrigated areas, the dry arboretum of almond and olive (Barbera et al., 2005). The restoration was aimed at preserving use of the soil, species, varieties, agronomic techniques and the traditional agricultural landscape, making minor modifications (walkways, seating, crossings) to encourage visits to and learning about a 'garden' which retains the character of a historic agricultural system and landscape: namely, a Sicilian citrus grove garden. Today, Kolymbethra encapsulates in six hectares the agricultural and natural landscape of the Valley of the Temples. In the steepest areas, plants of the Mediterranean shrub: myrtle, mastic, terebinth, broom, phillyrea, euphorbia, buckthorn, dwarf palm. On the valley floor, beyond the small river fed by the still perfectly functioning drainage tunnels and bordered by reeds, poplars, willows and tamarisks, there is a citrus grove with ancient varieties of lemons, mandarins and oranges, irrigated using traditional Arabic techniques. Where the water does not reach, mulberry, carob, prickly pear, almond and gigantic 'Saracen' olive trees grow.

A hedge of fragrant rosemary welcomes visitors as soon as they walk through the entrance gate to the garden, which is in front of the Temple of Castor and Pollux

The interior of a Feace aqueduct: the drainage tunnel is still in full working order, and channels waters from the water table out of the ground, functioning as an artificial spring.

View of the Temple of Castor and Pollux from the Garden of Kolymbethra

From the 'gebbia' (water trough), the water flows through 'saje', channels made of clay or upturned roof tiles, to reach the various areas of the garden to be irrigated in predetermined shifts

'Gebbia', water collection tank

A treasure chest of biodiversity 
The Kolymbethra is a garden filled with a vast and ancient variety of fragrant and flavourful fruits that are resistant to disease, based on agronomic technologies and genetic resources which are not adequate for the dominant needs of a global market and production efficiency. Although the most widespread of the species grown here are citrus fruits, there are also many other fruit species, revealing a high level of specific biodiversity: azarole, banana, carob, quince, fig, prickly pear, white mulberry, black mulberry, persimmon, pomegranate, loquat, medlar, pistachio and mountain ash. In general, each species is represented by ancient varieties which are largely no longer cultivated in modern fruit growing systems. The varieties of citrus in the garden have been studied at both morphological and molecular level. These ancient citrus varieties were once a necessary and functional part of the agricultural system, in which variability made it possible to have genotypes suitable for the growing environment, resistant to adversity, with nutritional and qualitative characteristics suited to the needs of both farmers and markets. Varieties of orange including Sanguigno and Sanguigno Doppio, Sanguinello Moscato, Ovale, Moro, Brazilian, Vaniglia Apireno and Vaniglia Sanguigno, as well as the common Femminello lemon and the Avana mandarin, identified in the Kolymbethra and represented by centuries-old trees, testify to the ancient genetic wealth that was in danger of disappearing following decades of neglect and abandonment which engulfed the garden before the recovery of its environment and landscape. In the citrus growing systems of Isola, these varieties, like many others, are unfortunately now being made obsolete by increasingly dynamic variety upgrades, and are found only as scattered plants in the old citrus groves, or in amateur gardens or collections held at public institutions. The genetic erosion to which they are subjected is the prelude to their definitive disappearance, and concerns precisely genetic entities which, although not all of them have ever been cultivated in real systems, have a high historical as well as genetic value. Some of these varieties are represented within the garden by large trees that still bear the wounds of agricultural abandonment on their trunks. They represent a valuable genetic, as well as historical and cultural, heritage that must be preserved, maintained and enhanced. Knowledge of this heritage is the starting point for enhancement of the germplasm that these varieties represent, and a point of reference in terms of the choices of strategies and direct actions for preservation of the garden. The almost 63,000 visitors that Kolymbethra welcomes each year, including the many students for whom several new educational paths have been created, are shown the importance of preserving and protecting the biodiversity of the garden. This puts the garden at odds with intensive modern monocultural fruit facilities, which may be more productive and efficient, but which are devoid of all the smells, flavours, colours and shapes that only traditional agricultural landscapes can preserve because they are repositories of biodiversity, ancient knowledge, production values, environmental and cultural concerns and a way of life that are disappearing. Kolymbethra is an example of how to promote active protection of a traditional agricultural landscape, recognising its multifunctionality, including not only productive, but also environmental, cultural, ethical and aesthetic functions. Its restoration shows how, in fact, the economy of traditional agricultural landscapes can also be supported by activities not directly related to production, but rather to services.
The Garden of Kolymbethra as told by those who made the Grand Tour
In the diaries of those who made the Grand Tour and chose Agrigento as the last Italian destination on their journey of discovery of classical antiquity, Kolymbethra is cited in enthusiastic descriptions of the Temples and the landscape. In 1770, Jean Houel wrote: ”(...) 'Pool of Agrigento'. At the foot of the hill on which the Temple of Castor and Pollux was built in Agrigento, you see the place where this famous pool once was, roughly a mile in circumference and twenty cubits deep, so they say. It is famous for being entirely man-made, which seems very unlikely. The Agrigentines bred a large amount of freshwater fish here. Historians spoke of it; today no trace remains. In the same pool, not even the remains of the city walls were found. The Akragas river, whose waters fed the pool, having been neglected after the city was abandoned, dragged the ground and the stones from which the pool was formed and hollowed out the valley on all sides, carrying the remains to the sea. It is said that fish of this pool were intended for public banquets, a fact that might make it believable that fish not native to Sicily were also bred. The surface of the water was covered with swans, geese and other birds typical of swampy environments, which made a pleasing spectacle, as the Agrigentines did not neglect anything that might that could increase their pleasures. Near the place where the pool was, on the northern slope of the hill, in a small garden, there is a spring that they claim to be an oil source. I examined it carefully, and in the small cavity that it fills I saw nothing but water, whose oily surface gives rise to rainbows, that is, coloured blue and yellow with coloured iridescences that offer these colours, colours than can be seen on some stagnant waters; it is the product of the dissolution of certain plants caused by the run-off of rain, whose fatty constituents form these rainbows, settling on the water. If it is true that this is spring water, these rainbows could be caused by the dissolution of some bitumen lands that are nearby. Beneath this spot there are caves, excavated into the mountain at various points. These entrances are so narrow that only one man can enter at a time; they are very deep and can lead in any direction... These caves have another origin: it seems that these aqueducts, these areas of paths in the mountains, were built on purpose So that the clouds and the moisture in the atmosphere, turning into water, would collect in these cavities, and would not be lost where water would be of no use to the people living nearby. These waters, flowing toward the mouth or the entrance of the caves, form weak but permanent fountains. Some, because of the abundance of water constantly gushing forth, almost seem a kind of miracle (...)”. In 1777, in his itinerary in the city of Agrigento, recalling the Temple of Castor and Pollux,  Swinburne also mentions Kolymbethra: ”(...) the vegetation has covered the lower part of the construction and only a few fragments of columns appear between the vines”. He places the temple exactly ”at the point of the hill where the wall stops at the edge of a large fish hatchery mentioned by Diodorus. It is now dry and is used as a garden”. He also notes “on the hill opposite (to Kolymbethra) two slender columns without capitals, very evocatively and happily placed in a stand of carob trees (…)”. This undoubtedly refers to the Temple of Vulcan. Visiting Agrigento in 1785, Saint-Non also remains fascinated by  Kolymbethra: ”(...) It is at the ruins of the temple of Castor and Pollux, that the remains of this famous pool can be seen, dug by Carthaginian prisoners after the battle of Himera; according to Diodorus, it was twenty cubits deep and seven stadia in circumference, that is, 4200 feet, or 700 fathoms. According to this historian, it seems that the prodigious luxury of the inhabitants of Agrigento had led them to dig this huge pool, and because it could have been useful for supplying their city. As well as the huge amount of fish of all species that were fed for the tables of rich citizens, they bred all possible river birds; the variety of their forms and plumage became an object of fun and a show for the idlers of the city. Although the cladding of this immense reservoir, which must have been made of stone, like all ancient constructions, has been totally destroyed, and time has partially furrowed and eroded the rock into which it was dug, it is still possible to see the shape and size. The same channel that brought in water from a nearby source still exists in places; the water still flows in this channel to irrigate the lush gardens which now occupy the bottom of the pool... The end of this fresh water spring, impregnated with fat and salt, flows into a small valley which, due to its amazing fertility, looks like the Valley of Eden, or a corner of the promised land...(...)”. In 1821, the Marquis de Foresta wrote of Kolymbethra: “(...) As for the pool of seven stadia in circumference and twenty cubits in depth, the same author (Diodorus, book XX) tells us that it was built in the same era (480 BC), but by his time, he adds, it already no longer existed due to the lack of maintenance. It is easy to recognise its location on the edges of the river Akragas at the western corner of the city, not far from the Temple of Castor and Pollux. Erosion has turned the pool into a kind of very deep ravine for the cultivation of vegetables. It supplies the markets of Agrigento where today we could try in vain to find the fish which this same ravine was able to provide in abundance when it was a large pool... (…)”. In 1896, arriving in Agrigento, Gaston Vuillier wrote of Kolymbethra: ”(...) Not far away, a fragment of the Temple of Castor and Pollux superbly designs in the sky four corner columns with a cornice of a nice warm colour; this is all that remains of the sanctuary. The caretaker who I met led me to the brink of a deep ravine; he told me that in that place there was an ancient pool of 7 stadia in circumference and 20 cubits in depth, which was dug by Carthaginian prisoners after the battle of Himera. The number of those prisoners was so high that there were five hundred to every citizen. It was with the help of so many slaves that Agrigento could adorn such a quantity of buildings. The view that one enjoys from the edge of the pool, slightly elevated from the rest, is superb. The ancient temples show their columns through the orange trees, and beyond you discover the endless sea. I stayed a long time, weak from the heat, my gaze lost in the leaves that tremble and shimmer with the irregular puffs of the sea breeze, and my wandering thoughts traced the course of the years. We left the edge of the ravine and went to rest in the shade of a large carob tree; boulders from the Temple of Olympian Zeus were piled around us, and beyond the olive trees, stunted and thin, stretched the sea, endless and quivering. No noise disturbed the solitude; only occasionally the grasshoppers rustling in the dry grass, catching our attention (...)”.
From 'The Old and the Young' by Luigi Pirandello 
” ...The famous Akragantine Colimbetra of antiquity was actually much farther down, at the lowest point of the plain, where three valleys meet and the rocks divide and the line of the rugged brow, upon which the Temples stand, is broken by a wide gap. At this spot, now known as the Abbadia Bassa, the Akragantines, a century after the foundation of their city, had formed their fishpond, a great basin of water extending to the Hypsas, its bank combining with the river to form part of the fortifications of the city” ... …..
From 'The Patience of the Spider' by Andrea Camilleri
“ ... Montalbano phoned Marinella. Livia had just come in and was happy. 'You know, I've just discovered a fabulous place. It's called Kolymbetra. Just think, it used to be a great big pool, originally carved out by Carthaginian prisoners'. 'Where is it?' Montalbano asked. 'It's right there, near the temples. Now it's a kind of vast garden of Eden, just recently opened to the public......... ...... .. Promise me some day or another we will go”.......... ..
Credits: Story

The exhibition was curated by Giusi Messina.
General Coordination: Giuseppe Parello, Director of Archaeological Park and Landscape of the Valley of the Temples.
Text: Maria Ala, Giuseppe Barbera Giuseppe Lo Pilato
Photos: Maria Ala; Archive of the Archaeological Park and Landscape of the Valley of the Temples; FAI Archives.
We would like to thank the Archaeological Park and Landscape of the Valley of the Temples, The Director of the Kolymbetra Garden Giuseppe Lo Pilato and the FAI (The National Trust for Italy).

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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