The Sanctuary of Asclepius

3d model and reconstruction

The Sanctuary of Asclepius

For the reconstruction of the Sanctuary we followed the work and assumptions by E. De Miro, in Agrigento II I santuari extraurbani, Rubettino 2003.

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Short history of

The Sanctuary of Asclepius

The great extra urban sanctuary devoted to Asclepius, the god of medicine, is located in a flat area around 900 m south of the circuit wall. The sacred complex, is referred to by Polybius (Historiae, I, 18, 2), speaking of the Roman siege of 262 BC, and, in another passage, by Cicero (Verr. IV, 43, 93) in the context theft a statue of Apollo preserved in the temple by Verres, owes its identification to the presence of buildings characteristic of the sanctuaries of Asclepius, to the recovery of objects specifically dedicate to the cult as well as of a marble statue depicting the divinity.

It is possible to recognize peculiar planimetric-architectural characteristics in all the sanctuaries of Asclepius in the Greek world since they were not only cult places but also real hospital structures in which the worshippers-patients of the god awaited recovery.

The sanctuary occupied an area of around 18000 m2 and was bordered on the North and West sides by a series of porches and on the south side by an enclosure wall; on the east side no structures remain because of a light landslide of the plateau toward the river valley.

The monumental entry opened on the north side and was set on the axis of an extra urban road which came out from Gate IV. This structure was porched and served as the reception for the believers.

The temple, built in the second half the 4th c. BC, is quite well preserved despite the fact that a farm, demolished only at the beginning of 1900, had been built over the site. As regards the buildings, the three steps of the crepidome and part of the north-western superstructure are visible. It deals with a distyle temple, in antis, of Doric order, with pronaos, cella and pseudo-opisthodomus constituted by a false portico of two semi-detached Doric columns between strong antae. As regards the elements of architectural decoration, among the ruins some moulding fragments of the frame and a beautiful spout lion-headed, have survived and are preserved in the Regional Archaeological Museum in Agrigento.

In front of the temple, on the oriental side, are the remains of the great sacrificial altar where the blood rituals in honour of the god were performed and a little further on the remains of a shrine which was composed by two rooms, pronaos and cells, and it contained inside the cella a well, internally plastered and provided of coverage lid, full of ex-voto.

On the west side of the sanctuary there is a porch which is over 90 meters long, only the foundation level remains today, in which seventeen rooms of different dimensions, but which were arranged symmetrically, have been identified and interpreted as hostel rooms and as rooms for the consumption of meals by the worshippers who sojourned in the sanctuary.

Because water was fundamental to the ritual role of the sanctuary there were different cisterns which provided an abundant water reserve for religious and medical purposes.

The greatest, built in square cut blocks and internally covered by plaster, has a rectangular shape, dimensions of around m 10 x 3 and a capacity of around 50.000 litres; it is cut in front of the abaton; in it ended the terracotta pipe of a monumental fountain located in the centre of the sanctuary, of this fountain only the basin and some blocks of the architectural decoration remain today. The ex voto, all datable to Hellenistic age, were deposed inside quadrangular shed wells in different parts of the area and they included miniature pots but above all anatomical ex voto. The anatomical ex voto represent the more usual cult votive offering to Asclepius or to the other healing divinities and they represent, often in small scale, limbs of the human body offered to the divinity as thanks or as prayer for recovery obtained or simply wished.

Lastly, in the free space among the different sacred buildings, we may hypothesize the presence of a sacred grove, frequently attested by the literary sources in the sanctuaries of Asclepius.

The frequentation of the sanctuary is actually attested for the whole Hellenistic period to the 2nd. C. BC, with the exception of a period of decline coinciding with the epoch of the Roman siege reported by Polybius. Attestations, even if they are sporadic, continue through the Roman imperial and into the Late antique period.