Valley of the Temples site in Sicily. Bulldozers demolish illegally-built structures. Hundreds of houses built without planning permission have encroached on the World Heritage-listed site.
Bulldozers have started demolishing illegally-built houses around one of Italy’s most acclaimed World Heritage sites – 14 years after the authorities first ordered that they be knocked down.
Villas and other structures built without planning permission have been encroaching for decades on the Unesco-listed Valley of the Temples site at Agrigento in Sicily, a collection of temples built by the ancient Greeks when they colonised the island 2,500 years ago.
There have been numerous orders to demolish them, dating back to 2001, but they have been impeded by a mixture of red tape, procrastination and administrative in-fighting.
The fact that some of the villas were allegedly the property of Sicilian mafia families also acted as a powerful disincentive to take action.
This week, however, the bulldozers were finally sent in, starting a long-overdue demolition campaign by destroying a 60ft-long wall in front of an illegally-built residence in the Poggio Muscello area.
It was a modest start and there is still an enormous challenge ahead – it is estimated that there are up to 650 illegally-built homes clustered around the ancient site.
Five more houses are due to be demolished on Wednesday, along with a sheep pen and a pair of wooden sheds.
A total of 30 properties have been served with definitive demolition orders while many others are still being challenged in the courts.
Local authorities have been accused of blatantly ignoring court orders to knock down houses and villas built without permits.
Two months ago, prosecutors issued an ultimatum to the council – start bulldozing or face charges of abuse of office and professional negligence.
Prosecutors demanded that “the authorities act without delay to execute sentences, handed down by the courts, which order the demolition of illegal buildings in the Valley of the Temples”.
Recognised by Unesco as a World Heritage site in 1997, the Valley of the Temples was the sacred part of the Greek settlement of Akragas, which became one of the leading cities of the Mediterranean world.
The site consists of the remains of five Doric temples dedicated to Greek gods and goddesses such as Hera, Hercules and Zeus.
The Temple of Hercules, built in the 6th century BC, was roughly the size of the Parthenon.
The Temple of Jove was the largest Doric temple ever conceived, although earthquakes and Carthaginian raids meant that it was never completed.