Delphi also known in antiquity as Pytho is famous as the ancient sanctuary that grew rich as the seat of the Pythia, the oracle who was consulted before important decisions were taken throughout the ancient classical world. The Greeks considered Delphi the navel (or center) of the world, and a stone monument, that can still be seen today, known as the ‘Omphalos of Delphi’ was placed at the site in ancient times to commemorate that ‘fact’.
Delphi is located in central Greece, 185 km from Athens, and precariously clings to the steep slopes of Mount Parnassus overlooking the Pleistos Valley. It is spread across a number of small plateaus which provided enough space for its substantial buildings. As one approaches Delphi from Athens, one is immediately impressed by the vertical cliffs, these ancient Phaedriades Rocks that characterize the Delphic landscape.
In ancient Greece, Delphi was chosen to be the host city of the greatest and longest lasting joint council (or League, known then as an amphictyony) of the twelve ‘tribes’ of Greece (later expanded to include those from a wider area). It is now an extensive archaeological site with a small modern town of the same name nearby. It has been recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site as it had a phenomenal influence in the classical world, as shown by the still-standing important monuments (treasuries) built there by most of the powerful ancient Greek city-states as a token of unity as well as having a wider influence as evidenced by the historical and archaeological records found in other parts of the ancient world.
TOUR TO THE ARCHAEOLOGOCAL SITE
Delphi brings the past to life and its physical surroundings are awe-inspiring. The majesty of the archaeological site of the Oracle of Delphi is without equal: ruins of ancient buildings that belong to the realm of myth, the great mystic rituals of prophecy that took place here, the sanctity and respect that the ancients afforded the Oracle, in such a landscape, complete an image that is part of a “life experience”. The archaeological site is extensive, spread across the mountain and rewards the visitor with numerous memorable sights along the way up. The climb may be difficult but it’s worth every step.
The Delphic Landscape
The imposing vertical cliffs, the Phaedriades Rocks, that define the Delphic landscape have a place in the history of Oracle in their own right as people judged to have transgressed against the sanctity of the sanctuary were thrown to their deaths as punishment. Aesop, the ancient fable writer, is thought to have been executed there in around 560BC.
The Temple of Athena Pronaia
Coming from Athens, one first comes across the temple of Athena Pronaia. A segment of its famous dome is what survives today. The visitor can appreciate its setting and how such a temple seems to belong there. Various decorative parts of the temple can be admired in the Archaeological Museum of Delphi. One can also view the remains of three different temples of Athena as well as the altar that was once in the sanctum.
Continuing in a northwesterly direction, we come to the gymnasium. It was a building meant for exercise and training which included a palestra (wrestling area) and baths and its facilities are considered among the most advanced in antiquity. It is thought to have been built the 4th century B.C. and was used until Roman times.
Ancient Krini of Castalia Pigi
Continuing along the road towards the sanctuary of Apollo, one comes to the Ancient Krini of Castalia Pigi. It was the sacred spring of the oracle, where the purification of the Pythia and the priests of Apollo took place. Those who came to the Oracle to seek a prophecy (Theopropes) had to cleanse themselves there as well. The Krini (fountain) Pausanias described in his “Fokika” (from which we have a detailed description of the region), was probably the one existing then, in the 1st century BC. The fountain of Castalia that substantially survives to the present was a later reconstruction.
The Sanctuary of Apollo
The Sanctuary of Apollo dominates in the Delphic landscape. It was surrounded by a wall and the gate was located on the southwestern side. To get to it the visitor follows the Sacred Way, the same path that the seekers of prophesies, the theopropes, took to ascend to submit their request and to sacrifice to Apollo. Along the way to the temple, the most important building of the Oracle, since it was the God Apollo who spoke through his oracle (Pythia), we find numerous foundations and ruins of the ‘Cities’ Treasures’ (treasuries). These are the temple-like buildings which each city built to house its offerings to the oracle, in gratitude for the fulfillment of the prophecies. Each such temple of course, reflected the power and wealth of the city it belonged to.
The Siphnian Treasure
The Siphnian Treasure, among the first that one comes to along the way, was known in antiquity for its artistic value. It’s believed to have been built during the peak period of the island after 550 BC as exploitation of the island’s gold and silver mines had produced great wealth. For the construction of the Treasure, they transported marble from Paros and instead of columns on the façade, they used female statues. Today at the site, one can still see the foundations of the Treasure and an ankle attached to its base. The sculpted decoration of the building which survived can be admired in the Archaeological Museum of Delphi.
The Athenians’ Treasure
Continuing upwards towards the Sanctuary of Apollo, one reaches the Treasure of the Athenians, the best-preserved building of the Oracle. Located just after the first turn of the Iera Odos (Sacred Way), across from the Treasure of the Knidians and the Syracusans, near the Vouleftirion (Council House). The Treasure was probably built in early 5th century BC possibly to commemorate the victory of democracy in Athens. A second theory maintains that the Treasure was built in 490 BC, immediately after the great Athenian victory over the Persians at Marathon.
Parian marble was used for its construction and the labors of Hercules and Theseus adorned its metopes. Many inscriptions have been rescued from the walls of the Treasure, including the two famous musicians’ hymns to Apollo which are exhibited in the Archaeological Museum of Delphi as are most of the removable parts of the monument. The Treasure of the Athenians is the only building of Delphi that was in good enough condition to allow it to have been fully restored in 1906.
The Stoa of the Athenians and the Retaining Wall
Shortly before the temple of Apollo, the magnificent building of the Oracle, one comes to a wall that seems to have been very painstakingly manufactured. It’s a large polygonal retaining wall, whose purpose was to support the terrace of the temple. Just in front of it one can see the ruins from the Stoa of the Athenians, constructed by the Athenians under Pericles to house war trophies that they’d brought as offerings to Delphi. It’s a portico, along which there is a pedestal for exhibiting the offerings. The marble pillars, which have survived, are made of Pentelic, and the pedestal is of Parian, marble.
The Temple of Apollo
At the end of the ancient Sacred Way one reaches the imposing temple of Apollo. Archaeological evidence of a reconstruction suggests that a pre-existing original limestone temple was destroyed by fire in 548 BC. A Pan-Hellenic fundraising, added to the donations from foreign rulers, contributed to the construction of another temple, which was also limestone with a marble façade, adorned by sculptures by the sculptor Antenor. In 373 BC this one was also destroyed, this time by an earthquake. The priests of Apollo resorted again to fundraising to rebuild a new temple. A little later, the Third Sacred War intervened and so it wasn’t until 330 BC that the third temple of antiquity was completed. The evidence at our disposal suggests that it was built according to the plans of the destroyed first temple: a Doric pavilion with six columns along the short sides and 15 along the long sides. This is the temple whose ruins we can see today. In the depths of its foundations was a sanctuary where the oracle, the divination process, actually took place – alas, nothing survives of this sanctuary.
The Ancient Theater and the Stage
Further up the hill, one comes to the Theater and continuing quite a distance beyond that, the stadium where the Pythian Games were held in antiquity. Both areas survive in excellent condition. During the Pythian Games, both musical and vocal contests were held in the ancient theater. The auditorium of the theater was formed partly by the natural layout and partly through technical interventions. The actual theater that we see today dates from the 1st century AD and had a total capacity for 5,000 spectators.
The Stadium of Delphi is located on the highest point of the hill above the sanctuary of Apollo. The path leading to it started from the theater and in antiquity entered the stadium through an arch. A triumphal entry, the only such one we know of in an ancient stadium. A five-tiered stand, hewn from the rock, provided seating for distinguished viewers.
The length of the track was equivalent to a Roman stadia, i.e. 177.55 meters and its width was 25.50 m. The narrow (by today’s standards) stadium is in the shape of a tuning fork with tiered seating that run the length of both sides of the track and were interspersed by the stairways to facilitate access. It is estimated that this stadium had the capacity to accommodate 5,000 spectators.
ARCHAEOLOGOCAL MUSEUM OF DELPHI
The Delphi Archaeological Museum, designed by Alexandros Tombazis is located at the foot of the main archaeological complex and houses an impressive collection associated with ancient Delphi.
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