Didyma or Didim is usually described as a ‘sanctuary’ rather than a town in travel books. This is because its main claim to fame is that it contains the most well-preserved and probably the third largest Temple of Apollo in the Greek world. However like all other settlements around the Aegean Sea, it has a long history of waves of settlers arriving from elsewhere, looking for a place to call home…eg. Minoans, Myceneans, Lycians, Persians, Attalids, Romans, Byzantines, Turks. It entered into the historical record when it came under the control of its larger neighbour Miletus and by the seventh century BCE, its oracle of Apollo was becoming world famous and the first temple was built here to house the oracle. A second and much larger temple was built but like so many amazing buildings from antiquity, it was plundered and destroyed by more powerful neighbours. In this case it was either the Persian King Darius or his son Xerxes sometime early in the fifth century. They of course went on to invade their Greek neighbours over the Aegean Sea and it was these costly excursions that eventually sapped the power and wealth of the Persian Empire. The Didyma site returned to prosperity in the fourth century after Alexander the Great had passed through and the site was re-consecrated. A new temple was built and the structure that visitors can see today are generally the remains of this building.

While the site of Didyma is generally viewed as a sanctuary for visitors wishing to visit the Temple of Apollo, 21st century archaeology digs have revealed that it was a much more complex site made up of other structures normally found in major Greek towns of the Roman period. These include a theatre, a stadium, Roman baths as well a Temple to Artemis, Apollo’s twin sister. Throughout the early middle ages there have been Christian Churches built in or around the Temple of Apollo (using stone blocks from the old temple) but they have crumbled away and the only religious house left is a Mosque that sits at the edge of the site today. The mosque is shown in the image below as well as a diagram that sets out the positions of these other buildings that once existed here when Didyma was a larger and thriving community in the later Roman period.

But the main attraction in visiting Didyma is the very impressive remains of its Temple of Apollo. Such sites always start with a natural spring where an oracle centre develops. Increasing fame demands a serious temple which has to be built around the sacred spring. The view from above shows the access point to the spring (small rectangle at left end of temple) where the Adyton or Shrine to Apollo is set up. This housed a small covered building at ground level that held the cult statue of Apollo. Of course, when the Persians arrived to destroy the temple, this statue of Apollo was taken away back to Persia where it has disappeared into the mists of time. A small grove of trees was planted around the shrine to maintain both the natural basis of the spring from which the oracles arose whilst the whole site was enclosed in an impressive temple befitting the God’s importance.

In Appendix 1 below is an interesting map of sanctuaries devoted to the Greek Gods scattered all around the Aegean sea, tracking the Greek colonies that developed during the centuries before the common era. As of today, we know little about the Temple of Artemis that once existed at Didyma and it doesn’t get a white star on the map as Ephesus does. Just as Didyma’s Temple of Apollo was torched by envious infidels, Ephesus’s wonder of the ancient world, its Temple of Artemis, is gone but it least it has one column left standing tall on its ancient site, reminding modern travellers of what wonders once stood there.

Didyma as a sanctuary was part of the domain or territory of Miletus and much of the wealth that built Didyma came from Miletus. Originally Didyma could be reached by boat from Miletus but after centuries of deforestation, Didyma became land-bound. The connection from Miletus to Didyma from the sixth century onwards was by a Sacred Way that took the pilgrims via a 20 kilometre walk across the countryside. This way was used for festival processions and it was marked by regular way-stations and statues of significant local nobility as well as animals and mythological beasts, such as the sphinxes (image right) that are on display in the Miletus museum. Unlike the statues of the sphinxes, the Kouros head above (circa 550 BCE) is now on display in the British Museum after being excavated by a British Archaeologist from the Sacred Way in the 19th century.

We enjoyed our walk around the ruins of the Temple of Apollo in Didyma; for some reason we decided its resources were presented in a much more positive way than at our earlier stop at Miletus. Being a big fan of Greek iconography, there were two images that were repeated throughout the Temple of Apollo that we particularly admired. The main one was that of the many Griffins that decorated the temple. These half eagle, half lion statues are meant to signify the merge between the earth below and the heavens above. So popular were these images that we met them again a few years later taking pride of place outside the doors of the Catholic Basilica of San Rufino in Assisi, Italy. The Medusa heads of Didyma were by now old friends as we met them in the cistern in Istanbul earlier on our tour of Turkey. The roof of this water storage was held up by ancient pillars, recycled from ancient sites all along the Aegean Coast. In this cistern, you only get to see that these pillars upside down and their ‘capitals (normally always under water) are designed in the form of snake-haired gorgons that have been sitting under the water in this city water supply for many hundreds of years.

APPENDIX 1: Principal religious Sanctuaries of the Greek Aegean

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