Delphi is the site of an Ancient Greek Sanctuary where humanity have been excited to gather for at least the last 1400 years. It is a gorgeous place to visit given that it sits on the side of Mount Parnassus, not far from great views out over the Corinthian Gulf, one of the most famous waterways in the world. In fact, for the followers of the Greek God Apollo, it was the exact centre of the world and they have the stone, the ‘Omphalos’, to prove it (See Appendix 1). After all, their head God Zeus released two eagles, one to fly east, one to fly west and when they encircled the earth and met again, they were over Delphi!
Archaeological evidence suggests there were settlers at Delphi during the Mycenean Period, from 1500-1100. However the main period of settlement started around 800 BCE, centred around the Temple of Apollo and the Oracle of Delphi. There has come down to us from ancient sources the process of consulting the oracle and it seems that the temple was built over a geological formation where subterranean gases were released and the priestesses would be under the influence of the ‘vapours’ as part of their future-forecasting. It is clear that the Oracle of Delphi was highly respected for almost a thousand years before the world moved on and left it in ruins in the fourth century CE. The most famous Delphi prediction was when Croesus, the King of Lydia (in the western half of modern Turkey) asked the oracle’s advice about going to war with the Persian Empire. He was informed that if he went to war against Persia, a great empire would fall. He decided this was good advice but he lost the war (546 BCE). His story only assured the followers of the oracle that you have to be very careful of the double-edged sword that were the offerings of the oracle of Delphi.
Visiting Delphi is a great idea if you have organised yourself a tour of the great places of Greece. If you haven’t many days, a bus tour up from Athens is possible. If you have your own car and some days to spare, why not drive up to Corinth and from there on to Delphi, across to Olympia and back to Athens via a night in Nafplion.
Despite the destruction of Delphi by barbarians and earthquakes, there is plenty to see at Delphi that makes sense to the modern visitor. But like all these ancient sites, taking advantage of the work of those historians and archaeologists who have gone before us is a good idea, particularly if they have modeled for us what the site may have looked like in its heyday. When you enter the reception building that houses the ticket office and the Museum, you will notice the beautiful painting completed in 1894 by French architect Albert Tournaire. It is a speculative illustration of what the Sanctuary of Apollo might have looked like in the classical era.
In the museum at Delphi there is a model of the site (below) that is very helpful in getting a sense of how the many buildings , large and small, are linked together.
The third similar reconstruction of the sanctuary at Delphi that I can offer to the reader is the diagram below that has the benefit of labels to assist the visitor.
(My thanks to http://greeceancientmodern.com/ who adapted this excellent diagramfrom Eyewitness Travel Guide, Greece)
When you enter the Delphi Sanctuary, the clutter of small buildings and broken monuments are the first things you notice. The crowded site testifies to the fame and respect that Delphi was held in by the Greek city states and wider nations. The smaller buildings on this first stretch are ‘treasuries’, built by Greek States to commemorate victories or to thank the oracle for her advice. The treasuries held offerings to the temple of Apollo. The Athenian Treasury (above right) was apparently built to commemorate their victory at the Battle of Marathon (490 BCE) and was restored at the start of 20th century. The surviving metopes above the columns of this treasury tell the story of Theseus, the great Athenian hero. These are copies, the surviving originals are in the Museum. The Athenian Treasury was built on the Sacred Way just below the Temple of Apollo and would have been a prestigious site given it was so near the source of the oracle.
The treasury on the first turn in the Sacred Way belonged to the city of Siphnos who happily gave a tithe from their silver mines to the oracle. Unfortunately the sea-flooded their silver mines and their source of wealth came to an end…apparently the oracle didn’t give them any warning.
Traipsing up the hill, you turn the corner and in front of you are the remains of the Temple of Apollo. This temple building is from the fourth century BCE and replaced a sixth century temple built over an even earlier one. This was a very busy building site around the oracle’s source of inspiration. The name of the oracle was the Pythia, the priestess who entered the cellar underneath the temple to inhale the sacred vapours. She would enter a state of delirium and her utterances would be interpreted by the priests and passed on to the supplicant in verse. What could go wrong in such a process?
There was an earthquake in 373 BCE which destroyed the temple of the day but that didn’t stop various city states contributing funds to rebuild the Temple of Apollo by 330 BCE. It is the ruins of this last temple that we can visit today. Much of the stone of the destroyed previous temple was used for the rebuilding. The model of the site from the Delphi Museum (image below) gives an idea of what the temple itself looked like and the grandiose nature of its surrounds. The image to the left shows the remnants of the temple from above in the theatre area.
There were two famous ‘icons’ that originally were placed outside the Temple of Apollo that are worth noting here. One is called the ‘The Tripod of Plataea’, a small model of which can be seen in the image below in front of the temple, holding up a round dish. Today only the platform for this serpentine tripod is still in place in Delphi. The three intertwined snakes were cast from the bronze armoury of defeated Persian soldiers from the battle of Salamis and stood for about 800 years in Delphi before the Roman Emperor Constantine decided he liked the icon and took it with him to his new Rome in the Eastern province of the Empire. It still stands in the Spina of Istanbul today in a deep hole in the 21st century pavement, without its snake-heads (See Appendix 2 below),
The second famous icon that has survived the last two and a half millennia is the Sphinx of Naxos. If the reader returns to one of the images at the start of this article, the models show in the front of the middle of the Temple of Apollo there is a tall marble column on which a ‘Greek Sphinx’ stood. The image on the left shows an illustration of what the original monument may have looked like. The image on the right shows the Naxos Sphinx itself from the Delphi Museum. The museum website explains its discovery…“Three large fragments of the body were originally discovered in 1861, below the polygonal temple retaining wall… They disappeared after the earthquake of 1870 but were found again in 1893, shortly after the discovery of the head.” The restored sphinx in the museum consists of the head, three large pieces and other smaller pieces, returning the Sphinx, a gift to Delphi from the Island of Naxos, to most of its former glory.
From the Temple of Apollo, it is a short walk up hill and you arrive at the most preserved installation on Delphi’s sacred hill, the theatre. It has to be one of the most beautiful sites for a theatre in the world as the view from the seats is not just of the stage, it stretches to the rest of the sanctuary and out to the surrounding mountains and valleys. This theatre was built at some stage during the fourth century. Like the temple down the hill from it, it needed to be renovated and restored a number of times since its original construction; in 160 BCE and 67 CE on the occasion of the Emperor Nero’s disastrous visit (See Appendix 3). The theatre could hold around four and a half thousand spectators. Like the rest of this archaeological site, it deteriorated in late antiquity before excavations in the twentieth century began the restoration process. In the late 1920’s it saw the first theatrical productions begin again in this amazing theatre.
There was a second reason for Delphi’s fame amongst the city States of Greece. Sometime in the late 6th century BCE, Delphi, along with other major religious sites around Greece, held games to honour their various Gods. In Delphi, musical competitions were held to celebrate Apollo. The ‘Pythian Games’ began in the 6th century BCE and included athletic events every eight years and then every four years. The games at Olympia were the only more important games than those held at Delphi. Where were the games held? If the tourist continues up hill to a small plateau above the theatre, they will find one of the most complete ancient stadiums in the world. It was built in the fifth century and was altered and remodeled over the centuries of its usage. The last upgrade was organised by our old friend from the Odeon in Athens, Herodes Atticus, in the second century CE who shared his substantial wealth with Delphi by installing stone seating for the capacity crowd of 6500 spectators.
After the slow inspection of the Sanctuary of Delphi, it’s time to wander back down the hill and enjoy the significant finds from the site that are housed in the Museum.
Appendix 1: The Omphalos of Delphi
The plaque beside the Omphalos of Delphi
APPENDIX 2: The Tripod of Plataea in Istanbul.
There is a poignant artifact to be found in the Hippodrome in central Istanbul, a Serpentine Column from Delphi, a broken remnant of its past glory standing even more forlornly than other ancient artifacts in the same area; Cimberlitas (Constantine’s Column) or the column that once held the four bronze horses of Venice. This column, consisting of three spirals, originally was topped by three serpent heads and stood on the side of the mountain at Delphi in Greece. It was placed there after the Battle of Salamis against the invading Persians in 478 BCE and was made from the melted armoury of the Persian soldiers. It stood there for nearly 800 years before Constantine removed it and ordered it placed on the Spina of his hippodrome in Constantinople. In Delphi today, its base still stands vacant, hoping that one day that its memorial of past great victories will return home to take its rightful place. This spiral column’s undignified headless state speaks of the trivial events of history that can have major consequences. In 1702, the serpent heads were stolen, apparently by a drunken foreign diplomat, so it has stood headless for the last three hundred years, unable to dream of its home on a mountain overlooking the Corinthian Gulf. A minor stroke of luck caused half of one of the serpent heads to be discovered and this small token can now be viewed in the Museum in Istanbul.
APPENDIX 3: The Visit of the Emperor Nero to Delphi.
The Roman Emperor Nero visited Delphi in 67 CE on a grand tour of Greece where he saw himself as the ‘New Apollo of Cultural Achievement’. Given that the administrators knew his visit was a dangerous moment for them and their sanctuary (as all visits from Nero were), they decided to spend some time and money on fixing up the theatre and its surrounds as Nero intended to compete in the musical competitions of the Pythian Games. The whole empire realised that if Nero decided to compete in any competition, given that he was the best at everything, he was going to win. One of the problems of’monarchy’ is that if an heir to the throne comes to power with the mind of a spoilt child, everybody is in for trouble. Of course his efforts in the Delphi games achieved the usual victories but this didn’t protect his hosts from his unpredictable rage at perceived slights. There is a frieze in the Delphi Museum today featuring the ‘Labours of Hercules’ that was placed at the front of the theatre stage when Nero performed there. The Delphi hosts thought Nero would be complimented by the implied comparison with Hercules. The compliment was not received well, Nero was offended and those responsible were put to death. He also ordered the chasm that was the source of the oracles divinations filled in.
To add further insult to extreme injuries, he confiscated between 500-900 bronze statues (depending on the source) from the Delphi Sanctuary and shipped them back to Rome. He was building his Domus Aura (Golden Palace) in the centre of Rome at the time and no doubt he was looking for ostentatious decorations. Unfortunately for history, the marvels that decorated his new palace did not survive his suicide in 68 CE as they were scattered and lost amongst his rivals for power in Rome. This wholesale devastation of the gifts to Apollo that had been gathered over the centuries makes the survival of the one bronze statue from Delphi, the Charioteer, all the more a marvel. It was hidden by an earth-quake over three centuries before Nero visited and so became part of Delphi’s Museum exhibits after its discovery in 1896. At that point, no other Bronze statues from Classical Greece had survived until ship-wreck archaeology in the 20th century discovered some of the masterpieces that are on show in the National Archaeology Museum in Athens.