Delphi was once the centre of the world. According to the legend, the Cretans came here with their god Apollo, who had taken the shape of a dolphin, and built the first temple. But the dawn of Delphi’s history goes back much further. Somewhere in the mountains, there was the cave of Gaia, Mother Earth, where the predecessors of Apollo’s priestess Pythia performed their sacred rituals.
The heyday of the temple of Apollo was in the 6th century BC. It was considered a sacred place throughout the ancient classical world, and people travelled long distances in search of answers and prophecies of the oracle. These prophecies – resourcefully interpreted by the temple’s priests – had an enormous importance in political and diplomatic decision making, such as going to war or establishing new colonies.
The temple site has been built on several terraces of the Mount Parnassus. Starting from the bottom there’s the sanctuary of Athena Pronaia and close by, the gymnasium, a training facility for young athletes. Continuing up the slope, there are buildings for votive statues and treasuries, built by the Greek city states to hold their rich offerings made to Apollo, and above them, the temple itself. Further up is a theatre with spectacular views over the landscape, and finally, the stadium. Here were held the Pythian Games every four years, by turns with the Olympic, Nemean and Isthmian Games. In addition to the sports, there were singing and playing competitions.
Besides the temples, there’s an archaeological museum in Delphi. It was included in the entrance fee, but our heads were so filled with impressions after wandering around the temples all day, we simply didn’t dare to enter. The Florence Syndrome is real! We found there’s so much to see in Delphi, that the wisest thing was to think of our visit as a preliminary scan, and come back again, possibly several times! It was also a very hot, sunny day – but the hoards of tourists that were blocking every path were even more exhausting than the heat. Maybe the winter season is a better time to visit, in both respects.
Delphi seen from Itéa – the town can be seen halfway up the mountain, with the high, barren top of Mount Parnassus in the background.
The Serpent Column was cast in bronze according to the original column, built in 470 BC in honour of a war against Persia.
The Athenian Treasury has been completely reconstructed.
As the legend goes, the first Temple of Apollo was built of laurel, the second of beeswax and feathers, and the third of bronze. The fourth was built out of stone, aided by Apollo himself. There were several stone temples in the same place, because they kept perishing in fires and earthquakes. The last one, again visible today, was built around 320 BC.
The more common religious rituals and offerings were performed among the columns and altars of the temple. In the innermost sanctuary, adyton, sat Pythia on her tripod, raving her prophecies above a crevice, where poisonous fumes entered the room. It went on for over a thousand years, but in 390 AD the last Pythia was silenced, and the temples, statues and artworks destroyed, because paganism was banned by the Roman Empire.
The wide views from the theatre made us feel very small. Olive groves between the magnificent mountains seem like a great big river flowing into the sea.
The stadium, where athletes competed in running, discus throwing, wrestling and boxing.
We took a bus back to Itéa. From there, we actually started our journey back to Mesolongi, but there were still places to see in the Bay of Corinth before returning – more about that next time.