Located on the slopes of Mount Parnassos in central Greece, Delphi was best known for its oracle in ancient times. Ancient Greeks treated this site with great reverence as it overlooks a spectacular and awe-inspiring landscape. Delphi was unique in that it was not a city-state but a religious center that was administered by an alliance of Greek city-states. Although Greek city-states fought among themselves, they were united in developing this site.
Fascinated by the mystery of the oracle, people have been flocking to Delphi from all over the world for more than a century. The archaeological site of Delphi, which is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, provides a glimpse of its past glory. The ruins at this site include the Temple of Apollo, Treasury of the Athenians, a theater and stadium.
In ancient times, Greeks considered Delphi as the navel of the earth. According to Greek mythology, Zeus wanted to find the navel of the earth, which in other words the center of the earth. To accomplish this task he sent two eagles, one to the east and the other to the west. The eagles crossed their paths at Delphi making it the navel of the earth. The name Delphi is derived from delphys which in archaic Greek means womb and refers to the womb of the Mother Earth.
The earliest known human settlement in Delphi dates back to the Neolithic period (around 4000 BCE). Later, the Mycenaean civilization established a settlement here in the 2nd millennium BCE.
Delphi was initially famous for the worship of goddess Gaia (Mother Earth), and a temple existed for this goddess at the site of the Temple of Apollo.
Later the cult of Apollo took roots in Delphi replacing the worship of Gaia. This cult grew out of a legend based on Apollo’s slaying of an evil python who was a son of Gaia and was roaming Mount Parnassos creating havoc.
The building of the Sanctuary of Apollo started in the 8th century BCE and reached its peak in the 6th century BCE when it became the most important religious center for Greeks.
Delphi was not a city-state, but a protectorate of Amphictyonia (Amphictyonic League), an alliance of Greek tribes from Sterea (south-central Greece) and Thessaly, which controlled it from 7th to 4th century BCE. The Delphi area was considered autonomous. The Amphictyonic League administered it and chose the priests of the Temple of Apollo.
However, in 356 BCE, an alliance of Phocians, Athenians, and Spartans took control of this sanctuary. Their control was short-lived because King Philip of Macedonia defeated them and handed over the site back to the Amphictyonia alliance. He interfered again in 338 BCE and took control of the site himself.
The Roman Empire took control of this site in 191 BCE, but let the religious ceremonies, including the practice of foretelling by the oracle, to continue. Many high-ranking Romans regularly consulted the oracle. Emperor Hadrian was believed to have visited Delphi and consulted the oracle. However, the Roman general Sulla plundered this site in 86 BCE to finance his wars in Greece.
Although the practice of foretelling by the oracle continued for a couple of centuries, it gradually started losing its prominence. The final death knell came from the Christians who wanted to end the pagan practices. In 394 BCE, Byzantine Emperor Theodosius issued an edict abolishing the oracle and other pagan practices at Delphi and other sanctuaries all over the Roman empire. Even after the oracle was abolished, Delphi continued to thrive for another three centuries. As Christianity became prominent, Christians started flourishing in this area, and there was even a Basilica. Delphi was eventually abandoned in 6th or 7th century CE.
Starting 586 BCE, Delphi hosted the Pythian Games every four years to celebrate Apollo’s victory, and it was second only to the Olympic Games in importance. The winner of a game received the laurels picked from the Temple of Apollo. They continued until 424 CE.
Sanctuary of Apollo
The Sanctuary of Apollo includes the Temple of Apollo and the Sacred Way which is the path from the entrance to this temple. Above the temple, there is a theater and a stadium where the Pythian Games were held.
The Sacred Way was the path leading from the entrance to the Sanctuary of the Apollo to the Temple of the Apollo. This sanctuary was visited by the people from various Greek states to ask questions of the oracle.
Because of the slope, the path was zigzag with a few stairs in some places but was well paved. The Greek city-states competed against each other by building structures on either side of the path. Many city-states had treasury buildings which were used as the place to deposit their votive offerings by their citizens.
A typical ancient Greek city-state had an agora, which means meeting place in Greek. It is equivalent to a modern city-square or plaza. Because the people gathered in the agora, merchants set up shops in and around the agora to sell a variety of goods and services. Because of these shops, the agora became synonymous with the marketplace.
Once the Romans took control of Delphi, they remodeled the existing agora sometime in the 4th century CE. It became known as the Roman Agora because the remodeled buildings appeared more Roman than Greek.
The Roman Agora is the first stop on the Sacred Way to the Temple of Apollo. Just like any other temples scenes around the world, this is where the pilgrims bought the votive offerings and proceeded to the temple.
Temple of Apollo
The Temple of Apollo was the most important and dominant structure in the Sanctuary of Apollo. According to a Greek myth, this is where the Omphalos (navel of the earth) stone was found.
The Temple of Apollo was built and remodeled many times at the same site. The first temple was built by the legendary architects Trofonios and Agamedes in the 7th century and was destroyed by a fire in 548 BCE. It was replaced in 525 BCE by a bigger temple, which was destroyed by an earthquake in 373 BCE. The third temple was built with almost the same plan and dimensions of its predecessor in 320 BCE.
Oracle of Delphi
Although the oracle existed during the Gaia times, it became prominent after the cult of Apollo gained importance. The Oracle of Apollo was a priestess called Pythia whom the people believed was a mouthpiece of Apollo.
The Oracle sat on a tripod in the inner sanctum of the temple inhaling vapors emanating from a fissure in front of her. According to a myth, the body of the python slain by Apollo fell into this fissure and vapors emanated from the decomposing body of the python. Intoxicated by vapors, Sybil the first oracle went into a trance and answered questions and foretold the future.
Young women from the nearby villages were chosen as priestesses of the temple and one of them would officiate as the oracle. Answers given by the oracle were vague and cryptic, but the priests at the Temple of Apollo interpreted them for the people.
The Temple of Apollo is Doric in style with 6 columns on the front and 15 on the sides.
The east pediment depicted a scene when Apollo when he arrived with sister Artemis and mother Leto. The west pediment depicted Gigantomachy, which is the story of the giant’s battle with Olympian gods. The sculptures on the pediment used marble from the island of Paros, and Athenian sculptors Praxias and Androsthenes helped to build them. Only a few fragments of the pediments survived and are on display at the Delphi Archaeological Museum.
The seat of the oracle was located inside the cella (inner chamber) called the adyton which had the statue of Apollo and Omphalos. Like many other Greek temples, an eternal flame burned in the hestia (hearth) located at the rear of the cella.
The walls of the pronaos (vestibule of the temple) had inscriptions of saying attributed to the seven Greek sages. These sayings include “know thyself” and “everything in moderation. “
In the ancient Greek language, the word Omphalos means “naval.” The Omphalos of Delphi refers to a conical-shaped stone that represents the navel of the earth.
According to Pausanias, a Greek historian who visited Delphi in the second century CE, a copy of Omphalos draped with wreaths was kept near the seat of oracle in the inner chamber (adyton) of the Temple of Apollo. Ancient Greeks believed that this is where Apollo killed the evil python, and Omphalos was used to communicate directly with the gods.
Experts believe that many copies of Omphalos existed in the Sanctuary of Apollo. The archaeological site of Delphi has one of the stones, and another one is in the Delphi Archaeological Museum. See the images below.
Dancers of Delphi
Displayed at the Delphi Archaeological Museum, the Dancers of Delphi is a sculpture with three female figures, fragments of which were found on the terraces in the east and northeast part of the Temple of Apollo in 1894. See the images below.
The Dancers of Delphi on display at the Delphi Archaeological Museum
Experts believe that this sculpture was located in the adyton (inner sanctum) of the Temple of Apollo and a part of the column that was holding the Omphalos stone. It was likely that there was a tripod-like structure – probably made of bronze – between the heads of the dances and the Omphalos stone.
A circular space near the Temple of Apollo.
Altar of Chiots
Built by the people of Aegean island of Chios in the 4th century BCE, the Alter of Chiots became the main altar of the 3rd temple that was rebuilt in 330 BCE.
This monument is located in front of the Temple of Apollo and there is a large open space between the altar and the temple. An ancient staircase leads to this altar and to the temple from the Sacred Way. The altar was made of black marble except for the base and cornice which were made of white marble.
The Polygonal Wall was built as a retaining wall to support the terrace that houses the temple platform. This was introduced during the construction of the second temple in 548 BCE.
Some stones on the Polygonal Wall have detailed inscriptions that were carved sometime in 2nd or 3rd century BCE. These inscriptions mostly mention the emancipation of slaves.
The polygonal walls get their name from the polygonal shapes of the stones that were used to build the wall. Notice that the Polygonal Wall shown in the image has some curved stones in addition to the polygonal stones.
The polygonal walls are considered an engineering marvel because of the way in which they were built. The walls did not make use of mortar or cement because the stones with irregular shapes and sizes that made up the wall fit perfectly.
It appears as though the stones were precisely cut and polished using sophisticated machinery. However, there is no evidence to suggest that such machinery or tools existed in ancient times. In all likelihood, engineers in those days must have devised some ingenious techniques to build such walls using primitive tools.
One of the main advantages of polygonal walls is that they withstand earthquakes very well, as evidenced in Delphi, which suffered numerous earthquakes for the past 2500 years. The polygonal walls in Delphi have some similarities with the polygonal walls used in the structures built by the Incas in Cusco and Saksaywaman. These places are also located on the severe earthquake zone, and the Inca structures seem to have withstood earthquakes very well.
Stoa of the Athenians
The Stoa of the Athenians was built against the Polygonal Wall of the Temple of Apollo. This structure was used to house the trophies won by the Athenians in their naval victories. The façade originally had seven columns, only four of them have survived. The roof was believed to be wooden. It was built between 510 and 470 BCE.
Kings of Argos Monument
The city-state of Argos, which had many kings before it became a democracy, built this monument to house the statues of its kings. It is a semi-circular structure with niches to hold bronze statues. While the plan was to house twenty statues, the city-state of Argos was able to erect only ten statues.
The image shows the statue of a bull reconstructed from the fragments of silver sheets excavated at the Sanctuary of Apollo. It is on display at the Delphi Archaeological Museum. The base of the statue is located somewhere near the entrance of the Sacred Way.
Located below the Polygonal Wall of the Temple of Apollo, Naxian Sphinx was a votive offering at the Temple of Apollo by the people of Naxos, an island belonging to the Cyclades group in the Aegean Sea. It is a statue of the mythical creature that has the head of a woman, the body of a lion and wings of an eagle. In ancient times, sphinxes were considered guardians of tombs and sanctuaries. The statue was constructed in 560 BCE and was made from Naxian marble. It stood on a free-standing tall Ionic column that was 12 meters high and was an imposing sight at that time.
Marble statue of Naxian Sphinx on display at the Delphi Archaeological Museum
Pillar of King Prusias II of Bithynia
Situated on the northeast entrance of the Temple of Apollo, this monument was erected to honor King Prusias II of Bithynia in 182 BCE. The pillar is 9.7 meters high and the statue of the king on the horseback once stood on top of it.
This monument was an offering to the Temple of Apollo by Bithynia, a kingdom of Thracian tribe Bithyni, and located in the northwest region of Asia Minor (currently in the Anatolia province of Turkey).
Along the Sacred Way, there were many treasuries built by the individual city-states to help their citizens store the votive offerings. They included the Treasury of the Athenians, Treasury of the Siphnians, Treasury of the Boeotians and Treasury of the Sikyonians.
Treasury of the Athenians
The Treasury of the Athenians was built by the city-state of Athens to commemorate the Battle of Marathon in 496 BCE. The purpose of this building was to house the offerings brought by Athenians to be offered the Temple of Apollo.
The site was excavated by the French School of Athens, which reconstructed the monument at the site in 1903-1906. The architectural style of this building is the Doric Order. The metopes on this building are replicas, and the originals (mostly fragments) are on display at the Delphi Archaeological Museum.
Note: A metophe is a rectangular architectural element that is placed in the space between two sets of vertical tablets on a Doric frieze.
Treasury of the Siphnians
The Treasury of the Siphnians was built around 525 BCE by the city-state of Siphnos, which is also an island in the Aegean Sea. The people of Siphnos accumulated wealth by mining silver and gold. They used tithe of the profits from mining to build this monument.
Just like the Treasure of the Athenians, the purpose of this building was to house the votive offerings brought by the people of Siphnos.
The architecture style of this building is the Ionic Order. It had rich decorations including caryatids (female figures) as supporting columns of structures. See the image below. It had pediments on all the four sides, each of which is adorned with beautiful sculptures depicting stories from Greek mythology.
Twins of Argos
The two life-sized marble statues of two brothers – Cleobis and Biton – were votive offerings at the Sanctuary of Apollo by the city of Argos which is located in the Argolis region of Peloponnese.
Both the statues and one of the bases with inscription were found near the Treasury of the Athenians in 1893. They were dated approximately 580 BCE.
Statues of Argos Twins on display at the Delphi Archaeological Museum
Charioteer of Delphi
The Charioteer of Delphi is a life-size bronze statue of a young man on display at the Delphi Archaeological Museum. This masterpiece was part of a bigger sculpture containing a chariot, fours horses and two charioteers (one of them is this statue) and was found intact in the Sanctuary of Apollo in 1896.
This was a votive offering to the Temple of Apollo in 474 BCE to honor the victory in a chariot race in the Pythian Games.
The theater is located above the Temple of Apollo and is well-preserved. It was built sometime in the 4th century BCE and underwent remodeling several times.
During the Pythian Games, this theater hosted music competitions, and during important festivals, it hosted plays and other theatrical performances.
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