July 25, 2015
Today, D. and I started our road trip around Greece and on our first day, we planned to visit 3 places:
- Thiva (also called Thebes) – the birthplace of Hercules and Dionysus, once the most powerful city-state in Greece
- Delphi – one of the most famous and influential places of Ancient world, where Oracle of Delphi prophesied the future of the kings
- Thermopylae – where the infamous battle of 300 Spartans with the army of Persian king Xerxes I took place in 480 BC. This historical event served as a plot for the “300” movie by Zac Snyder.
Night we planned to spend in Kalabaka, at the foothill of Meteora site.
We started our drive very early in the morning and about an hour later (88 km from Chalandri) we arrived to Thiva. One of the world’s longest inhabited city, its history goes back for 5 millennia; it was an important Mycenaean center in the middle of the Bronze Age and a very powerful city-state during the Classical period. The city participated in Persian and Peloponnesian wars and in the early 4th century BC it became the most powerful city in Greece.
You won’t find a single place in Greece that won’t have a mythological reference, Thiva (Thebes) is not an exception. Actually, there are several myths associated with the city. In mythology, the city was founded by a Phoenician king from Tyre (now in Lebanon) Cadmus, son of Agenor, brother of Europa, and ancestor of Oedipus. The myth says that after killing a giant serpent (or dragon) which Ares had sent to protect the Areia Spring, Athena instructed Cadmus to sow the serpent’s teeth into the ground from which sprang up warriors who would found the city of Thebes. Also, according to Herodotus, it was Cadmus who introduced the Phoenician alphabet to Greece and built the Acropolis, named the Cadmeia in his honor, that became an intellectual, spiritual, and cultural center.
Thebes was, according to legend, the birthplace of the mythological pan-Hellenic hero Hercules. It was also the place where the Sphinx – a mythical creature with a woman’s head and a winged lion’s body – appeared to terrorize the area until her riddle was solved. She asked passersby to identify the creature that might have two, three, or four feet, could move in air, water, and on land, and moved slower the more feet it had. Oedipus solved the riddle (which was “man”) and in a rage the Sphinx leapt to her death from the Camdeia. Another mythological story connected to the city is the legendary expedition of The Seven Against Thebes (and subject of the play of the same name by the 5th century BC tragedian, Aeschylus), but list of myths doesn’t end here.
Strategically situated on a low plateau of Boeotia, Thiva was first inhabited around 3000 BC. From 2500 BC there is evidence of food and wool production and storage. Trade, both local and further afield, is suggested by the presence of precious goods such as gold, silver, ivory, and Cycladic influenced stone vessels. From 2000 BC the site expanded with the first presence of stone cists and pits for burials and shaft graves which contained precious objects. From 1700 BC the settlement became more populous, and the site reached its Bronze Age peak during the Mycenaean period. There is evidence of palatial buildings of two stories and with wall paintings, greater fortifications (probably of a Cyclopean nature and referred to in Homer’s Iliad), workshops (especially for jewelry), and stone-built aqueducts with terracotta pipes. Clay Linear B tablets and seals suggest the site was an important trading centre in olive oil, wood, livestock, wool, and leather goods. The end of this period is marked by evidence of earthquake and fire damage.
Following the Dark Ages in Greece (c.1100 to 700 BC), Thiva re-emerged as an influential Greek city-state and for the next four centuries the city would be a constant rival to Athens and Sparta for regional dominance. In 480 BC Thebes sided with Persia when Xerxes invaded Greece (though a contingent of 400 was sent to Thermopylae and remained there alongside the Spartans to the end), and the city was a major protagonist in the Peloponnesian War from 431 to 404 BC, siding with Sparta against Athens (yet in 403 BC they secretly supported the restoration of democracy in Athens in order to find in it a counterpoise against Sparta).
In the 4th century BC, two Theban leaders achieved long lasting fame: Pelopidas, who was the subject of one of Plutarch’s Lives, and the brilliant military strategist and student of philosophy, Epaminondas. These two generals, Pelopidas campaigning in central and northern Greece and Epaminondas in the Peloponnese, were largely responsible for Thiva’s greatest period of regional dominance.
An unusual feature of the Theban army was the Sacred Band of Thebes. This was a military corps founded by Gorgidas and consisting of 300 infantrymen linked in homoerotic pairs, the idea was that soldiers would fight better if their lover were at their side. The Sacred Band, used for the first time as an independent unit by Pelopidas, defeated the Spartans at the Battle of Tegyra in 375 BC. Even more decisive was the Battle of Leuktra in 371 BC, where the Spartans were roundly defeated and where the victory monument set up by the Thebans is still visible today. This was sweet revenge for Sparta’s imposition of a garrison at Thebes from 379 to 376 BC. Victorious, Thebes created a new Arcadian capital at Megalopolis and was now firmly established as the most powerful city-state in Greece. Incidentally, a young Philip II, the future king of Macedonia, was captured by Pelopidas whilst campaigning in Thessaly and taken hostage to democratic Thebes where he studied military tactics. The Sacred Band remained undefeated until 338 BC and the invasion of the Macedonians.
In 364 BC Pelopidas was killed (but victorious) in the Battle of Cynoskephalai. Two years later, Epaminondas fell in the Battle of Mantinea against a Spartan and Athenian led alliance. With the loss of their two great generals, Theban dominance began to wane and Sparta and Athens would become the two major players in Greece. In 338 BC Thebes joined old rivals Athens and Corinth in order to face the invading army of Philip II of Macedonia in the Battle of Chaeroneia. Thebes ended on the losing side, the city was destroyed by Alexander the Great – Philip’s II son (except for the house of the poet Pindar and the temples), and the population was sold into slavery.
After Alexander’s death, Thebes was re-established in 315 or 316 BC by Cassander, perhaps in his desire for fame, however the city-state never returned to its former prominence or power. From the 10th century, Thebes became a centre of the new silk trade and by the middle of the 12th century, the city had become the biggest producer of silks in the entire Byzantine empire, surpassing even Constantinople. The Frankish dynasty de la Roche made Thiva its capital – the castle built by Nicholas II of Saint Omer on the Cadmeia was one of the most beautiful of Frankish Greece. Latin hegemony in Thebes lasted to 1458, when the Ottomans captured and retained it until the War of Independence in 1832.
The fact that the modern town lies directly upon the historical site has created difficulties in reconstructing an accurate history for the ancient city. It is also the reason why Thiva has so few vestiges of its prior glory, except for the archeological museum, which sadly was closed for renovation. However, as a history buff, I couldn’t skip this town, so we stop in the center for 30 minutes and wandered around.
From Thebes (100 km and 1.5 hours), our route took us to the place that enchanted me from childhood – Delphi (book recommendations are here). Myth says that Zeus sent two eagles (one to the west and one to the east) in order to find the omphalos, or navel of Gaia (Mother Earth). The eagles met in Delphi, establishing the center of the world. Dominating the slops of Parnassus, for over a thousand years this picturesque site played the most important role in deciding the destinies of the states, kings and regular people. It met its visitors with a statement “Know Thyself” inscribed on the Temple of Apollo, a warning or even a threat that Pythia’s Oracle won’t be understood unless you know who you really are. It is still very much a mystery place!
In remotest antiquity the site was perhaps of only limited importance, however, in Mycenaean times, from 1400 BC, Delphi, the “rocky Pytho” of Homer, was a sanctuary of a female deity Ge, who gave oracles through prophetess. Mycenaean Delphi was destroyed by a rock fall towards the end of the Bronze Age. Delphi prospered again in the 8th century BC when it was for the first time associated with the cult of Apollo. According to the Homeric Hymn to Pythian Apollo, on this site Apollo killed the Pytho, a female serpent who guarded the prophetic spring Kassotis. He built his first temple in a wooden grove at Delphi and gave oracles in the shrine of Ge through a Pythia (priestess), who sat bound at the mouth of a chasm in the earth from which “vapors” arose. The first priests of Apollo were Cretans whom Apollo, disguised as a dolphin (hence the name – Delphi) guided to this place from a sea voyage. After seeing this barren rocky place, marines appealed to Apollo worried that they wouldn’t be able to survive here, where the god replied that they would live effortlessly from the offerings of his worshippers and surely they did! In the mid-8th century BC the brothers Trophonios and Agemedes, who were famous for their exploits, built the first ashlar masonry temple of Apollo.
Later in the blog I will describe in more details the buildings and traditions associated with Delphi, but now, I would like to spend more time talking about what made Delphi so famous – the Oracle of Delphi. Greek mythology speaks of many prophets (such as the Oracle of Dedona, Pyrkooi, Amphictyon etc), however, no sanctuary surpassed Delphi in reputation, wealth and power, and not only in Greece but through all the then-known world. Apollo himself spoke through the Pythia. Originally it happened only once a year, probably during Apollo’s birthday in Feb-March. From the 6th century BC onwards (as the popularity and demand increased), the Oracle prophesied on the 7th day of every month, except for the 3 winter months when Apollo, according to the myth, left the sanctuary and Dionysus (god of wine and revelry) took over his place. Originally, the Pythia was a woman over 50 y.o. who left her family to enter the service of Apollo and lived in a special dwelling in the sanctuary. She didn’t have to be rich, from a good family or particular beautiful. Once the patronage and the reputation of the Oracle increased, two more Pythias were added. In addition, cities that had a permanent representative at Delphi were given the privilege of promanteia, which meant that they could consult the Oracle on any day if “the gods were willing”.
The ceremony went in the following order. At daybreak, the Pythia would go to the Kastalian Spring to purify herself, she would drink from the other sacred spring Kassotis and chew laurel. Priests would ceremoniously escort her to the inner shrine (adyton) of the temple of Apollo. The Pythia would sit on the sacred tripod (the chair of Apollo), by the mouth of chasm at the site of the omphalos. The visitor first paid for the service of Oracle, then drew a lot for order of preference and waited for his turn around the outside altar. When his turn came, he would be brought to a special seat at adyton and seated behind the curtain without seeing the Pythia. He would ask her a question (either in written or oral form) through one of the priests who would read it to the Pythia. She, hypnotized or drugged by the vapors coming from the fissure in the ground, would reply in incoherent words, incomprehensible shouts and shrieks which the priests would interpret into hexameters, write them down and give them to the visitor. (It has been speculated that a gas high in ethylene, known to produce violent trances, came out of this fissure, though this theory remains debatable). The ambiguous answer was interpreted by the visitor as it pleased him and, only if the future turned out otherwise, did he see the true answer. One of the most famous oracles is the reply to Croesus, king of Lydia, who asked if he would defeat the Persians. The Oracle replied “If Croesus crosses the River Halys, a great power will be destroyed”. Croesus interpreted the oracle in his favor, crossed the river between Lydia and Persia with a great army and was defeated. The Oracle had been right again.
Important to mention that Delphi was also famous for its Pythian Games, that took place every 4 years in the end of August. It lasted 7 days and was very different from other Games, as besides having the “traditional” sport contests, they also held drama and musical competitions. Winners were prized with the laurel crowns and the right to set up their statue in the sanctuary.
Since the 8th century BC Delphi exerted considerable influence throughout the Greek world (and even Egypt), and the Oracle was consulted before all major undertakings: wars, the founding of colonies, before entering marriages and so forth. Despite the raid from Sulla and Nero, the site relatively flourished till the time of emperor Hadrian, who is believed to have visited the oracle twice. By the 4th century BC, Constantine the Great looted several monuments, most notably the Tripod of Plataea, which he used to decorate his new capital, Constantinople. Despite the rise of Christianity across the Roman Empire, the oracle remained an active pagan centre throughout the 4th century. Hagiography has it that in 362, on behalf of his emperor Julian the Apostate, Oribasius visited the Delphic oracle, now in a rather desolate state, offering his emperor’s services to the temple and, in return, receiving one of the last prophecies by the Delphic Pythia:
Tell the emperor that my hall has fallen to the ground. Phoibos no longer has his house, nor his mantic bay, nor his prophetic spring; the water has dried up.
The Pythian Games continued to be held at least until 424, however, the decline was inevitable. The site was completely abandoned in the 6th or 7th centuries and the small and insignificant village of Kastri was founded on the site.
The large archeological site of Delphi is divided in two by the Spring of Kastalia. The east side is the Sanctuary of Athena Pronaia, the Gymnasium, the east cemetery etc. and the west side is the Sanctuary of Apollo, the Stadium, the ruins of the city and the museum. Excavated in the later 19th century by the French Archeological School, it is on the list of the UNESCO- protected World Heritage Monuments. Entrance fee is €9, please allow yourself at least 3-4 hours. It is not longer the sacred place, but please remember to be respectful of the site and its sanctity.
We parked along the road by the Kastalian Spring. The purifying water of the spring gushed from the slopes of the Phaedrida, called Hyampeia in antiquity, and flowed into a narrow gorge, where myth had it that the dread guardian of the oracle Pytho(n), the son of Earth, had its lair. The stone fountain of the same name was built along the side of the road that led to the precinct of Apollo in the early 6th century BC. It supplied the sacred oracle with water, which served for the purification of both priests and faithful who entered the sanctuary. During the long use over the century, the Kastalia spring of the Archaic period which is mentioned by Herodotus, Pindar and many other poets, underwent many repairs and alterations. In the present day, it consists of a rectangular basin divided into a central and two side chambers. The facade of the central chamber was decorated with semi-columns and four (or seven) bronze lion-dead spouts. In the 1st century BC, the archaic fountain was replaced by another construction deep in the rock, at a distance of about 50 m from the earlier one. The niches above the basin, which were rock-hewn, received minor votives by pilgrims, normally figurines offered to the water-nymph Kastalia. During the Ottoman period, one of the three large niches was converted into the apses of a small church dedicated to St. John the Baptist. Even today, the cold and clean waters of the Kastalian spring continue to flow from a smaller and to be sure less impressive fountain.
We decided to check out the Sanctuary of Apollo first. The area is located on a steep slope at the base of the western Phaedriada, today called Rodini. It is believed that Ge was originally worshipped at the same site, which was later connected to the cult of Apollo and the role played by the Oracle. The site of the sanctuary was surrounded by a built enclosure wall in which entrance gates were opened on the east and west. Throughout its history the city expanded multiple times and so did the walls. The first stone temple of Apollo and most of the treasuries (the small, temple-shaped buildings that housed votives by cities in memory of military victories and noble deeds) were erected in the 6th century BC. The elegant Treasury of the Siphnians, the restored Treasury of the Athenians, the treasuries of the Corinthians, Megarians, Boeotians were all built in the 6th century BC. The nuclei of spatial arrangement in the precinct were primary the Temple of Apollo and the Sacred Way, which after starting from the main entrance in the south-east corner of the enclosure, followed the winding course to terminate at the temple in front of the large altar, a Chiot votive. Over time, hundreds of valuable votives were set up along the road, including statues of gods and mortals, tripods and other works of art mounted on inscribed bases, columns and stelai, giving the precinct the appearance of a unique open-air museum even in antiquity. Today, only a few of these are preserved. The enclosure wall was extended northward to include the theater, built on steeply sloping ground. The city’s ancient Stadium is 500 m beyond the sanctuary but accessible via a small ascending path. The city must have been fabulous when all the buildings were still standing surrounded by the wall of Apollo, however, it still took my breath away the moment I stepped on the Sacred Way.
The sanctuary of Apollo was accessed through 5 small entrances, the main entrance and beginning of the Sacred Way, over which the processions for the Pythian Games and other celebration passed, were at the site were the Roman Agora was built (p.1). The tiled square outside the main entrance betrays its Roman construction, especially on the north side where there were shops at the back of the Ionic stoa, in which visitors and suppliants could buy small offerings to Apollo, such as figurines, small vases, tripods etc. Plinths and bases, some of which are preserved, supported statues of Roman emperors and other important people. The columns of the stoa have been restored (1977) and marble architectural fragments have been assembled in the stoa and shops.
The messengers sent to inquire of the oracle entered the sanctuary just as we did after being purified in the Kastalian spring. Cities-states throughout Greece erected buildings and statues dedicated to Apollo on either side of the Sacred Way. Today, only bases are preserved, together with a wealth of inscriptions that makes the Delphic sanctuary the largest open-air library of authentic ancient texts. Among the most important monuments at the start of the Sacred Way were:
- Cercyraian Bull (p.1a). According to Pausanias (a 2nd century AD traveler), a bull in Corfu (then – Cercyra) left his field every day to go down to the sea and to bellow on the shore. Once a herdsmen noticed that and followed the bull, he saw plenty of small fish in the sea but neither him nor his people were able to catch the fish. Finally they sent a messenger to Delphi with a question of what they should do and Pythia told them to sacrifice the bull to the gods of the sea. Once they did it, they were able to catch all the fish and sell it at a vast profit. With a tenth of it they built two bronze bulls as the gifts to Delphi and Olympia.
- nine bronze statues dedicated by the Arcadians after they plundered Laconia in 370 BC (p.2)
- the votives of the Spartan admirals (38 in total) following their victory over the Athenians in 404 BC (p.3)
- 13 bronze statues of the Athenians following the glorious historic victory over the Persians in Marathon (p.5)
- the votive of the city of Argos to glorify its victory over the Spartans in 457 BC, etc. (p.7)
If you look back at the first turn of the Sacred Way, you can imagine the street that must have contained over a hundred bronze statues of gods, demi-gods, mythical representations and historical personalities, generals, admirals, a bull, the Trojan horse, groups of equestrian fighters and, probably, many other offerings which have disappeared. They must have presented a wonderful picture of Greek mythology, religion, history and art.
One of the monuments to watch out for along the Sacred way is the sacred omphalos of Delphi (p.28a) which, according to the myth, was thrown by Zeus once he established the center of the world. As I mentioned earlier, omphalos, together with a sacred tripod and a prophetic laurel were in the adyton of the Temple of Apollo, where the Pythia pronounced her oracles. Beneath the omphalos was the tomb of Pytho(n), son of the first prophetess Gaia, or that of Dionysus, the sanctuary’s second god. The omphalos was covered with a woolen net with attached bands of wood, called the agrenon. According to Pausanias, at the points where the bands were tied between them were precious stones carved in the shape of gorgons, while two golden eagles were affixed to its top. There were many copies of the sacred omphalos at the sanctuary, among them the one in the middle of the Sacred Way (the original one is in the Museum of Delphi).
At this point a small square, like a stair landing, is made by the Sacred Way turning a corner, while another flatter road comes from the south gate of the temple. We are at the ruins of the Sicyonian and Siphnian Treasuries. I mentioned earlier that the treasuries were small temple-shaped buildings dedicated by the Greek city-states and their colonies at sanctuaries. They often housed precious votives of the cities that had dedicated them. The Sicyonian (also called Sikyonian) Treasury (p.16) was built around 500 BC out of porous stone and in Doric order. Excavations showed that two earlier buildings were found at the treasury’s foundation, one of these buildings is dated to around 580 BC and would have been circular in plan (a tholos); the second, dated to 560 BC was rectangular in plan with surrounding columns. Five relief metopes displaying mythological subjects, a superb example of 6th century BC sculpture, belonged to the latter building and today are on display in the Museum of Delphi. It is thought that this building was erected to house the chariot of the tyrant of Sicyon, Cleisthenes, who had been victorious in the first Pythian Games in 582 BC.
The Siphnian Treasury was one of most beautiful buildings at Delphi. According to Herodotus and Pausanias, the treasury was built with the dekate, i.e one-tenth of the income from the exploitation of Siphnos‘ gold and silver mines. Apart from its foundations, it was built entirely of shining, transparent marble and stood out for its richness and elegance in the sanctuary of Apollo. Its facade is distinguished for its exceptional ornamental compositions. Two Korai, set between parastades (the ends of the side walls) on the western facade, supported the weight of its lavishly decorated entablature. The frieze with its masterful scenes surrounded the entire structure to a length of about 10 m, parts of which are still preserved in the Museum of Delphi.
After the Siphnian Treasury, we came to a large turn, the so-called “Crossroads of the Treasuries”, which is surrounded by the treasuries of many Greek cities. All of these, including the treasuries of the Boeotians, the Megarians and the Thebans, date to the late 6th century and early 5th century BC.
The Treasury of the Athenians (p.30) is one of the most famous offerings and, since its restoration in 2004, is perhaps the hallmark of the sanctuary of Delphi. Built of white Paros marble, it was dedicated to Apollo Pythios and commemorated either the establishment of Democracy in the city of Athens, following the collapse of the Peisistratid tyranny (510 BC) or the Athenian victory against the Persians at the battle of marathon (490 BC). But it is certain that Persian arms from this Athenian victory were displayed on a triangular base running along the south side. The small structure is of Doric order, with two columns between the facade pilasters. 30 relief metopes of its frieze represent the exploits of two celebrated heroes, Heracles and Theseus, as well as Amazonomachy (the original decorations are on the exhibit at the Museum). The walls of the Treasury were covered with numerous inscriptions, including two paeans to Apollo supplemented with the musical notation of the ancient melody on the south wall (138-128 BC). In the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD the monument was used as the Delphi pawnbroker’s office, according to epigraphical sources.
Nearby are some of the oldest and most holy ruins at Delphi – Spring of Ge and the Rock of the Sibyl (p.35 and p. 36). The latter, known from Plutarch and Pausanias, must have fallen from the Phaidriades thousands of years ago and was believed to be a site where the first Sibyl began to give oracles when she came from Troy.
On the opposite side from the Rocks of Sibyl lies the Halos (p.37b), a building-free place used for Septeria, a religious drama which was held every eight years. Drama contained the reenactment of the god Apollo’s slaying of the serpent Pytho, performed by a boy whose both parents were alive. Taken by the members of the Labyades up the Doloneian stairs (p. 37a), the child would point to the serpent’s nest and the torchbearers would set it on fire. Then everyone had to leave without looking back, as Apollo did when he fled to Tempe to be purified. By this part of the Halos the chryselephantine objects, the silver bull and other finds were found under the paving of the Sacred Way in two pits in 1939.
Next to the Halos, the colossal Naxian Sphinx (p.41), mounted on an Ionic column 12 m in hight, rested on the base in the 6th century BC (today it is in the Museum). The Sphinx, which was connected with the myth of Oedipus (mentioned earlier in description of Thebes), was a mythical being of Eastern provenance. In ancient Greece, sphinxes were linked with tradition and primitive cults, and were frequently considered the guardians of tombs and sanctuaries.
On the same level looking towards the ascending Sacred Way is a long Stoa of the Athenians (p.42), built to house the trophies from the Athenian’s naval victories. It was 30 m long and 4 m wide and on its facade there were seven monolithic marble columns (four of which survived) holding a wooden roof. At its rear, the Stoa was supported by the polygonal retaining wall of the Temple of Apollo. It was built during the years 510-470 BC and had the inscription notes that the Athenians dedicated the stoa, the ropes from the boat and the prow figureheads to the god after defeating the Persians. The building appears to have been constructed with public funds to promote Athens’ important and leading role in the victory against the Persians.
The famous splendidly-preserved polygonal retaining wall of the Temple of Apollo was built in the 6th century BC, and for centuries provided support to the built terrace atop which the temple was erected. The blocks employed for the construction and their perfectly fitted curved joins comprised a remarkable whole of static precision, construction perfection and artistic sensitivity. Throughout the entire length of the wall, around 800 inscriptions, primarily manumission acts, have been carved.
Ascend the Sacred Way a little further where the probable base of the famous gold Tripod of Plataea (p.49a) stands. Athenians, after winning the battle of Plataea in 479 BC, spent 1/10th of their spoils to built a gold tripod supported on a bronze column 7.5 m tall in the form of a three-bodied serpent. The Phocians stole the gold tripod during the Third Sacred War (356 – 346 BC) and the column was carried off by Constantine the Great to Constantinople where it still stands in the Hippodrome today, engraved with the names of the cities that took part in the victorious battle against the Persians. Nearby, the equestrian statue of the Roman consul Aemilios Paulus (p.53), who defeated the king of Macedon Perseus at Pydna in 168 BC, was set atop a base about 12 m in length. The crowning element of the pedestal was adorned by a frieze that is considered to be the first historical relief and depicted scenes from the Battle of Pydna (the frieze is on display at the Museum). Another votive of Attalus (p.54) dates to the late 3rd century BC. This is a large Stoa, possibly two-storied, with ten Doric columns on the facade of each floor. In the 4th century AD it was converted into a cistern to supply the bath, located outside the precinct to the south, with water. Coming to the square in front of the Apollo Temple, Altar of the Chiots (p.60a) lies on the left. This large altar (8.6 by 5.10 m) was dedicated to Apollo in the 5th century BC, according to Herodotus and the inscription on it. Another inscription on the base of it informs us about the privilege of promanteia, i.e. Chios’ right to consult the oracle before other Greeks. The Altar was made from black marble, apart from the base and epistepsis which were made of white marble.
Since Temple of Apollo was the highlight of our visit, I left it for the end and proceeded further uphill. Right next to the Temple, there is the base of the acanthus column with dancers (p.68) This porous base supported an 11 m tall column with acanthus leaves decorating its body and its top. Three dancers (today at the Museum) crowned by a stone omphalos were depicted on the column (330 BC). To the east is an oblong base belonging to the Offering of Daochos II (p.70), the Thessalian tetrarch, who was a hieromnemon of the Delphian Amphictyonic League (336-332 BC) and a friend of Philip II of Macedon. The inscribed basis of nine statues is preserved, belonging to Apollo, the donor, his ancestors and his son. Next monument to the east is a horse-shoe shaped base (p.69) built for at least 18 marble statues dating to the 3rd century BC. It may have been a family votive. One of the statues portrays an elderly man, known as “the Delphi philosopher”. Higher still, attached to the north wall of the enclosure, are the remains of the famous Lesche of the Cnidians (Cnidian clubhouse) (p.77). In antiquity, lesches were places for assembling and discussions. This clubhouse was a rectangular hypostyle chamber with an area of around 180 sq m, dating to the first half of the 5th century BC. It was famous for its wall decorations painted by the renowned artist Polygnotus – Fall of Troy to the right of the entrance and the Odysseus’ Descent to Hades, to the left.
The theater (p.92) is the best preserved monument at the archeological site of Delphi and it testifies to the intellectual and cultural acme of Apollo’s sanctuary. It was constructed at an amphitheatrical location with a magnificent view to the valley of the Pleistos river. The Delphic theater hosted the musical and dramatic contests of the Pythian Games and other religious festivals. The original form of the edifice isn’t know; most probably the spectators sat on wooden seats or on the ground. The first stone-built theater was constructed in the 4th century BC. In 160-159 BC it was restored with the fund by Eumenes II, king of Pergamon. Its present form dates to the Early Roman period (1st century AD). The deep cavea had a seating capacity of 5,000 spectators. It was divided into two sections by a transverse corridor comprising altogether 35 rows of seats. Opposite to the cavea and the orchestra stood the stage flanked by two wings (paraskenia). Only the foundations of the stage survived today. Its facade was embellished with a relief frieze depicting the labors of Heracles, now in the Museum. The frieze was probably added during the restoration works in 67AD, at the time of the Roman emperor Nero’s visit to Delphi. Important to note that the inscriptions regarding the emancipation of slaves were embedded in parts of the theater walls. Frankly, if the site of the theater don’t impress you, I don’t know what else can!
On the north, beyond the enclosure wall, and a steep climb up, is the Stadium of Delphi which hosted the athletic contests of the Pythian religious festival. Initially, in the 5th century BC, a racing track was formed by leveling the ground; the spectators would sit on the ground. In the 2nd century AD, under Hadrian, the Stadium was ameliorated with funds of the wealthy Athenian Herodes Atticus (remember his theater on the south slop of the Acropolis?!): the marble seats (with backrest for the judges) for 7,000 spectators and the monumental three-arched entrance visible today were added at that time. The starting point and the finishing post of the track were marked by a row of stone slabs with square holes. It is estimated that 17 or 18 runners would compete in a race. The distance between the start and finish was one Pythian stade – 178.35 m. The monumental arched entrance at the east side of the Stadium, in front of the starting point of the racetrack, is unique in Greece. The arches were supported by pillars with niches for statues. Some of the events performed in the Stadium were the dolichos (a long-distance running race of 24 stades – appx. 4,280 m), the stadion (one-stade race), and diaulos (two-stade race) and the pentathlon, a complex competition which included race, wrestling, jump, discus and javelin throwing. The athletic contests were completed with the hoplite, a race of 2-4 stades, during which the athletes ran wearing only a helmet and greaves and carrying a shield.
A walk down gifts you with the most spectacular views of the site and surrounding mountains which are impossible to describe.
The Temple of Apollo (p.79), god of music, harmony and light, occupied the most important and prominent position in the Delphi Sanctuary. The edifice with the partially restored colonnade visible today, is dated to the 4th century BC; it is the third temple built at the same place. According to the prevailing theory, the famous Oracle prophesied from the room located on the bottom of the Temple so the sacred chasm emitting vapors could bring the Pythia to the state of delirium. According to myth, the foundations of the first temple (second half of the 7th century BC) were laid by Apollo himself. The construction of the second temple was completed in 514-506 BC with funds by the Athenian family of the Alcmaeonids. It was of Doric order with 6-columned narrow sides and 15-columned long sides. The east pediment of the temple of the Archaic ages depicted Apollo’s arrival at Delphi in triumph on his four-horse chariot. The west pediment depicted the battle between gods and giants. The sculpted decoration of its pediments was the work of the Athenian sculptor Antenor. This temple was destroyed during the strong earthquake of 373 BC. The later temple of Apollo, visible today, was inaugurated in 330 BC; it is attributed to the architect Spintharos from Corinth. It was also of Doric order with a peristyles (surrounding colonnade). Its east pediment of the 4th century BC was adorned by the figure of Apollo flanked by his mother Leto, his sister Artemis and the Muses. The west pediment, depicted the god Dionysus among his female votaries, the Thyiades. Persian shields taken as booty by the Athenians from the Battle of Marathon in 490 BC were attached to the temple’s metopes along the Gallic shields, spoils of the repulse of Gauls during the 279 BC invasion. Inscribed on the walls of the pronaos (the porch before the temple cella), according to ancient writers, were the renown maxims of the Seven Sages – “Know thyself”, “Nothing to excess” and the enigmatic Delphic symbol “E”. Plutarch, when he was a priest at Delphi, wrote a while treatise on the meaning of “E” without making clear what it meant. There was also a bronze statue of Homer with the words of an oracle given to the blind poet on its base.
The sekos was divided in two: in front was an altar to Poseidon, the forerunner of Apollo, statues of two Fates of Zeus Moiragetes and Apollo Moiragetes. There was also an iron throne, on which Pindar sat, when he came to Delphi and sang hymns to Apollo. The inner part of the sekos, the adyton, I have described above. Pausanias said that the very few had the right of entry to the adyton where, among other things, the gold statue of Apollo was placed.
After 3 hours at the western site of ruins, we went back to check out the fantastic east site – The Sanctuary of Athena Pronaia – where the goddess was worshipped as the patroness of wisdom, fertility and health. It lies below the precinct of Apollo, with an impressive backdrop formed by the “shining cliffs” of the Phaedriades and traditional olive groves. In contrast with the location where Sanctuary of Apollo was established, the sanctuary of Athena Pronaia even today continues to give the impression of a familiar, welcoming, and peaceful place. During antiquity the city of Delphi and its cemeteries developed in the area outside the precinct. As is often the case today, visitors to Delphi arriving to see the Oracle from Attica and Boeotia first encountered the sanctuary of Athena. It has been thought that the nickname “Pronaia” was given because the goddess was worshipped “before the temple of Apollo.” The use of the place dates back to the Mycenaean Age, as testified among other things by the finds of terracotta female statuettes. Research has not yet concluded whether these figurines are the remains from an earlier cult, perhaps of Ge (Earth), who was the first deity worshipped at Delphi, or if they come from Mycenaean cemeteries. The space continued to be used without interruption during the historical era. The architectural remains of temples, altars, treasuries and other buildings, surrounded by the precinct enclosure wall, are superb exampled of ancient Greek architecture. Sanctuary of Athenia Map.
In the eastern section there are preserved foundations of two Doric temples of Athena (p.1 and p.2), build of porous stone. The first one dates to the mid 7th century BC and the second to around 500 BC. This area is, as it is known today, the most ancient sacred place in Sanctuary. Remains of Mycenaean worship were found here and it was here too that one of the oldest and most magnificent Greek temples was built for Athena in about 650 BC. It was a poros peripteral in Doric order. Twelve of its capitals, of the earliest known Doric architecture, and parts of its columns were in the foundation of the second Archaic temple, which was built on top of it. They are now line up on the west side. The second Archaic temple (p.3) was peripteral, with six columns on its narrow sides and twelve on its long sides. Its interior was divided into two chambers, the pronaos (porch) and the cella, where the cult statue of the goddess stood. This temple was destroyed in the earthquake in 373 BC.
East of the second temple may be discerned the meager remains of two buildings attributed to the precinct of the local hero Phylakos. According to Herodotus, in 480 BC Phylakos and Autonoos, who was also a local hero, routed the Persians by hurling stones from the Phaidriades down on them. The sanctuary of Athena Pronaia’s important buildings also include two treasuries (p.4-5). One of them is Doric and dates to the 5th century BC. However, it is the second that is noteworthy, the so-called Treasury of the Massalians, the Greek colonists of Massalia (modern Marseilles) who came from Phocaea in Ionia. Masterfully built around 530 BC in the Ionic order of gleaming Parian marble, it had two columns on its facade with Aeolic capitals.
In front of the two treasuries are preserved the foundations of stelai on which were recorded confiscations and debts to the sanctuary, as well as the pedestal atop which the Delphic trophy for repulsing the Persians in 480 BC was mounted.
A series of various-sized altars, dating for the most part to the 6th century BC, attests to the cults of Zeus, Athena Ergane, Athena Zosteria, Eileithyia the goddess of childbirth and Hygieia. The sanctuary’s most imposting structure, the famous Tholos (p.6), with its three restored columns dominates the ruins of the precinct, as it must have in antiquity, because of its original circular appearance and the high standard of its decoration. It belongs to the decade 390-380 BC, a few years before the great earthquake, and its architect is thought to be Theodore from Phocaia in Asia Minor. The Tholos is 13.5 m in diameter and is built mostly of Pentelic marble on a crepis of three steps; twenty Deric columns outside supported the entablature and the lower roof. The metopes were decorated with sculptured reliefs of the Battles of Amazons and the Centaurs, while smaller metopes high on the outer wall, portrayed the exploits of Theseus and the Labors of Heracles. The purpose of the Tholos is unknown, however, it has been suggested that it served as a worship-place of a chthonic goddess, like the similar building in Olympia and earlier mentioned Tholos in Ancient Agora in Athens.
The later temple of Athena (p.7) was built to replace the Archaic temple in the mid 4th century BC in the western part of the precinct out of local grey limestone. It was 22.6 m by 11.55 m and its facade was decorated by six Doric columns, with no colonnade or any sort of decorations on the metopes.
On the west side of the temple, lay an older building (p.8), 12 m by 11 m, which consisted of two rooms of similar size. It dates to the Archaic period and thought to be the house of the priests.
Just ten meters to the west, there is the Gymnasium, and as you can imagine, there is a myth attached to this place. Apparently, Odysseus was gored in the leg by a boar, while hunting here with the sons of Autolykos, and his old wound enabled his maid, Eurykleia, to recognize him when he returned to Ithaca. So here, at the foot of Hyampeia, not far from the Kastalian spring, the young men of Delphi trained on a track renowned because of a Homeric hero, the wily Odysseus.
In ancient Greece the Gymnasium was used for many facets of education which are taught nowadays in schools. The area at Delphi was landscaped into two terraces with the palaestra on the lower level and the xystos on the upper. The palaestra is a building with a square inner court with eight columns a side holding up the roof of stoa. It contained the dressing rooms, training space for boxers and pankratiasts as well as a statue of one or more of the gods connected with the Gymnasium. On the west side of palaestra, you can still see a well-preserved bath where athletes could wash in cold water. The upper terrace hosted the xystos – the huge colonnaded racetrack running north-south which was longer than all the other buildings since it had to be about the length of a Delphic stade. The inner dimensions are 184.43 by 7.5 m. During Hellenistic times and later, the area of the Gymnasium was frequented by every type of teacher, poet, philosopher, orator, musician, etc… In the festival of the Eumeneia a torch race began from the Gymnasium and ended in front of the Temple of Apollo.
From the beginning of its existence, Delphi amassed a huge treasure collection, much of which is reflected in its magnificent Museum of Delphi. It plays a similar role to that of the Museum of the Acropolis in Athens, by completing the picture of Delphi and exhibiting the most valuable and important masterpieces. The principal theme of the display on the first floor is the history of the Delphic Sanctuary and the Oracle, and the finds are displayed as chronologically and thematically as possible. Several of the rooms are devoted to a group or groups of finds from a common provenance, such as from the Temple of Apollo, the Treasury of the Athenians, or the Tholos. The exhibit on the ground floor came from the city of Delphi and its cemeteries, which complements the picture of the site of Delphi. Museum has both, inside and outside exhibition areas. I won’t go over every item in the museum, but would like to point out just the major ones and the rooms where they can be found.
In the rooms I and II are assembled important finds illustrating the beginnings of the Delphic Sanctuary – fragments of Minoan rhytons, iron tripods, bronze shields and objects imported from Steve, Cyprus and the East, as well as bronze figurines, which served as individual votive offerings to the Temple of Apollo (such as one below of a small kouros, 7 century BC).
Room III is dominated by two Archaic kouroi (2.16 m high) standing besides each other, masterpieces of the Doric art of the Peloponnese and outstanding for their high artistry and historical importance. There is a great myth associated with those two statues, don’t forget to check it out. There are also several metopes and bronze sculptures worth seeing.
Room IV is devoted to the excavations done in the sacred pits with gold and ivory objects. They were accidentally discovered underneath of paving of the Sacred Way when the excavation of the Temple of Apollo was already completed, in 1939. The larger repository contained parts of three singular statues of natural size. In the second repository were the remains of a silver bull.Room V contains rare masterpieces of Archaic art from the islands of Aegean, notably the Naxian Sphynx and sculptural decorations of the Treasury of Siphnians, where the east frieze depicts the Trojan war, the north frieze depicts a Gigantomachy, west – the Judgement of Paris and the south is too poorly preserved to make a conclusion. Room also has two Caryatids, that served as columns of the Treasury’s facade.
Room VI contains the pedimental sculptures from the Temple of Apollo belonging to two different building phases.
Rooms VII-VIII contain the items found at the Treasury of the Athenians, notably the 24 (out of 30) best preserved metopes, showing the scenes of an Amazonomachy, Labors of Heracles and Exploits of Theseus. A uniquely singular exhibit in the same room is the fragments of hymns to Apollo which were incised on the south wall of the Treasury together with the notes for the vocal and instrumental accompaniment.
Room IX contains typical offerings of the 5th century BC (bronze statuettes, groups of athletes etc.), as well as the fragments of the sculptural decoration of the Treasury of Massalia, dating to 500 BC.
Room X contains parts of the sculptural decoration and architectural members of the Tholos, in particular, two Doric friezes of Parian marble.
Room XI represents the late classical- hellenistic period and is one of the most important rooms of the museum. It includes the multi-figural family votive offering of Daochos II from Pharsala, a marble acanthus column with three dancers on the top, the original marble omphalos symbolizing the center of the world and more.
Room XII has the sculptures of the late Hellenistic and Roman periods. It contains the circular marble altar of Athena Pronaia, where it was found shattered in pieces, one of the finest statues of Antinoos as well as the family dedication of the “philosopher”.
Room XIII houses one of the masterpieces of ancient Greek art, the Delphi Charioteer. The charioteer formed a part of the votive offering, the whole of which included the four-horse chariot he was driving. The chariot hid the lower part of his body, which is why the upper part now appears to be disproportionally large.
Room XIV exhibits finds which throw light on the changes that occurred in the Sanctuary with the transition from polytheism to Christianity and the demise of the Sanctuary. Here you can find the portrait-busts of philosophers and different inscriptions.
Sarcophagus, a part of a family funerary monuments, is exposed outside the Museum. It is dated to the second half of the 2nd century AD and is attributed to a workshop located in Athens. A female figure which probably depicts the deceased, is sculptured on the sarcophagus lid. The side walls depict the hunt of the Calydonian Boar, a particular popular legend in Antiquity. On the right side, appears a naked man with his horse, probably Maleager himself or one of the Dioscuri. On the main side we can see the hung of the wild boar and the dispute around its body. On the left side, Althaea, the mother of Meleager, throws a log in the fire. According to the legend, the hero would die when the log burning on the hearth was fully consumed. The west cemetery of Delphi extended in the area where the Museum stands but you can still walk around, it is a nice site that provides valuable insights into the daily life, customs and traditions of the town, which grew in the shadow of the famous Oracle.We spent the most rewarding 6 hours in Delphi and enjoyed every moment of it, not least due to a very nice overcast which protected us from the burning direct sun. Before proceeding with our journey, we stopped at one of the restaurants in town, the Delfiko Cafe, to have lunch. As always, it was simple, delicious and very inexpensive, as a bonus, the cafe offered great views of the valley below.
We drove for another 1.5 hours (85 km) through some wonderful weather patterns which entertained us with rain, sun, mixture of both, rainbows and … more rainbows.
Shortly, we reached the third site we planned to visit on our way – Thermopylae. The name means “hot sulphur springs” (and there are some in this area that you can visit now) and in antiquity it was a narrow coastal passage. Between 480 BC and the 21st century, the shoreline advanced by as much as 9 km in places, eliminating the narrowest points of the pass and considerably increasing the size of the plain around the outlet of the Spercheios River. You don’t have to be a history major to know why we made this small detour to see… nothing but a few statues and plaques in the middle of nowhere. Exactly! We came to see the NOWHERE, to feel it, to imagine it, to remember it.
In the year 480 BC in this sacred place was carried out the most astonishing and unequal battle between few Greeks and a million of Persians. The battle became a landmark in the World’s history. 300 Spartans and 700 hundreds Thespians under the orders of Leonidas, king of Sparta, decided to fight against the Persians and win or die defending the freedom of their country. According to Herodotus, the Persian army consisted of about 1,700,000 (new “reconsidered” number is 100,000 -150,000) solders under the command of King Xerxes I. According to the historical sources, the Persians asked the Spartans to give their arms up, but Leonidas replied to them with the heroic phrase, “Come and get them”. We know the sad end of this battle, but yet we came to pay a tribute to those brave men.
Even though, the site doesn’t have many monuments, it is still worth getting out of the car and taking a walk to the hill where everything took place, where blood did flow like a river and where men laid dead.
We planned to stay overnight at the hotel in Kastraki, a getaway to Meteora. Two hours later (160 km) we finally drove into this small city in darkness. I booked Doupiani House traditional hotel (€50 per night, breakfast included) which, according to reviews, had the best views of Meteora. Well, we had hard time finding the hotel (we had to call the reception a few times), but once we got there, we were pleasantly surprised. Don’t expect a 5* hotel or high-speed internet (which, we frankly didn’t encounter anywhere in Greece), or impeccable customer service (Greeks are “very relaxed” business owners), but it was clean, large and did have amazing views of the area, though, we were yet to discover this only tomorrow.
Pictures of Thebes, Delphi and Thermopylae.