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Delphi, the most important religious site in ancient Greece

Delphi, Greece

Delphi sits on the south-western slope of mount Parnassus, about a one and a half hour drive from Athens. Delphi was once the most important religious site in ancient Greece, and is now one of the most important archaeological sites in Greece. Delphi's location in the mountains is also breathtaking, you can understand why Delphi was so special. After the Acropolis in Athens, Delphi is easily the next most popular ancient site in Greece with hundreds of visitors coming daily on day trips from the Greek capital.

Delphi was so important that it was one of the few places that all the Greek city states shared, the oracle of Delphi was so famous that even non Greeks from as far off as Egypt and even Etruscans from the Italian peninsula visited the sanctuary for guidance from the Oracle of Delphi. Delphi was fist excavated in 1892 and the actual site is a lot larger than can be seen today.

The two sanctuaries of Delphi

The sanctuary is basically split in to two areas the Sanctuary of Athena Pronaia and the sanctuary of Apollo which coincidently is also split by the modern main road - Apollo is above the road and Athena below. The site is most famously known for the Oracle who had premonitions of the future and was consulted by ancient Greeks on everything from where to set up colonies, go to war or even who they should marry. People from all over the Greek world visited Delphi to ask a question from the Oracle. Supposedly the god Apollo spoke through the Oracle.

Sacred way, Delphi Greece

The Pythian Games

Delphi was also the setting for the Pythian games which took place every four years in the sanctuary of Apollo and was one of the four pan-Hellenic games the others being the Olympic Games, the Nemean Games and the Isthmian Games. The games lasted 6 to 8 days and included sports and chariot racing but also musical and drama contests. During the games all the Greek city states had a truce and ceasefire so people from all over the Greek world could travel freely to Delphi.

The Mythology of Delphi

According to Mythology Zeus released two eagles from either side of the world and where they crossed would be the "navel of the earth", it was at Delphi where these birds crossed.The site was used for the worship of the god Apollo, as it was at Delphi where he slew a giant serpent 'pythia' guarding the navel of the earth, throughout history the oracle was known as the pythia.

It is now almost certain that the site was used long before classical Greece for the worship of a mother Goddess, Gaia, and that this was originally where the sanctuary of Athena is, she was replaced by the worship of Apollo and Athena. Gaia or earth mother was worshiped in Greece before the Olympian Gods and her importance and Delphi was still seen in that the oracles could only be women. There are two stories that tell of how Delphi got its name the first is that it comes from the ancient Greek word for womb 'delphis' which is connected to the mother goddess and the other is that Apollo arrived at Delphi from Crete on the back of a Dolphin 'delphini' in Greek.

The History of Delphi

The site of Delphi has been used since neolithic times some 5000 years ago and inhabited since the Mycenaean period (1500 BC to 1100 BC). Originally the earth goddess was worshiped at the site but during the periods between 1100 BC and 900 BC the site of Delphi slowly began to be used for the worship of Apollo, the god of light.

During the classical Greek period Delphi became the most important religious site in the Greek world, where everything from war to colonization had to be put to the oracle. During the Roman period Delphi still kept its importance, at least with some Emperors, others such as the general Sulla raided and stole many of the treasures of Delphi.

With the coming of Christianity Delphi lost its importance and was even banned by some Emperors as with many pagan sites. The site was sacked, robbed and destroyed in 394 by the Slavs and basically fell into ruin and forgotten about until the 19th century when archaeologists began to excavate the site.

The Monuments at the Delphi site
The Sacred Way

Sacred way, Delphi Greece

The Sacred Way is the main road through the town that winds its way up to the Temple of Apollo from the entrance and has 3,000 statues and treasuries along the path. The sacred way goes way back to ancient times, but the paved path that you now walk on when visiting Delphi dates back to Roman times and zig zags the identical route that pilgrims would have taken thousands of years ago past all the monuments.

The Temple of Apollo

The temple of Apollo is dedicated to the worship of the god Apollo and is one of the main features at Delphi. The temple you can see today was built in the 4th century BC but sits on the remains of two much older temples from the 6th and 7th centuries BC. The Temple of Apollo was where the Delphic oracle sat and prophesized.

Delphi, Temple of Apollo

The original temple was built during the end of the 7th century and built by the legendary architects Trophonios and Agamedes, this was destroyed by fire in 548 BC, the cause of the fire is unknown. The next temple to be built was known as the Alcmaeonid Temple in honour of a noble Athenian family who oversaw the construction and funding of the temple. The funding came from all over the Greek world and further a field with Amasis of Egypt and Croesus of Lydia donating to the project. The temple was completed in 505 BC but unfortunately destroyed by an earthquake in 373 BC.

The third and final temple, the remains of what we see today, was built pretty much to the same design as the previous temple, a doric style with a 6 by 15 column ratio. This temple was eventually destroyed by the Christian Emperor Theodosius I trying to eradicate any any traces of paganism.

The Treasuries

From the entrance, all the way up to the Temple of Apollo are treasuries built by various Greek states to commemorate victories and thank the Oracle. The treasuries held the offerings to the god Apollo and usually a percentage of the spoils of battle.

With the decline of Greek power the treasuries were plundered, first by Philip of Macedon and later the Celts, until finally by the Romans.

The Treasury of the Athenians

Delphi, Treasury of the Athenians

The most impressive of the treasuries is that of the Athenians, this was built to commemorate the victory at Marathon over the Persians. It is a small Doric building made out of Parian marble and was re-erected by archaeologists in 1903 using the original material. The treasury was used to store offering to the God Apollo and the oracle from many of the wars and battles of Athens, one of the most famous is that of Salamis.The Oracle told the Athenians "have faith in their wooden walls" which the Athenians believed was their ships - hence the battle of Salamis.

The Theatre

Delphi, Theatre

Up from the Temple of Apollo is the Theatre, built in the 4th century BC. The theatre has 35 rows and could hold up to 5000 spectators. As well as having a view of the stage the spectators had a full view of the town below and it's amazing back drop. The theatre at Delphi is in immaculate condition and is second only to the theatre in Epidaurus.

The Stadium

Delphi, Stadium

The Stadium is above the theatre at the top of the site behind a small pine forest and is the best preserved stadium in Greece (the Kalimarmaro stadium was re-built in the modern era). The stadium was used for track events during the Phithian games every four years.

The track was 177m long and 25.5m wide and could hold between 6,500 and 7,000 spectators. The original stadium was built in the 5th century BC and was added too by Herodes Atticus in the 2nd century AD.

The Tholos

Delphi, The Tholos

The Tholos is in the Sanctuary of Athena Nike and is a kind of temple with 20 columns in a circle with a diameter of 14.76m and has 10 columns in the interior. Some of the columns have been stood up and put in the original position to give visitors an idea of how it looked. The Tholos is one of Delphi's most popular monuments, but the function and purpose of the Tholos is still unknown.

The Castalian Spring

This sacred spring was thought to hold magical powers and used by athletes to bathe themselves, all visitors to the sanctuary had to purify themselves in the Castalian spring before entering. The Oracle also bathed in the water before giving her premonitions.

The Gymnasium

The Gymnasium is also in the Sanctuary of Athena Nike. The Gymnasium had pools and baths used by the athletes, the pools were filled from the Casalian spring that ran to the area. East of the baths was the Palaestra (training ground). This had everything needed for the athletes to train including a running track and changing rooms.

The Stoa of the Athenians

The Stoa of the Athenians is in front of the Polygonal wall and was built by Perikles as part of his building program in 478 BC after the Athenians had destroyed the pontoon bridge the Persians used to cross the Hellespont. The Stoa was then used to store the spoils battles mainly naval ones.

The Polygonal Wall

The Polygonal Wall supports the platform that holds the Temple of Apollo and dates back to the 6th century BC. The wall is built with interlocking blocks and curved joints (polygonal Lesbian-style masonry).

The Museum

The museum at Delphi is near the entrance to the sanctuary of Apollo and has thousands of exhibits found at Delphi including the Navel stone, although a lot will be at the National archaeological Museum in Athens.

The Information about Delphi

Location - Delphi is in central Greece, a few Kilometres from the Corinthian Gulf and West of Thebes. The nearest town to Delphi is Arachova which is a Greek ski resort.

Getting to Delphi: Delphi is about an hour and a half drive from Athens into the mountains. There are many day trips arranged from Athens most of these will probably visit Arachova as well. The nearest major airport is Athens.

Entrance fee: The entrance fee is 9 Euros and 5 Euros reduced

Opening hours: (summer)08:00 - 19:00. (Winter) 08:30 - 15:00. Closed on all public holidays.

Tips: Delphi is in the mountains so avoid going in the middle of winter. Make a day of it visiting Delphi have a look around the town of Arachova, it is more like an Alpine town than a Greek.