Did you ever visit Delphi?
The ancient site of Delphi is one of the most well-known archaeological destinations in Greece as well as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
When I visited Delphi for the first time back in 1987, it for sure made a very big impression. Not only the archeological site but also the surrounding nature.
Every year Delphi welcomes thousands of visitors from all over the world. The archaeological site, not to be confused with the modern city of Delphi nearby, is located on the south-western slope of Mount Parnassos in Central Greece, about 180km from Athens. Visiting Delphi is a great idea if you’re based in Athens and would like to take a day trip.
Why was Delphi important for the ancient Greeks?
Delphi was the location of the Delphic oracle, a sanctuary and sacred temple of Apollo for all ancient Greeks. Even though ancient Greece was not a single state at the time but a group of rival city-states, locations like Delphi were considered neutral territory. Everyone was welcome to go there and pay homage to Apollo, the god of music, poetry, sun, and light. Moreover, every four years athletes from all over Greece gathered there to compete in the Pythian Games. These Games were a series of sports competitions between representatives of the city-states that were like the Olympic Games and the Nemean Games. You can read more about the Nemean Games here
Ancient Greek mythology
Delphi was revered throughout the Greek world as the center of the earth, which is why Ancient Greeks referred to it as the omphalos (en. the navel) of the earth and the universe. According to Greek mythology, Zeus sought to find the center of his Grandmother Earth (Gaia, gr. Γαία) and so he sent out two eagles flying from the Eastern and Western ends of the world. The point where the paths of the two birds crossed were Delphi and so the navel was found.
The excavations in Delphi started in the 1880s by Bernard Haussoulier and the French School of Athens, one of the several international archaeological institutes operating in Greece. At that time, the ancient location was occupied by about 200 people, the village of Kastri (en. fort). They were using the stones from the ancient buildings to reuse them in their own houses. In order for more extensive excavations to happen, the villagers were eventually relocated in a nearby location which later became the modern city of Delphi.
How big is this site and what are its key buildings?
The Temple of Apollo occupies the most prominent position in the Delphi archaeological site. It dates back to the 4th century BC and was destroyed in 373 BC by an earthquake. Even though it was restored in the 20th century, only part of its colonnade remains today. People from all over ancient Greece visited the Temple to consult Pythia, the oracle and priestess of Apollo. Alone in an adyton (en. inner sanctum, sanctuary), she sat on a tripod seat over an opening in the earth, where vapors and fumes arose from. According to the myth, intoxicated by the vapors, Pythia would fall into a trance and make prophecies. Her prophecies were then ‘translated’ by the priests of the temple, usually in an ambiguous way in order to protect its reputation in case things did not turn out as expected…
From the upper side entrance, lining up the way to the Temple of Apollo are the treasuries. These treasuries were traditionally built by the Greek city-states to commemorate their victories in a war that happened thanks to the advice provided by the oracle. The most impressive one is the Athenian Treasury, built to commemorate Athens’ victory at the Battle of Marathon.
Besides their treasury, the Athenians erected the so-called Stoa of the Athenians (en. covered passage or galleria) to house the trophies that they accumulated from their naval victories against the Persian army.
Another prominent building of the archaeological site is the ancient theatre of Delphi. It was originally built in the 4th century BC and used for drama performances during the great festivals organized at Delphi. This theatre could seat up to 5,000 people. However, the ruins that today we can see date back to the Roman Imperial period as a new theatre was built in the location of the ancient one.
Delphi had not only a theatre but also a stadium where the Panhellenic Pythian Games were held every four years. In addition to this, there was also a gymnasium, a complex of buildings used for sports practice – there was an arcade and open space for running, a palaestra, a pool, and thermal baths.
One of the most photographed monuments of Delphi (and Greece altogether) is the Tholos of Delphi, a circular building in Doric style. We still don’t know what it was used for, but archaeologists assume that it was an important building, judging from the fine workmanship, the detailed decoration, and the materials used for it.
The most sacred site in Delphi for ancient Greeks, however, was the Castalia spring. It was connected to the vapors that Pythia inhaled to make prophecies and possibly also the reason why this location was chosen for Apollo’s oracle. In classical times, all pilgrims to Delphi bathed here before entering the sacred territory.
Last but not least comes a modern building, the Museum of Delphi, one of the most well-known museums in Greece. It houses architectural parts, offerings as well as very important sculptures from Archaic, Classical and Hellenistic Greece.
And how do you get there?
Driving from Athens to Delphi takes about 2.5 hours and the road takes you through a very scenic route around mountain Parnassos. If you visit Delphi during the winter months, you can choose to stay overnight in Arachova, a picturesque village nearby with a skiing/winter sports center. It is a great way to combine sightseeing with a day of skiing! Otherwise, you can always drive a bit further to the town of Livadia – you can read more about Livadia and why you should add it to your to-do list here.
Besides driving to Delphi, you can take the daily KTEL coaches from Athens or Patra. The pandemic has affected the times and frequency of all public transport so make sure to check before you plan your trip. The same applies to the opening days and hours for the archaeological site itself and the museum.