The Land of All Things Ancient

Trip Start Sep 08, 2009
Trip End Nov 24, 2009

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Friday, November 20, 2009

Delphi is a small town perched high on the southern slopes of Mt. Parnassos. The town overlooks other mountains in the distance and the Gulf of Corinth way down below. It is a gorgeous setting for what we were to see while there.

Delphi used to be famous for being the home of a prophetess known as the oracle (a.k.a. the Pythia or sibyl). The oracle worshipped Apollo and could speak his words to others. She became a phenomenon and people would come to her from all around the world for advice on everything from affairs of state to wars to marriage advice. Even Socrates and Alexander the Great both went to her for advice. Her abilities made Delphi's fame grow also. The town eventually held religious festivals which later turned into the Pythian Games (an athletic contest second only to the Olympics).

There are several main attractions in Delphi. The first is the archaeological site that contains the ruins of the Sanctuary of Apollo. Ancient Delphi was not a city, but a sanctuary- a place of worship centered on the Temple of Apollo (where the oracle prophesied). There are remains of grand monuments (making up the Sanctuary of Apollo) built by grateful pilgrims, thanking Apollo for whatever advice/guidance the oracle gave them. In addition to the remains of the Temple of Apollo and the monuments, there is also one of Greece’s best-preserved theaters and the original stadium where the Pythian Games were held. Not far from the sanctuary is the Archaeological Museum where many of the artifacts found during the Delphi excavation are held. Finally, down the mountain nearby are the Kastalian Spring (where pilgrims washed up before visiting the oracle), the ancient Sanctuary of Athena, and the field where competitors practiced for the Pythian Games. Overall, there is a lot to see in Delphi. And another cool thing is that the sites are all so close to each other, you can walk from one to the next and see everything within a day.

So we spent our one full day in Delphi seeing everything. We started at the Sanctuary, climbing 700 feet up the mountain while walking along the ancient "Sacred Way." This is the path all the pilgrims took to see the oracle. We used our guidebook to find out what all the ancient ruins and monuments were along the way. It was awesome to finally arrive at the Temple of Apollo (built in 330 B.C.) and see the place where the oracle used to prophesize. The whole thing seemed kind of supernatural and fascinating. Even though the Temple wasn’t in the best condition (the walls weren’t there- just the foundations and the columns at the entrance) you could definitely still picture what it must have been like.

After seeing the Temple, we walked up to the theater. It was built in the 4th century B.C. and was used to host song contests honoring Apollo, the god of music. It has 35 rows of white stone quarried from Mt. Parnassos. It could seat 5,000 people. It was cool to see this theater and know that in a couple of days we were going to see the ultimate Greek theater (larger and best-preserved) in Epidavros.

Another ten minute walk up the mountain was the stadium. Every four years, athletes and spectators from across Greece gathered here to watch the Pythian Games. These games were founded around 582 B.C. and had the same kind of sports as the Olympics. The stadium is really well-preserved and was built in the 5th century B.C. (A long, long time ago!) There is still stone seating for 7,000 people. The track is 580 feet long and 84 feet wide. We weren’t allowed to walk on the field or in the seats but we could look from the side. It was still really amazing to see something like that. (Well, everything in Delphi is amazing.)

When we were done seeing the Sanctuary, we walked back down the mountain to see the small but impressive Archaeological Museum. By the time we got there (nearly 3:00), the ladies who worked there were about ready to start kicking people out. They hustled us through the entire museum in less than ten minutes. It was just enough time for us to see everything but read nothing. The only thing we read was from our guidebook (which, luckily, writes about the most important and famous artifacts). In all honesty, I think this was the first time I didn’t even have a hint of boredom while in a museum. We were literally being followed by crazy Greek museum worker women who kept giving us a verbal countdown of when we needed to get out.

We took a little break after the museum and sat down at an outdoor café for a while. We played with the wild but friendly kittens before venturing out for the last sites of the day: the Kastalian Spring, the Sanctuary of Athena, and the Pythian Games practice field. The spring had no water running but it was still cool to see the empty area where legend has it that Apollo slew the Python, taking over the area from the mother of the gods. (And as I mentioned earlier, pilgrims cleansed themselves here before seeing the oracle.) The Sanctuary of Athena was pretty impressive too. It’s just a temple area where Athena was worshipped (c. 380 B.C.) but because its columns were reconstructed, it looks a lot like it would have looked back in the day. Our last site in Delphi was the practice field. We were allowed to walk on them, so that was really cool to experience. There are ancient ruins all around the edges of the field too so it really felt like we were in an old place.

Overall, Delphi was definitely one of the coolest places I’ve ever been to. It’s just such an indescribable feeling to be in a place that old, with so much history still visible (both literally and figuratively). Being in Delphi definitely got us amped up to see more ancient sites around the Peloponnese in Greece and in Athens.
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