I can remember in public school, in Grade 4, our school teacher Mr. Sandham telling us a little about ancient Greek history and mythology. One of the things I remember is how he taught us about Delphi and the “oracle” that would give fortunes and advice to those who visited. I don’t recall all the details, and at the time, I wasn’t even sure what an oracle was. It wouldn’t be until many years later that I discovered it was a priestess who, likely high after consuming Bay (Laurel) leaves and breathing in the fumes and vapours of the sanctuary of Apollo, that gave oracles.
I also did not realize just how big Delphi was. Or that it’s importance to peoples thousands of years ago was much more than about the Oracle and being a religious centre. In fact, every four years, the “Pythian Games,” second only to the Olympic Games, were held at Delphi. It also acted almost like a place of central banking for Ancient Greece, with various City States building “treasury” buildings at the site where treasures including what was plundered during battles and wars would be stored.
In August of 2019, I had an opportunity to visit Delphi and spend some time wandering around. Although there are information posts at important locations, it would be great to get to know more about the lives of the people who lived in and visited Delphi during the ancient times.
Delphi – Spectacular Scenery
If you are visiting Greece, visiting Delphi for the opportunity to see the ancient buildings, stadium, and theatre would be fantastic – but you’ll find the scenery here to be utterly spectacular as well. Delphi was built on several levels high up on Mount Parnassus, above a valley that offers gorgeous views and across to the mountains on the other side.
While I had my camera with me, I was knew to it at the time, and probably should have replaced the SD cards. Sadly, as I took probably close to 200 photos, only about 50 survived a major issue with the file storage card. But hopefully what I managed to keep and cull through will convince you of the beauty of the area that Delphi is situated in.
Delphi was built on several “steps” up the side of the mountain, and to reach the top of the site, I’d highly recommend you make sure you have plenty of water if it is a hot day, and be prepared to take some rests if your in poor physical condition! In fact, you’ll be amazed if you reach the top, and see the stadium, and consider that the athletes had to get themselves all the way up to this point, before competing! The stadium is apparently at 662 m / 2172 feet above sea level while the entrance to the ancient site is about 540 m / 1,771 feet above.
You will probably have to walk a bit as well, after finding a place to park in the vicinity. Getting up to the stadium does involve some steep trails. The scenery on the way up looks like this, when looking toward the east:
Delphi’s Ancient Structures
Interestingly (to me), I learned that the Oracle was still active at Delphi up until about 394 CE (A.D.). Christianity had become the religion or faith of choice for emperors at the time, and in the 4th century, Byzantine emperor Theodosius banned all non-Christian practices, including the ancient Hellenic games. Much of what existed at Delphi at that time was destroyed.
Archeologists believe that the area was inhabited since at least 4,000 BC – and has been controlled by various emperors and groups over time. There are signs apparently of the first known Greeks from the Archaic period giving Delphi religious significance. Over the years, structures have been built and destroyed, including by fire, earthquake, and of course invading armies. During those same times, some structures were rebuilt and others built anew.
While wondering around, I was not always able to ascertain what was original, or what had been restored/rebuilt. Some of the ruins of the Temple of Apollo do still exist, and I have several views from my visit there. This was the first, from down below:
Moving on, there are several engraved stones in ancient Greek. I’m not sure what they say:
As mentioned, Delphi became the location where major States would deposit their treasures. According to Wikipedia:
These were built by many of the Greek city states to commemorate victories and to thank the oracle for her advice which was thought to have contributed to those victories. These buildings held the rich offerings made to Apollo; these were frequently a “tithe” or tenth of the spoils of a battle. The most impressive is the now-restored Athenian Treasury, built to commemorate their victory at the Battle of Marathon in 490 BC.
I managed to get photos of two of these, the first being the Treasury of the Boeotians and the second, the Treasury of Athens, which as noted was the most impressive:
Navel Of The Earth or The Omphalos
Ancient Greek tradition had it that Zeuss threw a stone to discover where the centre (navel) of the earth was, which landed at Delphi. It was believed by some that Delphi was indeed the centre of the world. Located inside the museum at Delphi is what is believed to be the original “omphalos,” although it is known that copies were made. Outside, this copy is on display, and was apparently made by the Athenians and given as a gift to Delphi:
More Natural Beauty & Ancient Structures
As you continue walking the grounds of Delphi, and get to higher elevations, the natural beauty continues to be stunning and breathtaking:
As mentioned, I have several views of the Temple Of Apollo, which I’ll just add without commentary:
While not much of the temple ruins show in this photo, it’s another that might help you to realize the stunning natural beauty that is at this place:
The Stadium At Delphi
As mentioned, it’s a good workout to get to the stadium, located at the highest elevations of Delphi. One can only imagine what it was like for the athletes who had to trudge their way up to this point, and then compete in games of running races (similar to our track races), wrestling, boxing, combat sport fighting, and the ancient version of the pentathlon which consisted of long jump, javelin throwing, and discus throwing, and short foot race.
The stadium itself is long and narrow:
The finish line was at the other end and if you look closely, you can see a slab of stone in the “field” area which marked the finish line for foot races in the photo below. This marked a distance of one stade, about 184 metres (although some sources say a “stade” was 180 metres while other sources claim 192 metres. Regardless, the stade was a unit of measurement in Ancient Greece, and likely where we get our word, stadium, from.
Near the finish line, there are a set of stairs that lead up to an arched doorway. We joked that perhaps it was the changeroom, but it should be noted that athletes competed mostly naked. I never did find out what the purpose of the doorway was, or what lies behind it.
More Stunning Beauty
Walking back down from the stadium gave us even more opportunity to take in the breathtaking scenery, and for me, there was a sense of awe realizing that this beauty has been around and recognized for thousands of years! Athletes and spectators, thousands of years ago, would walk along paths probably in about the exact same place as I was walking, and would have seen the same magnificent views.
From the height of the stadium, one can imagine what the Temple of Apollo looked like, where now, you can only see the ruins. But it also provides perspective as to just how high in elevation the stadium is:
The Delphi Theatre – 5,000 Spectators
Walking down from the stadium, we took a path which lead to a view of the stadium, and then finally, right beside it. If you think Delphi was some small place, consider that its outdoor theatre, originally built 4th century BC, could hold 5,000 spectators!
It was built no doubt to provide spectators not only a great view of the musicians, poets, actors, and others performing, but also of the spectacular views available from this location.
Getting To Delphi
The fastest route to Delphi from Athens is about 185 km and takes around 2 hours, depending on which part of Athens you are leaving from. Because of the distance, it is definitely a place you want to wake up early so you can enjoy at least several hours wandering around the ancient – and give yourself at least an hour (probably more) inside the museum that is located just outside the grounds.
Admission fees include both the museum and ancient site.
There are bus tours that will take you to Delphi (and include other places as well). We saw quite a number of tour buses stopping and dropping off passengers, many apparently in organized groups.
I was lucky in that when I went to Delphi, I had been staying in Central Greece, near Atlanti (prounced Ataladi), which cut the time to travel in half. We were then able to explore some of the coast line beyond Delphi as well, which is well worthwhile, if you’re able to do that.
This article is in no way a comprehensive guide to Delphi – in fact, I’d love to return and learn more (and make sure I have working cards in my camera as well!). If you do go, be prepared for stunning natural beauty and some good walking! Have some water with you as in the hot months, you’ll definitely need it.
Have you been to Delphi? What were your impressions – leave a comment below.
Great Book On Delphi