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Walking in the footsteps of Ancient Greek history

The remnants of the Temple of Apollo.
The remnants of the Temple of Apollo.

WE are walking in the footsteps of history. Ancient history.

But we aren't soldiers or politicians or captains of industry.

We are but humble tourists.

Although still in mainland Greece, this is another world - far from the madding crowd in the Plaka and the gridlocked peak-hour traffic on the streets of Athens.

This is the archeological site of Delphi, 600m above sea level, built on a plateau on Mount Parnassus in the Phocis region, 180km north-west of Athens.

The grandeur of the setting - high jagged mountain tops, an immense Amphissa plain covered in olive groves, the gorge way down below and the legacy of hillside ruins that exude their own special beauty - stops us in our tracks.

After a two-and-a-half-hour coach ride, our G.O.Tours guide Mikaela has brought us to the start of our journey into Greek mythology, ancient history and 2500-year-old architecture.

Over the next few hours, past and present will collide as we are entertained with stories starring Zeus, Apollo, Oedipus and Athina, oracles and athletes as we tread the ancient holy road, The Sacred Way.

The Ancient Greeks considered Delphi the centre of their universe.

In Greek mythology, Zeus is said to have released four eagles from the four corners of the Earth and the eagles met in Delphi which then became known as "the navel of the world" (a replica white navel stone marks the centre of Delphi).

Legend says that Apollo searched far and wide for a site for his oracle and found Delphi, but he had to slew the fearsome dragon Python, guarding the sacred spring, before he could stay.

The nucleus of the city was the Sanctuary of Apollo, built between the sixth and fourth centuries BC.

The Sacred Way winds its way up three ramps to the heart of the sanctuary: the Temple of Apollo.

We walk higher and higher from the Roman Agora (market), passing the remains of treasury houses built to contain the offerings of various cities to Apollo, and bases or platforms where votive monuments once stood to commemorate victories and give thanks.

Groupings of boulders and stone blocks, foundations and pillars, platforms where sculptures and monuments once stood, chiseled inscriptions and markings are explained and seen in a new light with each stop our tour group makes.

The treasury of the Athenians (built in the early fifth century BC) was the first discovered by archeologists and was rebuilt in the early 20th century using most of the original pieces.

The Delphi Museum displays perhaps the most interesting discovery found here: hymns to Apollo complete with musical notation inscribed on the south wall of this treasury.

The Temple of Apollo itself is an impressively large area where the sixth temple to be built on this site was completed in 327BC.

This final temple was built to the same plan of the previous construction that was destroyed by an earthquake. Some of the spared columns were built into the foundations and remain today.

We are told later that Greek writer Pausanias wrote a detailed account of Delphi after a visit in 160AD which has been an invaluable insight into the city for modern-day historians and archeologists.

So we find plenty to see, photograph and digest here.

But my real interest and reason for coming today lies further up the mountain: the theatre and stadium.

The terraced theatre, restored during the Roman era, was cut out of the hillside in the sixth century BC and forms the backdrop to the Temple of Apollo.

The view of the entire sanctuary and the valley below are simply breath-taking - a visual feast fit for a Greek god.

The well-preserved area accommodated up to 5000 people in 35 rows when lyrical and dramatic productions were held.

It also hosted the musical contests and drama competitions as part of the six to eight-day religious festival that included the Pythian Games, one of the four Panhellenic Games of Ancient Greece and second only to the Olympics.

The Pythian Games were held every four years (two years before the Olympic Games) during August or September, and the victors received a palm tree twig or laurel wreath for their efforts.

The fairly steep walk through the pine grove from the theatre to the stadium is well worth the effort, even in 35C summer heat.

Having been to Olympia, the birthplace of the Ancient Olympics, I was keen to see the fifth century BC stadium with its second century AD Roman "makeover" that created an three-arched entrance for athletes and tiered seating for spectators.

The stone slabs with square holes at the start and finish lines of the 178.35m (one stade) track are clearly visible, as are the judges' seats with backrests on the northern side.

Short and long-distance races (one to 24 stade), wrestling, boxing, pentathlon (race, wrestling, jump, discus and javelin) were held in this stadium, while horse and chariot racing were held on the plain of Crisa.

Only a few have made the pilgrimage this day in the gruelling temperatures and, those that have, all stand in reverent silence.

I close my eyes and my imagination hurls me through history to a time when up to 18 runners lined up on the track for a race.

Faint applause seems to have travelled through the aeons and hangs in the breeze swirling through the pines.

Demi gods - some slight of stature but fleet of foot, others Herculean in strength - had their feats passed down through the ages and remain larger than life in legend.

And they allow us mere mortals to walk in their footsteps.

DELPHI AT A GLANCE:

  • Earthquakes and landslides left ancient Delphi in ruins and deserted for centuries until another community began building on top of the ancient and Roman foundations. Then, in the 1890s, a new Delphi town was built nearby to allow the French School of Archeologists to be able to excavate the ancient sanctuary, reveal its secrets and study its history.
  • In winter, the region attracts the ski fraternity.
  • The nearby Delphi Museum is the new "sanctuary" of priceless treasures including the Naxos Sphinx offering to Apollo from the 6th century BC, and the Attic White Ground kylix (plate) of the early 5th century BC with its distinctive depiction of Apollo, as well as the first Greek cariatides (statues that act as columns or supports). But The Charioteer in bronze is perhaps the museum's most popular attraction.

GETTING THERE: 

Visit www.gotours.com.gr/en/destination/show/04 

or Ministry of Culture and Sport's website: http://odysseus.culture.gr/index_en.html

Topics:  explore travel



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