In Aethiopica, an ancient novel by Heliodorus, a central character who is a priest of the Egyptian goddess Isis, describes Delphi as where the divine can be found, a natural fortress, beloved of Nature. Other ancient writers commented on its hidden aspect. It’s certainly true that the mountain itself seems to protect the sanctuary, denying the visitor any faraway view, hiding the site until the traveller rounds the last craggy outcrop and sees the Temple nestling in a bowl of the mountain, the harsh, grey granite rising up behind. It must, in the days of its full splendour, have been a truly stunning sight. The marble of its many buildings reflecting the sunlight and glowing golden at dusk as the pilgrims climbed the paths to the Temple, to petition the Oracle of the God Apollo for answers, the last rays of the sun glinting in the gold which topped many of the monuments. It’s still fairly impressive now.
As Nico, an employee of Delphi Museum and a character in my novel, says ‘The temple ruins you’ll see today date back to 320 BCE. It’s the sixth Temple of Apollo to stand here, ‘though the site has been sacred for millenia.’ The Sacred Way, the stone pathway which zigzags across the mountain slope, rising towards the Temple Terrace, is a relatively modern addition, in the 5th and 6th centuries CE and, though this is the route followed by modern visitors, the Temple site BCE would have had several entrances and paths and sets of steps between paths, not unlike those in the town of Delphi today.
The buildings within the complex were closely packed together, you can imagine how this was from Jean-Claude Golvin’s watercolours included here. Golvin was an archaeologist as well as a painter and his pictures are based on the ruins found on the sites, plus quite a lot of scholarly speculation. Above you see the walled complex, the huge boundary walls constructed in the sixth century BCE. The square addition of the Roman Agora is on the right and the ancient Amphitheatre is directly behind the massive Temple itself. The Temple was the heart of the sanctuary, its Terrace packed with monuments, statuary and other offerings to the God. Many of the box-like buildings you can see on the slopes below it were Treasuries, belonging to city states, islands, countries, where their special offerings were stored. The Treasury of the Athenians, which features in ‘Oracle’ is the best restored. Originally dedicated after the victory at Marathon the restoration took place in the early twentieth century with money raised from the modern city of Athens.
But Apollo wasn’t the only God honoured here. There is the Sanctuary to Athena, which can be seen in the larger version of Golvin’s watercolour. This stands at the bottom right of the picture (right) just beyond the Gymnasium – you can see the long running track – and plunge pool. This was where athletic members of the public would work out and train. The Sanctuary Stadium, where the Pythian Games were held, is much higher up the mountain, its edge can be seen in the top left hand corner of the larger picture. It is from the Stadium that my heroine looks down on the precinct – ‘It was easy to understand why this place had been sacred for so long’ she says. ‘It was so still, a sense of the divine so near to the surface. It had astonishing drama and beauty.’ And it still does.
Yet the history of the precinct is one of rivalry and dispute, even in a place dedicated to the God and overseen by various forms of a council representing, at least nominally, all of Greece. There was a decided element of outshining the competition, with cities and other dedicatees, building ‘bigger and better’ than their fellows. Not least of the rivalries was that between Athens and Sparta, as you would expect, but there were others, often reflecting the political tensions of the day. In all there were three Sacred Wars for the prize of virtual overlordship of Delphi, dominating the council, and more than one political enemy was flung from the top of the Phaedriades cliffs as a blasphemer (planting evidence of stolen goods which had been dedicated to the God was a common trick).
If readers of this blog would like a more detailed, but still digestible, history I can recommend Michael Scott’s ‘Delphi’ (Princeton University Press, 2016). If you prefer bite-size chunks, but with far less erudition, keep reading this blog.