I am in Greece! My sister, Jocelyn, met me in Athens, and we drove up to Delphi together (by the way, should you ever find yourself waiting for someone at the Athens airport for eight hours, I would recommend that you while away the time over in the lobby and Mesoghaia restaurant of the Sofitel Athens AirportHotel — it’s right across the street).
Delphi is just over two hours from Athens, and it was a tremendously important site in 2500 years ago. The ancient Greeks believed that when Zeus was trying to find the center of the world, he sent two eagles out from the two ends of the earth. Flying at identical speeds, they met in Delphi. So Zeus dropped a stone from the sky, and when it hit the ground, it became the omphalos, the world’s navel. And it sat nestled in the mountains of Delphi. Today, when you go to the ancient site, you see a replica of the original:
There’s a small temple in that photograph because, as you might expect, an entire operation set up shop around the world’s navel. The famous oracle of Delphi (in reality, a succession of priestesses, aided by translating priests) issued her sometimes-incomprehensible prophesies from the Temple of Apollo.
All that remains now of the building itself are the foundation and a few columns, but they give you an idea of how impressive it would have been to come here to ask the oracle whether you should get married, go to war, or try to overthrow the ruler of one of your neighboring states.
The Greeks built in remarkable sizes:
Of course, once an oracle begins issuing life-changing prophesies, everyone wants to be in on the action. So city-states from all around Greece began sending over materials for building “treasuries,” small buildings that housed relics and precious icons for the gods. The best preserved of these is The Treasury of the Athenians, built sometime around 510-490 BC to honor the Athenians’ military victories over their enemies (it may have been erected after they won the famous Battle of Marathon against the Persians).
So there were all sorts of buildings all over the place in ancient Delphi. The bottom of the site probably looked something like this:
While individual city-states offered their own buildings and statuary to honor the gods, all of Greece got together to build the tripod of the Plateans, a gold figure of a three-headed serpent that stood (until the Phocians stole it and melted it down) on top of this bronze column (which may or may not be the original — we think not):
The Greeks also built whole rows of covered walkways, called stoa. The roofs are all gone, but some of the columns remain:
This stoa was built in front of the now-famous “polyhedral wall”:
As is the case with most ancient Greeks ruins, there are fragments of old buildings lying around all over the place.
Some of those fragments have writing (and in this case, what looks like a doodle) on them:
The ancient Greeks also built a theater …
… a gymnasium, where young men could train for the Pythian games in running, boxing, and wrestling (you can see the circular of rocks at the bottom right where they would have rested in a cooling pool after their workouts) …
… and a stadium, where they actually ran the races to qualify for the Olympics:
One of the most beautiful ruins at Delphi, set off a ways from the rest, is this Sanctuary of Athena:
The three standing columns were reconstructed in the 1970s, and they help give a sense of what the temple might have looked like long ago. We spent a lot of time photographing this one.
We loved wandering around this one in the evening — we were there at around 6:00 — because it was nearly empty and the light was lovely.
If you visit the ruins at Delphi in June, know that you will be hot. You will also climb a lot of stairs and paths — this thing is set into the side of a mountain, and the ruins are large and rambling. There will be crowds nearby, especially after 10:00, when tour buses start pouring in from Athens (so it’s worth trying to go early, but the site does not have consistent opening hours, which makes planning a tricky proposition). But it’s not anywhere near as crazy as the Parthenon; you will feel like you have room to breathe. The light is best in the mornings and the evenings; in Greece, the mid-day sunlight gets really strong.
In the middle of the day, it is worth visiting the Archaeological Museum of Delphi (though you will be mobbed by visiting tour groups with the same idea). This museum houses all sorts of ancient bronzes …
… statues (here, a guardian Sphinx, who would once have sat upon a column much higher than this, donated to the site by Naxos)…
… and original reliefs from the friezes of some of the temples.
Here are Ares, Aphrodite, Artemis, and Apollo)…
… and in this panel, you’ll see a scene from the Gigantomachy, a tale of the battle between the gods and the children of Gaia:
One of the most famous pieces in the museum is The Charioteer, the only fully-intact bronze statues we have from ancient Delphi, which was preserved from looting thanks to having been buried by the great earthquake of 373 BC.
This museum was far bigger than we expected (and probably deserved much more time that we gave it). You could learn a lot about developments in Greek art over time if you spent a few hours here.