The site of Delphi, where Zeus sent eagles to find the center of mother earth, is unique in history. Its mystical power made it the sanctuary of choice for individuals and large city-states.
The resulting wealth led to monumental temple and treasury buildings. Explore this remarkable archaeological zone—a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1972—and its magnificent museum, home to an amazing bronze charioteer.
Located at the base of Mount Parnassus and overlooking the Corinthian Gulf this holy site was once considered to be at the centre of the world (and they still have a rather homely stone, known as the omphalos or navel of Delphi, to prove it). For 1400 years it was a place where people from all over the ancient Greek world came to seek guidance. The Oracle was renowned for her prophecies and her pronouncements carried political weight – city-states and rulers sought her counsel on decisions that would impact their territories and communities and even the outcome of wars.
The site is vast and while it’s easy enough to do as a day trip some opt to stay in the town of Delphi or further out in lovely seaside towns like Itea or Galaxidi. If you’re planning on this we suggest heading to the Sanctuary of Athena Pronaia first (it’s the first parking turnout away from the archaeological site) as it can get very crowded with tour buses that stop here first thing in the morning.
From here it’s only a few hundred metres to the iconic Tholos of Delphi. This circular building is the symbol of the oracle and has been regarded as one of Greece’s most important monuments since antiquity. It is the most well-known temple to Apollo and was a meeting point for pilgrims seeking advice. It is awe inspiring to stand here and contemplate the power of humanity’s bond with divinity.
The first thing you will notice about the Sanctuary is that it’s crowded. This is because Delphi was such an important place for a thousand years that people rich and poor, kings and peasants alike, visited it.
This was mainly because the oracle at Delphi could advise on private affairs as well as matters of state. It was also because Delphi was independent of the major Greek city states, a position that helped it grow in status and influence over time.
On the Sacred Way you will see a number of smaller buildings, known as treasuries, built by Greek state cities and their rulers to commemorate victories or to thank the oracle for its advice. One of the earliest was built by the Athenians, who used the metopes (or reliefs) on its facade to tell the story of the mythical king Theseus.
A few steps away from the treasury is another of Delphi’s most important structures, the theatre. It dates from the 4th century BCE and is considered to be one of the most magnificent theatres in the world. It is able to seat over 2,000 people and has an astonishing view over the rest of the site and surrounding mountains. It is an impressive monument, especially when you consider the role it played in the Pythian Games and how important Delphi was to ancient Greece as a whole.
For a long time, Delphi was a spiritual and religious sanctuary. It was associated with Apollo, the god of music and prophecy. And it was also a place of healing. The famous Asklepion at Epidaurus is better known today but in ancient times, Delphi was the best place to go for divine inspiration.
The Oracle was believed to receive guidance from the gods via a series of ecstatic and prophetic visions. This information was interpreted by priests and priestesses. The kings, queens, and leaders of city-states across the Mediterranean sought the oracle’s advice on serious matters of state, including war and foreign policy. The utterances of the Pythia could be a matter of life and death.
According to legend, Zeus determined the location of Delphi by sending two eagles flying from opposite ends of the earth. Their path indicated the center or ‘omphalos’ of Gaia (Grandmother Earth).
Mythology buffs will enjoy learning about Apollo and other mythological figures connected to the temple. But the ruins and discoveries here will interest any visitor interested in Hellenic history.
In the modern era, scientists have tried to debunk the myth of the oracle’s visions by analyzing the area’s underlying rocks. The results led a geologist, an archaeologist, chemist, and toxicologist to conclude that the’scent of the divine’ was probably the sweet-smelling gas ethylene, once used as an anesthetic. This was released by hidden faults in the rocky ground and produces feelings of euphoria in low doses.
Delphi was a sacred nexus with a huge influence over the course of ancient Greek history. It was a hub where wealthy city states and powerful conquerors gathered for advice and to bribe the Oracle to support them in war and politics. It is not surprising that there are myths aplenty: from other-worldly fumes rising from a chasm that induced the utterance of prophecies, to Croesus building the Colossus of Rhodes because the Delphic Oracle told him to; and the alleged fact that the Oracle’s predictions could be interpreted in many different ways.
A visit to the site and the museum is a full day trip (or even more) and there is a lot to see. If you do only one thing though, then make sure that you include the Corycian Cave; an obligatory stop for all ancient supplicants before they encountered the Oracle and which is now a shrine to the god of nature, Pan.
The museum includes a collection of bronze statues from Delphi, including the famous equestrian figures of the Argonautic Expedition and a metope from the Treasury of Sicyonians; and other antiquities such as lamps from the temple, a woven silk banner from the Delphic festival and some Late antique treasures like a leopard made of mother-of-pearl. There are also manuscripts, correspondence and photographs relating to the festival.