Delphi was first inhabited in Mycanean times around 1500 B.C., but it started to flourish as a spiritual center in the 8th century B.C. when priests from Knossos in Crete brought the cult of Apollo to the site.
Entering the sanctuary of Apollo at Delphi, we walked up the Sacred Way, winding our way through numerous memorials and treasuries built by the various Greek city-states.
Like the other archeological sites we have visited in Greece, Delphi had a fantastic museum housing artifacts uncovered at the site, as well as a model of the grounds. In this model, you can see the Sacred Way leading up to the large white Temple of Apollo, with the Theater above it on the mountainside:
The small treasury building sitting just below the Temple of Apollo is the Treasury of the Athenians and it was reerected from the original components in 1904, after collapsing during an ancient earthquake.
A little further up the Sacred Way is the Rock of Sybil where the first Oracle of Delphi supposedly predicted the Greek victory in the Trojan War. It’s that big, clumpy looking rock sitting to the right of and above the Treasury of the Athenians.
The Oracle didn’t stay in this lowly spot for long, though. Above the Rock of Sybil, the Greeks built a grand temple to the god, Apollo, surrounding a chasm in the rock from which intoxicating vapors rose.
People traveled from all over Greece and the Mediterranean to ask the Oracle of Apollo at Delphi for guidance on matters personal, spiritual and political. In fact, our guide at Ephesus told us that no military campaign could be undertaken without the blessing of the Oracle at Delphi. No matter was too big or too small to ask of the Oracle.
We could see the Temple of Apollo peaking out over the wall above as we wound our way upward.
And, then, there it was:
These are the ruins of the third Temple of Apollo; this one, built in the 4th century B.C.
The Oracle, always a woman in her 50s from the local area, would be bathed in the nearby spring water, then taken by the priests to the Temple where she would breathe the vapors and go into a trance, babbling so that only the priests could hear her. They would then interpret her words into answers to the questions that had been asked of her.
Let me give you and example of the way these Q&A sessions would go:
King Croesus: “What will happen if I take war to the Persians?”
Oracle (through the priests): “You will destroy a mighty empire.”
He did destroy a mighty empire, but it wasn’t the Persian Empire; it was his own. But wasn’t that a great answer? Simple and ambiguous. Awe-inspiringly clever. Ask the seer, sucker.
Anyway, business was good enough for the Oracle and the priests that they were able to maintain this massive Temple of Apollo…
…and draw a big enough crowd to fill a Theater:
Amused, we continued our walk up the mountainside to the Stadium where games similar to those at Olympia took place. This Stadium was smaller than the one at Olympia, but since the Romans built stone seating covering the Greek embankments, it was much more impressive to the see.
Here’s the finish line:
It must have been something to attend a race here, back in the day. And no doubt that every race, the Oracle would have predicted that somebody would win; but she and her priests were smart enough not to say who.