Wednesday, 14 January 2015

Delphi - Sanctuary of the Oracle

The following morning we headed to the ancient sanctuary of Delphi where again, there was a museum and the archaeological site.
However before we got to anything historic we may have been distracted slightly by firstly, the view from the hotel balcony, and secondly, the cats at Delphi.


Until 1892, the town of Delphi was located directly on top of the archaeological site that we now visit. It was only then that the archaeologists were given the legal permission to relocate the townsfolk to a new site around the corner of the mountain in order that they could start rediscovering the ancient sanctuary beneath. The town of Delphi had been originally built in and amongst the old buildings of Delphi, which not only assisted in the preservation of some of the walls, but also any of the statues and offerings that were buried in the surrounding countryside.

As an aside, historians always knew where the sanctuary was due to the references to a 'castle' in the name of the town. this implied that the town had been built on a set of older fortifications/buildings and with not much else in the area the likelihood of these old buildings being the sanctuary would have seemed a safe bet to anyone looking.

As a result, the museum of Delphi contains an amazing collection of artifacts and photos of their comparatively recent rediscovery. The key exhibit here is the Charioteer, a bronze statue of a young man dressed in an ankle length chiton, holding in his right hand the remnant reins. He was once part of a much larger piece, but now stands alone, his intact onyx eyes staring into space.

Delphi as a sanctuary is dedicated primarily to the god Apollo but others are also worshipped there, including his sister Artemis and his mother Leto. What has fortunately survived is the remnants of a trio of gold and ivory statues of the three gods. Like the wondrous statue of Zeus at Olympia, the valuable ivory was only used for the visible parts of the skin. As a result, traces of these hands, faces and feet remain, partially reconstructed in wax to help us better visualise the haughty expressions of the gods. Also surviving is a number of gold trinkets and embellishments and the rippling waves of Apollo's sunny locks.

Looking at these expressions dating back to Archaic Greece, it is interesting just how different they are from the classical representations of the Olympians that we know and refer back to.

In addition was a large metal bull, and a collection of tiny delicate carvings of exuberant people. I'm not sure if these later pieces were originally offerings to the gods or elements of the original Ivory/Gold representations. Unfortunately I forgot to photograph the sign, and the bookshop was closed.The set of figures below was no more than 5cm (2in) long and yet exquisitely carved.

Trying not to get too distracted by the numerous cats who populated the site (many of whom we wanted to take with us) we wound our way out into the sunshine and up into the sanctuary itself (followed by one of the more persistent cats). Delphi is a rather beautiful, if strange place. It's built on a steep hill side and sparsely planted with conifers of some sort, while fennel grows wild in the crevices.In the blazing summer sun it would have been a blinding site and extremely hot for the hoards of tourists. For us, it was striking.

Originally the path that wound its way up the hill to the temple was lined with Treasuries, built by the various city states that visited the site, and dedicated to their victories. Now, only one of these has been reconstructed, using the surviving marble bricks to provide tourists with a better mental image of how the hill side must have gleamed white in the sunlight.

One of the other treasuries had a really strange arrangement of the surviving stones; the remnants of the columns have been lain flat across the base of the temple with the different types of blocks piles together around the edges.I wonder if this was done by the archaeologists or by the original settlers who compiled the stones to provide a suitable base for their house.

For one of the reasons so many bits of the original buildings and so many statues have survived is that the site was lived on for many centuries being the centre of the town of Delphi. As houses were built up over and around existing walls, meticulously carved walls (see below) were able to survive, and the site was unable to be looted before archaeologists got the chance to unpick the history properly.
A photo of the area before the archaeology digs began shows just a typical hillside village.

The element at the site that allowed for the existence of the Delphi Oracle has only recently been discovered, a faint amount of vapours that caused the hallucinogens of the Pythia. These were emitted from the rocks directly below the Temple of Apollo and seeped upwards into the enclosed room where the Pythia sat muttering unintelligibly. It seems likely that an initial earthquake caused the gasses to reach the surface and then years later, when Apollo left Delphi, that another earthquake caused the fissure in the rocks to close up and stop the gases from reaching the temple.

Oh, and the trio of columns that usually advertises Delphi... well that's not actually Delphi. 

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