The Temple of Apollo at Delphi is worth a special trip. Unlike other ancient Greek temples that you might explore for an hour or two, you can plan on spending a whole day visiting Apollo's shrine at Delphi. It's the center of a massive sacred site with loads to explore and learn about.
The temple is midway up the sacred site on the southwestern slopes of Mt. Parnassus. Above it, an impressive amphitheater is tucked, like the temple, into the natural crescent formed by the mountains. Still higher up, the very large ancient stadium was the site of the Pythian Games, Panhellenic competitions that were, in their day, bigger and more important than the ancient Olympics.
Below Apollo's Temple, in the Valley of Phocis, a deep green river of millions of olive trees spreads and plunges from the mountains toward the sea. They still harvest Kalamata olives in Apollo's groves as they have done for hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of years.
In the midst of all this splendor, you'd be forgiven for thinking that the ruins of the temple, six Doric columns and a multi-layered platform of dressed stones cut through with steps and passages, was relatively insignificant.
But you'd be so wrong. Because it was here that Apollo spoke in prophesy and riddles (through the voice of the Pythia) the Delphic Oracle, and the fate of the ancient world was shaped.
What You'll See at the Sanctuary of Apollo
The archaeological site of Delphi is about 100 miles northwest of Athens, above the Gulf of Corinth, on the main route EO48. The Sanctuary of Apollo is above the road while the equally impressive, though smaller, Sanctuary of Athena Pronaia sits below the road.
A winding marble path, the Sacred Way is the steadily climbing processional walk leading uphill through the sanctuary to the Temple of Apollo. Wear sturdy shoes because the going can be uneven in places and the path, though not terribly steep is a relentless climb. There is minimal shade so bring water and wear a hat.
The Temple of Apollo is about a fifth of a mile from the entrance, but there's plenty to see and lots of opportunities to stop and explore on the way up. In ancient times, visitors from the various Greek and non-Greek city states and islands brought tribute to Apollo through the Oracle. They built small temples, referred to today as treasuries, where their offerings—votive statues, gold and silver, wine, olive oil, and the spoils of war—were stored during rituals and left behind as gifts. These treasuries, or the remains of them, line the Sacred Way.
The most impressive standing building along the path is the Treasury of the Athenians, a small Doric building of colorful Parian marble. So much of it was found in situ during excavations that archaeologists from the French School at Athens, active in Delphi since the 19th century, were able to re-erect it where it originally stood in 1906. The statues and friezes are reproductions, though, with the originals in the adjacent museum. This treasury was built in the sixth or early fifth century B.C.
There are conflicting stories about what it commemorated. The more romantic theory is that it symbolized the victory of democracy over tyranny. Another more likely story, based on the writings of a 2nd-century Greco-Roman traveler and historian is that the treasury was built to commemorate the Athenians victory over the Persians at the Battle of Marathon. Certainly some of the spoils of that victory, written about by contemporaries or now in the museum, would have been displayed in the little building during festivals and processions.
About 525 feet further along the sacred way, above the Temple of Apollo, is the Ancient Theater of Delphi. Musical events, including singing and instrumental competitions, were held here as part of the Pythian Games honoring Apollo as well as other religious festivals. The original theatre was built in the fourth century B.C. and was probably rebuilt in its current form during the second century B.C.
And still higher up, another 1,500 feet above the temple along the Sacred Way, The Ancient Stadium of Delphi, is considered the best preserved monument of its kind in the world. It was here that athletes first competed for the honor of Apollo's crown of laurel leaves. The original dates from the 5th century B.C., but the stadium, as it now exists, was probably expanded by the Romans. According to some stories, before they even competed in the Pythian Games, the athletes raced up Mt. Parnassus to the stadium from the valley floor.
The Significance of Apollo's Sanctuary at Delphi
Like Geneva, The Hague, or Helsinki in modern times, Delphi was an international, neutral meeting place among the separate Greek city states and often their nearby neighbors. At a time when the Athenians and the Spartans, the Siphnians, the Knidians, and dozens of other Hellenic states might be engaged in trade wars or hot wars, Delphi was the neutral, Panhellenic place where they could gather together to conduct rituals, settle rivalries, and negotiate deals. Leaders came here to consult the Oracle and then stayed to conduct diplomacy with each other.
Its importance predated its role in Apollonian rituals. From Archaic times, it was considered the center of the world—the Omphalos or navel—chosen by Zeus. The stone that marked the Omphalos can be seen in the museum at the site. It became associated with Apollo around 800 B.C., but it is likely there was an Oracle here from as early the semi-mythological Mycenaean era around 1,400 B.C.
The Oracle at Delphi
The words of the Oracle at Delphi were spoken by a priestess, an older woman dressed as a virgin, known as the Pythia. In one of the myths of Apollo, the god slew a monstrous serpent, the Python. The name is related to an archaic verb "to rot," and the sweet, rotting smell of the Python Apollo killed.
This all ties in with theories about how the Oracle worked. She may have entered a trance, in a chamber beneath the temple, after being exposed to gaseous vapors emanating from the earth. She then prophesied while in a trancelike state, and priests interpreted her words for the "supplicant".
For a long time, scientists thought they had disproved the idea of vapors and smells written about by contemporaries of the Oracle and reported by locals. But in the 1980s, other scientists examining this geologically active area found evidence of fissures in the earth beneath Apollo's temple. And in 2001, scientists from Wesleyan University published a report about their discovery of two major fault lines capable of releasing natural gas, which crossed right under the temple where the Oracle's chamber would have been located.
How to Visit
Where: The Archaeological Site of Delphi is in the province of Fokida in the center of Central Greece. The site lies on the EO48 between the towns of Amfissa and Arachova.
When: The site is open almost every day from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m, except Christmas, December 26, New Year's Day, and about a dozen Greek religious holidays.
Cost: Standard admission for the site as well as the Museum, is 12 euros. Reduced rates are available for Greek and EU seniors, as well as students from all over the world with appropriate student identification. Admission is free on the first Sunday of every month from November 1 to March 31. There is a really complicated arrangement of free days and annual closings. For the most up-to-date information, visit the Greek Ministry of Culture and Sports Delphi website.
Getting There: Get there by car from Athens in about two and a half hours over a combination of national highways and mountain roads. See on a map. Buses from Athens Long Distance Bus Terminal B on Aghia Dimitriou Aplon Street travel to Delphi throughout the day. In 2018 the cost is about 15 euros, and the trip also takes two and a half hours. You can find out more about Greece's long distance buses, run by KTEL here. Remarkably, the company no longer publishes a timetable you can access from its website, but instead has a paid telephone information number accessible only from Greece.
But buses do make this trip relatively often throughout the day.
What to See Nearby
- The Archaelogical Museum of Delphi is included in the ticket price for visiting the Temple of Apollo and the Sanctuary. It holds most of the objects discovered during excavations of the site and the offerings left in the many treasuries. It's just west of the main sacred site and well worth your time. Don't miss it. One of its highlights is the Charioteer of Delphi, an early bronze statue so remarkable that an entire room of the museum is devoted to him alone. Also among the votive offerings, gold and ivory statues, small bronzes and mysterious ceramic phials.
- The Sanctuary of Athena Pronaia, has the earliest archaeological finds of the whole ritual center. It is just downhill and across the EO48 from the Sanctuary of Apollo. Pronaia refers to the goddess before the temple, and while little is known about this sanctuary, it is believed that pilgrims and supplicants prepared themselves for meeting the Oracle by visiting this sanctuary first. The most outstanding building on the site would have been a round, multi-columned temple known as the Tholos. Three of its columns still standing on its round platform are a dramatic symbol of Delphi.
- The small modern town of Delphi is just a few hundred yards downhill and west of the archaeolgical sites. Although it is a touristy sort of place, it is handy for hotels, restaurants overlooking the valley of olive groves, and for shops selling gold jewelry, much of it locally made. Look for pieces with a snake motif, characteristic of the area and reflecting the origins of the Pythia. As an interesting aside, this town, once known as Kastri, was moved to its current location in 1893 when extensive excavations revealed the scope and importance of the Delphic sites.