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Delphi: Centre of the world

The ancient Greeks believed it to be the “navel of the earth” — or center of the world — and although it naturally is not anymore, Delphi has kept much of its charm and continues to attract over two million travelers each year.

The Precinct of Apollo at Delphi
Located in lower central Greece on the slope of Mt. Parnassus, Delphi is only a few hours drive from Athens, making it the ideal excursion while visiting the capital. There are countless tourist agencies in Athens that arrange one or two-day trips to Delphi by bus. However, apart from being one of the most important archaeological sites in Greece and inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List, Delphi is surrounded by green mountains, picturesque towns and the Gulf of Corinth. Therefore, one could easily spend a few days in and around this idyllic town, especially if you are looking for a mix of culture, nature and rest.

In ancient times, Delphi was mainly important because of its sanctuary, which had the most famous oracle in the Hellenic world. Wars, marriages and other matters related to people’s lives or public interests were decided here. In fact, no king would go to war before consulting the Oracle, including Alexander the Great. Supposedly, even the Trojan War was predicted here. For some 1,000 years, it was the cultural and religious center of the ancient Greeks. Besides the prestigious oracle, the place also hosted the Pythian games every four years, in which athletes from all over the Greek world competed. These games, second in importance only after the Olympian games, were a precursor of our modern Olympics, and included music and poetry competitions.

The Temple of Apollo, Delphi
According to mythology, Zeus sent out two eagles from the end of the universe — one from the west and one from the east. The place where they met was the navel (“omphalos” in Greek) of the earth. At that place, Delphi was to be built. The navel of the universe was initially protected by a serpent called Python, but Apollo — the mythical figure of reason, light, music, poetry and prophecy — killed him. In order to celebrate his victory, Apollo brought a priestess to guard the hole he had thrown the python in, out of which mysterious fumes appeared. The priestess, called Pythia in veneration of the python, inhaled the fumes, which had hallucinatory effects that enabled her to see the future. Once this cult was established around the eighth century BC, the development of the sanctuary and the oracle began.

The Temple of Apollo had a statue of the deity himself, as well as an eternally burning flame. Carved into the temple vestibule were three proverbs: “know thyself,” “nothing in excess” and “make a pledge and mischief is nigh.” Within the temple was the priestess or Pythia, seated on a tripod to inhale the fumes that put her into a trance. As a result, her predictions were rather vague and needed to be translated into verse by a priest. Some argue that the vagueness of the predictions contributed to the success of the oracle.

The Temple of Apollo, Delphi
Although the Temple of Apollo and its oracle dominated the sanctuary, they are certainly not the only ruins to visit. Before reaching the temple, you will pass the steps that lead to the Sacred Way that ended up at the Temple of Apollo. This road was filled with treasuries and statues given by city-states to thank the Oracle for her advice. One of them, the Athenian Treasury, has been completely reconstructed. Above the temple lies the well-preserved theater. It was built during the fourth century BC and restored on several occasions. The view from the top rows is spectacular, as it overlooks the entire sanctuary and the valley below. Even further up the mountain lies the best-preserved ancient Greek stadium where the Pythian games in honor of Apollo were held.

Approximately 800 meters from these main ruins lies the sanctuary of Athena, deity of wisdom, warfare, intelligence and crafts. The Tholos at the sanctuary, a circular building, is the main place of interest, as three of its columns have been restored. Next to it is the gymnasium where athletes used to train for the games. Other places not to miss are the Castalian Spring, where pilgrims cleansed themselves before seeking advice from the Oracle and the Delphi Archeological Museum. This museum holds masterpieces that were found in Delphi’s remains, such as the bronze statue of the “Charioteer of Delphi” and the “Sphinx of the Naxians.”

The Treasury of the Athenians, Delphi
The surroundings of Delphi offer countless opportunities for activities that have nothing to do with myths, deities and oracles. As said, Delphi is located on Mt Parnassos, and north of it stretches the Parnassos National Park. It is an ideal place for trekking, mountain biking, off-road running, rock climbing, or parasailing from one of the hills. Moreover, the ski center of Parnassos is the biggest in Greece and attracts thousands of visitors every year during the winter. It has more than 20 ski runs and alpine trails. For those interested in water sports, the sea is only a 15-minute drive from Delphi.

Another attractive excursion 12 km east from Delphi is Arachova village. In winter, it hosts most of the ski-tourists, and even in the summer, it is a wonderful place to visit. The town offers outstanding views, narrow cobblestone streets and a very friendly atmosphere. Arachova is also famous in Greece for its carpets and woven materials, as well as its local cheeses, olives and pastas.

The Theatre, Delphi
To reach Delphi by car from Athens, drive north on E962 and then west through Livadei (route 48) toward Itea. It takes about two hours to get there.

Did you know?

The word “oracle” has three meanings; it can refer to the priestesses giving the prophecies, the predictions themselves or the place where the prophecies were made.

The name of the town comes from the Greek word “delphys,” which means womb. It refers to the mythical figure Gaia, or Mother Earth, who was venerated here before Apollo.

Delphi is the name of both the archaeological site and the modern town. Ancient Delphi is only 500 meters away from the present town, the latter spectacularly located on the edge of a precipitous cliff.

The phrase “know thyself,” inscribed in the temple’s forecourt, has been attributed to the philosopher Socrates, among others. The story goes that one of his friends asked the Oracle if there was any man wiser than Socrates. The Oracle then responded that there was not. When Socrates heard about this, he tried to prove the Oracle wrong by questioning everyone he could find about what was worthwhile in life. When he realized that everyone pretended to know the answer but was unable to give him a satisfactory reply, he admitted he might be the wisest man, as he was the only one who fully recognized his own ignorance.

Author: Selina Roth | Source: Arab News [July 27, 2011]

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