Famous throughout the ancient world for its Oracle, the High Priestess Pythia, and her predictions of the future, the site of Delphi is located in the Peloponnese and was regarded by the Greeks as the very centre of the world. According to Greek mythology, it was the place where two eagles met after being sent out by Zeus to find the navel of the world.
It is believed that the site where the ruins are situated has been occupied since the Neolithic Period (5000-3000 BC). Excavations have revealed that from 1500 to 1100 BC the site was a Mycenaean village. Around 1000 BC the worship of Apollo became dominant, brought to the region either by the Dorians from Crete or people from Thessaly. The 6th century BC saw the political rise of Delphi and the construction of the first temple to Apollo. It was this connection to Apollo that brought about Delphi’s prosperity.
In 528 BC, the Temple of Apollo was destroyed by a fire. Because of its importance, almost all of the Greek city states contributed to its rebuilding, which was completed in 505 BC. It was destroyed again in 373 BC when an earthquake levelled much of the city. Once again it was rebuilt with the help of the other city states.
Delphi’s decline began in 191 BC with the arrival of the Romans. The Oracle was still consulted, however, until 390 AD, when it was shut down by the Roman Emperor, Theodosius, as it was considered to be pagan. The following year Delphi was overrun and sacked by Slavic Tribes.
Excavations were begun in 1892 by French archaeologists, which required the clearing of the ancient village of Kastri that was built on top of the ruins. In 1987 Delphi was designated a World Heritage site. To date, four areas of the site have been reconstructed to a greater or lesser extent.
The site itself includes two sanctuaries, one dedicated to Apollo and the other to Athena. It also contains other buildings such as embassies and treasuries, and buildings connected to sports, as Delphi, like Olympia, held sports contests. Its main source of influence came from the Oracle who was consulted by many states and countries.
The Sanctuary dedicated to the goddess Athena is to the southeast. It includes the Tholus and the remains of three temples dedicated to Athena. The two earlier temples date to the middle of the 7th century and to 500 BC, while the third was built at the west end of the sanctuary after the earthquake of 373 BC, its new location selected to avoid the risk of damage from falling rocks. Also at that location are a number of altars to Athena and one also to Zeus, as well as two treasuries and two buildings dedicated to the cult of Phylakos and Autonos, the local heroes who routed the Persians.
One of Delphi’s most famous buildings is the Tholus, a circular building constructed between 380 and 360 BC, which rests upon a three-stepped podium. The Tholus consisted of 20 Doric columns arranged with an exterior diameter of nearly 15 meters, with 10 Corinthian columns in the interior. Three of the Doric columns have been restored. The building is believed to have had a conical roof decorated with statues of women in a dance-like pose, although the building contains no inscriptions and its origin and purpose is not known. The outer peristyle supported a Doric frieze of triglyphs and metopes with a relief decoration depicting a battle between Amazons and centaurs. Several architectural members and the surviving sculptures have been restored and are now on display in the Museum at Delphi.
The other main sanctuary is that of Apollo which is situated at the end of the Sacred Way. The Sacred Way had a ritual and processional character, since it guided pilgrims and visitors through the sacred precinct. It originated in the Archaic period (800-500BC), and was paved in the Late Roman period with slabs taken from abandoned nearby buildings, as at that time houses occupied the sacred precinct. Today, visitors still take this same route, which zig-zags up the hillside for two hundred metres.
On the second stretch of road were the buildings known as treasuries. These were used for storing smaller votive offerings. The most notable is the Treasury of the Athenians which dates from 490 BC and was built by Athens after their victory over the Persians. This was reconstructed by the French in 1906.
The Temple of Apollo was located on a large terrace, 70 feet wide x 190 feet long, supported by a retaining wall with irregular interlocking blocks which was built in the second half of the 6th century BC, following the destruction of the first temple. The wall was approximately two metres taller in antiquity than it is today.
Constructed of local limestone with an imported marble façade, the temple had six columns on the front, four of which can still be seen, and fifteen on the sides, these being covered with stucco. The exterior was decorated with shields captured from the Persians at Plataea, which was the final battle on Greek soil against the Persians, fought in 479 BC.
The Temple of Apollo was most famous for being the home of the Oracle. Initially, the Oracle could only be consulted on one day a year. But, as its reputation grew, so many people visited to consult it that the frequency was changed to one day a month, although that excluded three months in the winter when Apollo was believed to be away.
Outside and around the two sanctuaries are the remains of the settlement and cemeteries of Delphi, these developed mainly during the Classical and Roman period.
Above the temple sits the Theatre where theatrical and musical contests of the Delphic Games took place. The Theatre's original form is not known, but it is believed that the spectators sat on wooden seats or on the ground. Delphi’s first stone-built theatre was built in the 4th century BC and was refurbished on a number of occasions. It contains 35 rows of seats and could seat 5,000 people. Only the foundations remain of the stage, which was adorned with a relief frieze depicting the Labours of Hercules, now in the Delphi Museum. The theatre and its limestone blocks are in very poor condition, with much of the structure having subsided.
The other areas of the site relate to sporting activities, including the Gymnasium and the Stadium as, like Olympia, Delphi had official games.
The Gymnasium dates to the fourth century BC, but was rebuilt in the Roman period, when the baths were added. This was constructed on two levels. The upper terrace had a covered colonnade, 7 metres wide and 178 metres long, and was where the athletes practiced in bad weather. The lower terrace had a palaestra with a court 12 metres square, surrounded by a colonnade, and had rooms on all four sides.
Inscriptions in each of these rooms state their use. Several centuries later, this area was occupied by a Byzantine monastery with its main church having been built on top of the palaestra. This was demolished in 1898 during the course of excavations.
The Stadium of Delphi dates to the 5th century BC and is one of the best-preserved monuments of its kind. It was built into the natural slope, with its north side being cut into the rock, while its south side is artificially supported by a walled terrace. Its existing seats date to the 2nd century AD, are made of limestone, and could seat 7,000 spectators