greece 5: roman patras and delphi, navel of the earth

Church of St. Andrew in Patras


Today, in the early morning hours I left for Patras. My final destination was Delphi. Patras is one of the most important harbours for communication between Greece and Western Europe. Ships for Italy leave from here.

An agricultural settlement which took little part in the shared activities of the Greeks during the entire Greek historical epoch (from the end of the Mycenaean civilization to the end of the Classical period), Patras, however, flourished under the Romans and became a centre for commerce and industry during Roman rule. St. Andrew, patron saint of Patras, taught the gospel in this city and was martyred here in 68 AD. I visited the 20th Century church of St. Andrew, an imposing building decorated lavishly in gold on Byzantine lines in the inside. The blue cross in the Greek flag is St. Andrews cross. Possession of Patras alternated between the Venetians and Turks in the city’s later history.

To the east of Patras is Rio from which ferries ply across to Antirrio on the shores of mainland Greece. Forts built by the Venetians dot both towns. I took one such ferry and sailed across the waters. Standing on deck, sipping hot coffee, the views were spectacular. A short 15 minutes and I was on the other side. A long drive through magnificent scenery took up the rest of my morning. I drove parallel to the coast of mainland Greece, the road hugged the mountains looming over the Mediterranean, yellow spring flowers tumbled over limestone rocks, while silk-like waters of the Corinthian gulf and the soft blue-green mountains of the Peloponnese stretched into infinite to my right.

Numerous little shrines line the roads throughout Greece. Starting with the tradition of travellers leaving behind food for others, the offerings were replaced with lamps as Christianity progressed and finally took the shape of these little places of worship. Some are put up as dedications to God, some as a thanksgiving for a difficult journey that was overcome and yet others in remembrance of those that died en route. With images of Virgin Mary and Jesus, a little flame burns inside them, guiding me too.


The Tholos at Delphi, 400-390 BC

Oracle of Delphi

The Oracle of Delphi, referred to throughout the ancient world, occupied a site below the towering cliffs of Phaidriades in an imposing ravine on the side of Mt. Parnassus. The site was dedicated to Apollo, god of moderation and music, and whose job entailed ensuring that the sacred laws of Zeus were kept.

For the ancients, Delphi was the centre of the world, the ‘omphalos’ or navel of the earth. Before the cult of Apollo was established, the oracle belonged to the earth goddess Gaea and was guarded by a dragon called Python, whom Apollo had to slay before Delphi could become his. From as early as the 8th Century BC, the Delphic oracle gained a worldwide reputation. The divinations of the Pythia, priestess of Apollo, played a central part in the lives of ordinary people and cities and states alike, and influenced the decisions they made.

In the beginning oracles were given only on the 7th day of the ancient month of Bysius; later they could be obtained on one day every month with the exception of the three winter months for Apollo was absent then and Dionysus guarded the sanctuary in his place. Before a question could be put to the oracle, the petitioner had to pay a special fee, purify himself and offer sacrifices. The Pythia and her assistant priestesses washed at the Castalian spring in the vicinity of the sanctuary and then descended into the depths of the temple. The Pythia seated herself on a copper tripod over a fissure in the ground, chewed laurel leaves and inhaled the vapours from the earth. The god then spoke through her mouth in a language which only the priests of the sanctuary could understand and interpret. The answers were often indefinite and ambiguous, but that in no way reduced popular respect for the wisdom of the oracle’s judgement.

As with many of the other Greek towns, Delphi too was looted by Sulla, and Nero carried off many of Delphi’s treasures to Rome. Constantine the Great removed still more artefacts to Constantinople in the 4th Century AD. The oracle itself was officially closed in 394 AD by decree of the Byzantine Emperor Theodosius I. The oracle that had guided innumerable people through their lives, with its words over 12 centuries of time, fell into silence for ever thereafter.

Part of the frieze of the Treasury of the Siphnians at Delphi depicting a scene from the Battle of the Giants, 525 BC (Delphi Archaeological Museum)

The Archaeological Site

The holy sanctuary of Apollo was surrounded by a precinct. The paved Sacred Way began at the south-east side of the precinct and wound its way to the temple of Apollo, lined with countless votive statues from Greek and foreign cities. Apart from statues, it was also customary for city-states to construct Treasuries—small buildings in the shape of temples—in which the artefacts and gifts they dedicated were housed. One of the most striking buildings along the Sacred Way was the Doric Treasury of Athens, which has since been restored. It was dedicated in 507 BC after the overthrow of the Peisistratid tyranny and the restoration of democracy in Athens. The frieze of the Treasury was decorated with feats of mythological heroes, while commemorative inscriptions and two hymns to Apollo were inscribed on its walls.

Further north were the Bouleuterion of Delphi, the Rock of the Sibyl, on which the priestess of Gaea perched to deliver her oracles, the Rock of Leto, where Apollo and his mother Leto slew the Python, and the Sphinx of the Naxians which stood on a tall Ionic column 12 meters high and was dedicated to Apollo by the people of Naxos in 560 BC. At this point was a circular open space, the Halos or threshing floor, where the ceremony ‘killing of the Python’ was performed in commemoration of the event.

To the north are the ruins of the most sacred building at Delphi, the Temple of Apollo. Initially the three temples that stood at this site had been made of laurel branches, beeswax, feathers, and metal. The first stone temple was built in the 7th Century BC. It was later replaced with one made of limestone and a marble eastern facade in the 6th Century BC, subsequently destroyed in an earthquake.

A new temple, also Doric in style, was erected with the help of all Greeks in 330 BC. The temple had an Adyton, an underground chamber, at the back of the cella where the divination took place. In the Adyton were a chasm in the ground, a laurel tree, the stone called the ‘navel of the earth’, a gold statue of Apollo and the tomb of Dionysus. The cella which was unusually long had two double colonnades; in it the flame revered by all Greeks burned perpetually at the altar of Vesta. Sayings of the seven sages of antiquity were carved on the outside walls. On the eastern pediment were Apollo, Leto and Artemis (the Delian triad) and on the west was Dionysus with his entourage. Gold shields, captured during military victories including that of Marathon in 490 BC, hung on the frieze. To the east of the temple stood sumptuous votive offerings dedicated to Apollo by cities and private individuals.

The Theatre of Delphi was built in the 4th Century BC and seated 5,000 people. The one presently at the site are the foundations of the Roman theatre. Dramatic and lyric competitions took place here. A path climbs up from the theatre to the Stadium of Delphi (4th-3rd Century BC) where the Pythian Games were held. This is one of the best preserved stadiums in Greece with traces of a monumental propylaea and stone seats.

The second most important sanctuary at Delphi was dedicated to Athena, and consisted of a temple to the goddess, a Doric temple, altars, two treasuries and the Tholos, all built inside a walled precinct. The Tholos of Delphi, a famous circular building designed by Theodorus, was built in 400-390 BC and had a conical roof with 20 Doric columns around the exterior and 10 Corinthian columns in the cella with decorated friezes.

Between the two sanctuaries was the Gymnasium with Roman Baths and a cistern which stored water. The Castalian spring, with its source in the mountains overhead, runs down to a fountain close to the modern main road. It was in the prophetic properties of the waters of this spring that the Pythia washed as did visitors to Delphi. I drank it too; the waters cold, clear, and invigorating. 🙂

Metope from the Treasury of the Athenians showing Heracles, 6th Century BC (Delphi Archaeological Museum)

Delphi Museum

Delphi Museum is one of the most important museums in all Greece, devoted exclusively to findings from the surrounding area. Highlights include votive offerings in precious metals, the metopes and pediments from the Treasury of Athens and Treasury of the Siphnians, the Sphinx of the Naxians, sculpture from the pediments of the Temple of Apollo, sculpture from the frieze of the Tholos in the sanctuary of Athena, and the two colossal statues representing the Argive heroes Cleobis and Biton. The most famous exhibit in the museum is, however, the bronze statue of the Charioteer, initially in a group containing a chariot and horses, dedicated by Polyzalus, tyrant of the Greek city Gela in Sicily, to mark his victory in the Pythian Games in 475 BC. This is one of the most impressive sculptures of the ‘severe’ classical style. Some scholars attribute it to the sculptor Pythagoras.

The site is enchanting; the ruins almost suspended over the valley. The ambiguity of Apollo’s oracle could be explained through the same god’s maxim “know thyself”. By being ambiguous, it gave one the chance to look within oneself and deduce from it the meaning that one wanted to take from it. And in the process of understanding those words let one understand oneself. For depending on how we see and know ourselves, lies the way that we see and know outside events and words. The initial goal of life being to discover, get closer and know one’s true self. And from this initial goal, achieve ones ultimate goal: Living life with one’s own lights; self knowledge guiding us as we explore our destinies.

Visitors that came to the site in ancient days left behind their worldly trappings once they stepped onto the Sacred Way. In Delphi everyone was equal. And as they left behind their secular and material identities, it gave them a chance to be with just themselves. In their own company, they looked within and got closer to the self. The oracle reflected in the mirrors of their souls. As I made my own way through the sanctuary, centuries later, I too took the opportunity to look within. Who was I. What did I really want. Where was I really going. Exploring the quest on what was ‘my’ life’s ultimate goal …

My last stop for the day was the picturesque town of Arachova, built at an altitude of 960 meters. It has a unique character all of its own with its stone houses, narrow paved streets and mountainous landscape. The town is well known for its woven goods and handicrafts and the rosy cheeks of its elderly men. The annual feast of St. George (23 April), a three day event held every year honouring both the saint and victory over the Turks, includes races by the elderly men dressed in traditional costume.

Note: My camera got damaged whilst travelling through Greece and Italy. I have, thus, instead used Photos © Editions D. Haitalis for my Greece posts.


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