It’s easy to understand why the ancients considered DELPHI the centre of the earth, especially given their penchant for awe-inspiring sacred spots. Framed on all sides by the soaring crags of Parnassós, the site truly captures the imagination, especially in spring, when wildflowers cloak the precipitous valley. But more than a stunning setting was needed to confirm the divine presence. Sanctity, according to Plutarch, was confirmed through the discovery of a rock chasm that exuded strange vapours and reduced supplicants to incoherent – and undoubtedly prophetic – mutterings.

Brief history

The first oracle established here was dedicated to Gaia (“Mother Earth”) and Poseidon (“Earth Shaker”). The serpent Python, son of Gaia, dwelt in a nearby chasm, and communicated through the Pythian priestess. Python was later slain by young Apollo, who supposedly arrived in the form of a dolphin – hence the name Delphi. Thereafter, the Pythian Games were held periodically in commemoration, and perhaps also to placate the deposed deities. Delphi subsequently became one of the major sanctuaries of Greece, its oracle widely regarded as the most truthful in the known world.

The influence of the oracle spread during the Classical age of colonization and its patronage grew, peaking during the sixth century BC, with benefactors such as King Amasis of Egypt and the hapless King Croesus of Lydia. Delphi’s wealth, however, made it vulnerable to Greek rivalries; by the mid-fifth century BC, the oracle became the object of a struggle between Athens, Phokia and Sparta, prompting a series of Sacred Wars. These culminated in Philip of Macedon invading southern Greece, crushing the city-states in 338 BC at the Battle of Chaeronea. Delphi’s political intriguing was effectively over.

Under Macedonian and later Roman rule, the oracle’s role became increasingly domestic, dispensing advice on marriages, loans, voyages and the like. The Romans thought little of its utterances, rather more of its treasure: Sulla plundered the sanctuary in 86 BC, and Nero, outraged when the oracle denounced him for murdering his mother, carted away five hundred bronze statues. Upon the proscription of paganism by Theodosius in 391 AD, the oracle ceased.

The sanctuary site was rediscovered towards the end of the seventeenth century and explored haphazardly from 1838 onwards; systematic excavation began only in 1892 when the French School of Archeology leased the land. There was initially little to be seen other than the outline of a stadium and theatre, but the inhabitants of Kastrí village, set amid the ruins, were evicted to a new town 1km west (now modern Dhelfí), and digging commenced. By 1903, most of the excavations and reconstruction visible today had been completed.

The Sacred Precinct

The Sacred Precinct, or Temenos (Sanctuary) of Apollo, is entered – as in ancient times – by way of a small agora enclosed by ruins of Roman porticoes and shops selling votive offerings. The paved Sacred Way begins after a few stairs, zigzagging uphill between the foundations of memorials and treasuries to the Temple of Apollo. Along each edge is a jumble of statue bases where gold, bronze and painted-marble figures once stood; Pliny counted more than three thousand on his visit, and that was after Nero’s infamous raid.

The style and positioning of these memorials were dictated by more than religious zeal; many were used as a deliberate show of strength or as a direct insult against a rival Greek state. For instance, the Spartans celebrated their victory over Athens by erecting their Monument of the Admirals – a large recessed structure, which once held 37 bronze statues of gods and generals – directly opposite the Athenians’ Offering of Marathon.

Further up the path, past the Doric remains of the Sikyonian Treasury on the left, lie the foundations of the Siphnian Treasury, a grandiose Ionic temple erected in 525 BC. Ancient Siphnos (Sífnos) had rich gold mines and intended the building to be an unrivalled show of opulence. Above this is the Treasury of the Athenians, built, like the city’s “offering”, after Marathon (490 BC). It was reconstructed in 1904–1906 by matching the inscriptions – including a hymn to Apollo with musical notation – that completely cover its blocks.

Next to the Treasury are the foundations of the Bouleuterion, or council house, a reminder that Delphi needed administrators, and above stretches the remarkable Polygonal Wall whose irregular interlocking blocks have withstood, intact, all earthquakes. It, too, is covered with inscriptions, mostly referring to the emancipation of slaves; Delphi was one of the few places where such freedom could be made official by an inscribed register. An incongruous outcrop of rock between the wall and the treasuries marks the original Sanctuary of Gaia.

Finally, the Sacred Way leads past the Athenian Stoa (which housed trophies from an Athenian naval victory of 506 BC) to the temple terrace where you are confronted with a large altar, erected by the island of Chios (Híos). The Temple of Apollo now visible dates from the mid-fourth century BC, two previous versions having succumbed to fire and earthquake. The French excavators found only foundations, but re-erected six of the Doric columns to illustrate the temple’s dominance over the sanctuary. In the innermost part of the temple was the adyton, a subterranean cell at the mouth of the oracular chasm where the Pythian priestess officiated. No trace of cave or chasm has been found, nor any trance-inducing vapours, but it’s conceivable that such a chasm did exist and was closed by later earthquakes. On the architrave of the temple were inscribed the maxims “Know Thyself” and “Moderation in All Things”.

The theatre and stadium used for the main events of the Pythian Festival occupy terraces above the temple. The theatre, built during the fourth century BC with a capacity of five thousand (the seats sadly roped off), was associated with Dionysos, the god of ecstasy, the arts and wine, who ruled Delphi during the winter when the oracle was silent. A path leads up through cool pine groves to the stadium (its seats also off-limits), artificially levelled in the fifth century BC to a length of 178m, though it was banked with stone seats (giving a capacity of seven thousand) only in Roman times – the gift, like so many other public buildings in Greece, of Herodes Atticus.

The Castalian spring

Following the road east of the sanctuary, towards Aráhova, you reach a sharp bend. Just to the left, marked by niches for votive offerings and by the remains of an Archaic fountain-house, the celebrated Castalian spring still flows from a cleft – the legendary lair of Python.

Visitors to Delphi were obliged to purify themselves in its waters, usually by washing their hair, though murderers had to take the full plunge. Lord Byron, impressed by the legend that the waters nurtured poetic inspiration, also jumped in. This is no longer possible, since the spring is fenced off owing to sporadic rock falls from the cliffs.

The Marmaria

Across and below the road from the spring is the Marmaria (marmariá means “marble quarry”, after the medieval practice of filching the ancient blocks for private use).

The most conspicuous building in the precinct, easily visible from the road, is the Tholos, a fourth-century BC rotunda. Three of its dome-columns and their entablature have been rebuilt, but while these amply demonstrate the original beauty of the building (which is the postcard image of Delphi), its purpose remains a mystery.

At the entrance to the precinct stood the original Temple of Athena Pronaia (“Fore-Temple”, in relation to the Apollo shrine), destroyed by the Persians and reconstructed during the fourth century BC beyond the Tholos; foundations of both structures can be traced. Outside the precinct on the northwest side (above the Marmaria) is a gymnasium, again built in the fourth century BC, but later enlarged by the Romans; prominent among the ruins is a circular plunge-bath for athletes’ refreshment after their exertions.

The museum

Delphi’s museum contains a rare and exquisite collection of sculpture spanning the Archaic to the Roman eras, matched only by finds on Athens’ Acropolis. It also features pottery, bronze articles and friezes from the various treasuries and temple pediments, which give a good picture of the sanctuary’s riches.

The most famous exhibit, with a room to itself at the south end of the galleries, is the Charioteer, one of the few surviving bronzes of the fifth century BC, unearthed in 1896 as part of the “Offering of Polyzalos”, toppled during the earthquake of 373 BC. The charioteer’s eyes, made of onyx and set slightly askew, lend it a startling realism. Other major pieces include two huge kouroi from the sixth century BC, betraying clear Asiatic/Egyptian stylistic traits; a life-size, sixth-century BC votive bull fashioned from hammered silver and copper sheeting; and the elegant Ionic winged Sphinx of the Naxians, dating from 565 BC. In the same gallery, the Siphnian frieze depicts Zeus and other gods looking on as the Homeric heroes fight over the body of Patroclus. Another portion of this frieze shows a battle between gods and giants, including a lion graphically mauling a warrior.

The Athenian Treasury is represented by fragments of the metopes (friezes) depicting the labours of Hercules, the adventures of Theseus and a battle with Amazons. A group of three colossal if badly damaged dancing women, carved from Pentelic marble around an acanthus-topped column – probably a tripod-stand – dates from the fourth century BC and is thought to represent the daughters of Kekrops. Among later works is an exquisite second-century AD figure of Antinoös, favourite of Roman emperor Hadrian.

Modern Dhelfí

Modern Dhelfí, 500m to the west of the site, is as inconsequential as its ancient namesake is impressive. Entirely geared to mass tourism (including Greek skiers), Dhelfí’s only real attraction – besides proximity to the ruins and access to Mount Parnassós – is its cliffside setting.

Museum of Delphic Festivals

The stone house where the poet Angelos Sikelianos once lived exhibits artefacts and paraphernalia relating to the events he and Eva Palmer organized in 1927–30. Their idea was to set up a “University of the World” and make Delphi a cultural centre. The project eventually failed, though it inspired an annual Delphic Festival, held now in July of each year, with performances of contemporary drama and music in the ancient theatre.