The navel of the world is ancient Greece’s most sacred site and boasts spectacular views to boot
Jordan has Petra, Peru has Machu Picchu and Turkey has Ephesus. Across the globe, remnants of great, ancient civilisations have become sites of mass pilgrimage, with many travelling great distances to immerse themselves in history. Greece, home to one of the world’s most advanced ancient cultures, is no exception. Its mountainous lands are scattered with ruins, from the southern reaches of the Aegean, up to the northern city of Thessaloniki. The greatest tragedy is, while most explore Athens’ famed Acropolis, far fewer make it to the country’s most sacred archeological site.
World Heritage listed Delphi is located at the foot of mighty Mount Parnassos, just a few hours drive from Athens. Set within a breathtaking landscape of rolling limestone mountains, the site has two main sanctuaries dedicated to the Gods Apollo and Athena, as well as many other structures where performances and sporting events were once held. Despite being man-made, Delphi seamlessly fuses with its surroundings, demonstrating the harmony between the ancient Greeks and the land they occupied.
You would be hard-pressed to find many places as staggeringly old as Delphi – evidence of a settlement here is believed to date as far back as the 15th century BC – but predictably, its origins are tangled in mythology.
Legend says that Zeus, the most powerful of all Greek deities, once released two eagles. One flew from the east, the other from the west, and the place where their flight paths crossed was said to be the centre of the world. This spot, marked by an omphalos (navel) stone, transformed Delphi into a symbol of Hellenic unity. Another myth states that the site once belonged to Mother Earth and was guarded by her son, a serpent, until his eventual defeat at the hands of Apollo. Priestesses known as Pythia were said to have channelled prophecies from Apollo, and both Gods and mortals came from all over ancient Greece to consult the oracle for wisdom.
This intricate fusion of myth and history is best explored with a tour through the spectacular site. The Sanctuary of Apollo is considered the most important part of Delphi, as it’s where Pythia shared the words of Apollo. Archeologists believe it was once lined with statues and priceless treasures, but both time and looters have reduced the complex to ruins. Don your walking shoes and follow the winding Sacred Way up to the Temple of Apollo, if not to see remnants of its former glory, then for the panoramic views from the top. Delphi is generally well-signed, so those who prefer to wander without a guide can still learn about its past.
Other Delphi must-sees are the Sanctuary of Athena, the exceptionally well-preserved theatre and the stadium, once home to the Pythian games – Delphi’s answer to Athens’ Olympics. A visit to the Archeological Museum is another essential part of any Delphi day-trip, as it’s a veritable treasure trove of all things ancient Greek.