Lost in antiquity

Print edition : October 10, 2008

The site of the oracle at Delphi.-

A stroll through the ancient Greek ruins of Delphi and Athens.

NAVEL-GAZING could make you dizzy, warns Nikoleta, our guide, tongue-in-cheek as we peer into what seems like a deep chasm overgrown with thick shrubbery. We are at the legendary Delphi, which, ancient Greeks believed, was the navel of the earth. We ignore Nikoletas remark and go down the pathway to investigate the hallowed site where, for several centuries, men and women sought and received prophetic guidance on everything from routine everyday affairs to momentous decisions to go forth and transform the course of history. Many actually did.

Delphi was the seat of the famous oracle. Situated 178 kilometres northwest of Athens, the historical site is perched on the slope of Mount Parnassos overlooking the Gulf of Corinth. Even if Delphi had not been associated with the prophetic oracle, it would have attracted travellers because of its stunning location and cliff-hanger views.

What remains of the Temple of Athena at Delphi.-

What exactly is an oracle and how does it work, we wonder. It is not unlike modern-day fortune tellers and astrologers whom the gullible and the troubled consult to get an inkling of what destiny holds in store for them. Like our own fortune tellers, the oracle claimed to communicate the wish of the gods through the priestess. In ancient Greece, common folk and royalty alike routinely consulted the oracle on things sublime and trivial. They would want to know, for instance, when to plant their crop, when to begin a journey, whether to go into battle, or whom to marry. The presiding deity at Delphi was Apollo, and he spoke to devotees through a priestess, called Pythia after a python that was slain by Apollo at the same spot.

But the mystique of the oracle unravels rather rapidly into something banal and even anti-climactic when you probe a little. The chasm that served as the site of the oracle emitted noxious vapours and fumes which made anyone who inhaled it dizzy and sent them into a trance. Now we understand what Nikoleta meant when she made that comment about navel-gazing making us dizzy. The priestess always sat on a gilded tripod next to the chasm and became delirious with the fumes. Her utterances, inspired by hallucinations and delusions, spewed forth, enigmatic and incomprehensible, and sounding all the more divine for that reason. They were then interpreted for the oracle seeker by a mediator who often edited the version to suit the query.

Whether everyone who came seeking divine directions actually believed in the answers they got we will never know, but they came in hordes, not just from nearby but from as far away as Atlantis and even Europe. Perhaps Plutarch, who once officiated as priest at Delphi, was privy to the secret for he did believe that vapours from the cleft in the ground where he sat made him ecstatic. Legend has it that when Alexander came to Delphi to seek directions on his military plans, the oracle did not give him the answer he sought. Whereupon, he dragged the priestess by her locks and would not let go until she gave the answer he wanted to hear. Perhaps Alexander also knew, said Nikoleta with a twinkle in her eye.

A recent study reported in Geology journal found that Delphi lies on two fault lines that cross each other and noxious gases could well have emanated from tectonic movements and volcanic activity. De Boer, a geologist in Wesleyan University in Connecticut cited by National Geographic, believes the gas was ethylene, which produces euphoria on inhalation.

The Pythian festical held at this circular theatre on Mt. Parnassos was probably the precursor to the Olympic Games.-

The Sanctuary of Apollo, dating back to the 4th century B.C., is the main ruin at the archaeological site although this temple was actually a late-comer to the location. Delphi was a sacred site from Mycenaean times (1600-1100 B.C.) when earth goddess Gaia was worshipped here. Gaia, according to Greek mythology, was born out of Chaos. Subsequently, a sanctuary to goddess Themis, and later to Demeter, god of agriculture, and Poseidon, god of the seas, came to be built on the same site.

You enter this UNESCO World Heritage Site through the Roman Agora marketplace, community hall and administrative space all rolled into one and work your way up the steep steps to marvel at the still-standing Doric columns, which must have supported the sanctuary over 2,400 years ago. Cypress and olive trees dot the slopes and there is an air of serenity that only antiquity can invest. En route, you pass a sacred bull dedicated to Delphi by the city state of Corfu. In the 4th century B.C., a golden statue of Apollo dominated the sanctuary. There was also an eternal flame on the hearth. Wise sayings of Greek philosophers are engraved on the architrave. Know Thyself, Nothing in Excess, and so on. All that is left of the oracle site is the foundation of the once-magnificent temple and five exquisite Doric columns. The vapour-spewing chasm itself was never found. Tectonic movements could have shifted away from the site in the last 2,000 years. We were disappointed that no amount of vigorous sniffing, which would have put a police dog to shame, produced any effect on either of us!

The parthenon on the Acropolis stands sentinel over Athens.-

We huff and puff up the slopes and come to a beautiful circular theatre, originally built in the 4th century B.C. and restored later by the Romans. The Pythian festival held once in four years at this theatre was, perhaps, the precursor to the Olympic Games. We picture the theatre during the festivities, packed to the brim, aglow with torches and abuzz with voices. We retrace our steps to visit the Temple of Athena on the opposite side of the Castalian springs. It is a graceful 4th century B.C. structure with 20 columns on a three-step podium.

The next day, we continue our peregrinations through delightful Athens. The origin of the city makes an interesting story. Cecrops, a Phoenician, came to Attica where he founded a city on a huge rock near the sea. The gods at Olympus decided that the city should be named after a god who could produce the most valuable legacy for mortals. Athena, goddess of wisdom, and Poseidon, god of the seas, contended. Athena produced an olive tree, symbol of peace and wisdom, while Poseidon struck a rock with his trident and a horse emerged, symbolising strength and fortitude. Athena was declared the victor because her legacy would be far more useful to mankind than the horse, which signified war. Thus the city came to be called Athens with Athena as its presiding deity.

Some of the Corinthian columns of the Temple of Olympian Zeus in Athens are still standing.-

It is only natural that the presiding deity should be installed on top of the tallest hill in the city. You can see Acropolis from most parts of Athens, but try climbing it and you will find yourself against obstructing walls and shuttered gates. After much rambling, we finally find the right path and wind our way up the Acropolis, a wooded hill on which are scattered several monuments dating back to pre-Christian times.

Its crowning jewel, the Parthenon (meaning virgins apartment), still considered the embodiment of the finest in Greek civilisation, stands sentinel over the city of Athens. Unfortunately for us, today the Parthenon is sheathed in scaffolding it is undergoing major restoration work. Nevertheless, at night when the Parthenon is illuminated, the scaffolding is no longer visible and the monument glows with a sublime light, captivating the heart of anyone who glances up, no matter from which part of the city.

An Ionic column, representing one of the three orders of architecture in ancient Greece, the other two being Doric and Corinthian.-

Actually, the Acropolis, which originally supported the grand Temple of Athena and many other structures, was razed to the ground in 480 B.C. by the Persians. It was Pericles who rebuilt the wondrous monuments with such diligence that they came to be regarded as the pinnacle of ancient Greek civilisation. Yet, time has wrought its ravages on them, compounded by vandalism, destructive invaders and earthquakes, not to mention the acid rain that has caused irreversible damage in recent times. Now there are only four surviving monuments on the Acropolis.

You will have to make a leap of the imagination to visualise the splendour of Pericles creations the grand marble palaces, the splendid sculpture that must have adorned the structures, the exquisitely carved Corinthian, Ionic and Doric columns that must have supported them. Some of the columns still survive.

The Propylaia, famous for the Temple of Athena Nike, formed the towering entrance to the Acropolis in ancient times. It had a central hall and two wings on either side. The ceiling of the central hall was painted blue and dotted with brilliant stars. The structure was held by double columns, Doric on the outside and Ionic on the inside. Each section had a gate and these gates were the only entrance to the Parthenon. The middle gate is known as the Panathenaic Way - the main route through which the procession of the Panathenaic festival passed. The procession was the climax of the festival, which included athletic, musical and dramatic contests.

Even before you enter the Parthenon, you come across a striking but familiar monument. The Caryatids six larger-than-life women from Karyai (modern day Karyes) hold aloft the Erechtheion, a temple considered most sacred by the ancient Greeks. It was here that Poseidon struck a rock with his trident and Athena produced the olive tree. The temple dates back to the 4th century B.C. While the Parthenon is considered the supreme example of Doric architecture, the Erechtheion is said to represent the best in Ionic style.

The Parthenon is the largest Doric temple in Greece built entirely of Pentelic marble except for the wooden roof. Built by Pericles, it had a dual purpose to house the statue of Athena and to house the treasury of the state. Its construction began in 447 B.C. and it was completed in 438 B.C., in time for the Great Panathenaic festival. The eight fluted columns in front and at the back and the 17 columns on each side are a study in elegance and perfection, although a closer scrutiny would reveal asymmetric base lines deliberate, to correct an optical illusion that would have otherwise made the entire structure appear askew when viewed from a distance.

The temple of Hephaestus at the Ancient Agora in Athens. Dedicated to the god of forge, it was surrounded by foundries and metalwork shops.-

Inside stood an impressive statue of Athena, one of the wonders of the ancient world. Designed by Pheidias and completed in 432 B.C., Athena stood 12 metre high on a wooden pedestal. Her face, hands and feet were made of ivory and precious stones formed her eyes. The goddess was covered in a long robe of gold and a head of Medusa carved in ivory adorned her breast. In her right hand she held a statue of Nike, the goddess of victory, and in her left, a spear. At the base of the spear was a serpent. The helmet on her head contained a sphinx and griffins on either side.

In A.D. 426, Turkish conquerors took the statue to Constantinople, from where it disappeared. Whatever was left of the rest of the archaeological site has been carted away, and some of it can be seen in the British Museum in London.

Today, giant bulldozers, dumpers and cranes mar the skyline and completely obliterate the view. The grating sound of marble cutters is deafening. We step away hastily and find ourselves in a corner on the hill that offers a glorious view of Athens below.

We are fascinated by the Ancient Agora that lies at the foot of the Acropolis. The Agora was the centre of political, administrative, social and commercial life and would have been buzzing with activity 2,000 years ago. We are shown a spot from where, in A.D. 49, Socrates was supposed to have expounded his philosophy to anyone who cared to listen. The Agora first came into existence in the 6th century B.C. It suffered destruction by marauding Persians and Turks, but survived every time until it was destroyed altogether by the Herulians, a Gothic tribe from Scandinavia, in A.D. 267.

The Temple Erechtheion on the Acropolis in Athens, held aloft by the Caryatids, six larger-than-life women from Karyai, was considered most sacred by ancient Greeks.-

Plaka, the fashionable tourist district of Athens, is actually Turkish in origin and adjoins the Ancient Agora. The Temple of Hephaestus, the Stoa of Attalos, and the Church of the Holy Apostles are the only monuments that are still standing in the Agora. We learn that the Stoa, originally built in the 2nd century B.C. by the Pergamum King Attalos II, has been rebuilt by the American School of Archeology. The Stoa has 45 Doric columns on the ground floor and now houses a museum of artefacts found on the site. Sunlight streams in slanting shafts through these columns, forming a geometric pattern all along the long corridor.

The Temple of Hephaestus is dedicated to the god of forge and, in ancient times, was surrounded by foundries and metalwork shops. It has 34 columns and was built by one of the architects of the Parthenon, Ictinus.

As you exit the Agora, you pass by the Street of Tombs, reserved for distinguished Athenians of yore. It has a variety of funerary structures. From here on, you are in Roman Athens, though that sounds like an oxymoron. The Roman Agora, which looks like a heap of rubble, has one noteworthy structure Tower of the Winds built in the 1st century B.C. by a Syrian astronomer named Andronicus. It functioned as a sundial, weathervane, water clock and a compass. We wander further and find ourselves in the Temple of Olympian Zeus, which was completed by emperor Hadrian in A.D. 131, about 700 years after its construction first began. It must have been impressive with its 104 massive Corinthian columns, 15 of which are still standing in a sprawling complex.

We wrap up our day with a tall, cool drink at one of the many stylish eateries at Plaka. Athens is too overwhelming to absorb in one go. You have to savour it in small doses, which is what we do over the next few days. Even then, we barely catch a glimpse of this glorious city of yore. We vow to go back.

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