The DougBlog
"Et sans savoir pourquoi, disent toujours: Allons!" —Baudelaire

Sunday, June 10, 2012

My Life in Ruins, Part 2: Thermopylae and Delphi

After a few lovely days in Athens, I began my road trip of the mainland and Peloponnese. Heading north, through the region of Attica, it was kinda funny to see highway exits for places you only otherwise hear about in mythology, like Marathon and Thebes. I had originally intended to stop in both of those ancient sites, but had to change my plans after getting a late start. This was because I had gone to the National Archaeological Museum the day before only to find that it now closes early due to Greece being dead-ass broke. So I went to the museum on my last morning and had to forgo my stops in Marathon and Thebes.

Instead I took the scenic route along the Aegean coast to Thermopylae, site of one of the most famous battles in Western history in 480 BC. In case you don’t remember the story, King Leonidas led 300 Spartan soldiers into battle against several hundred thousand invading Persian soldiers led by King Xerxes I. Clearly outnumbered and destined to die, the fearless Spartans held their ground and used the narrow passage between mountain and sea at Thermopylae to their advantage. After 3 days they were all dead, but they had succeeded in holding the Persians back long enough to give the city of Athens enough time to prepare for an eventual Greek victory. The story has been retold many times.

Geographically the site looks quite different today. The coastline has moved several miles out to sea so that the passage between mountain and water is far wider than it was at the time, making it difficult to appreciate the strategic nature of this strip of land. But there are still hot sulfur springs spewing their malodorous smoke across the landscape. It is because of these hot springs that Thermopylae—meaning “Hot Gates”—got its name; the ancient Greeks thought this was the entrance to Hades!

There is now a relatively modern and impressive monument on the site that was donated by the Greek-American community in the 1950s.

At the center is King Leonidas, with the simple inscription “ΜΟΛΩΝ ΛΑΒΕ” (Molon lave). Before the battle at Thermopylae, Xerxes sent a messenger to the Spartans giving them the chance to surrender without a fight. When this messenger told Leonidas that Xerxes said to lay down their weapons, Leonidas’ response was “Tell him to come and get them”—“Μολον λαβε” in Greek.

And of course, there was a stray dog hanging about.

But I digress. Across the way from this modern memorial is the ancient burial mound where the remains of the 300 Spartans lie buried.

The stone atop the burial mound features the famous epitaph written by the ancient Simonides: “Stranger passing by, go tell the Spartans that here we lie, obedient to their laws.” The top of the burial mound offers impressive views both up to the mountains and down to the monument (which is near where the seashore would have been at the time).

I continued my drive up the twisting slopes of Mount Parnassus to Delphi where I spent the night. The Greeks considered Delphi to be the center of the world, and it became one of the most important centers of worship as a sacred site of Apollo starting around the 9th Century BC.

Although now in ruins, this place was once as spectacular as the setting. There was a huge temple to Apollo, inside of which burned an eternal flame and where the famed Oracle sat in a trance, predicting the future. All over the mountainside were small treasuries built by every outpost of the Greek empire. In order to secure the good fortune of Apollo, these municipalities would send magnificent riches to be stored as offerings in their treasuries. The site also featured everything needed for games and festivals, including a massive theater, gymnasium, stadium, hippodrome, and baths.

These are the remains of the once-mighty temple of Apollo. The Oracle was a priestess who sat in the center of the temple (to the right of the photo) over a spring where vapors escaped the earth. Entranced, she would rave—and her ravings were translated into elegant prose by the temple priests. She answered everything from important matters of public policy to personal affairs. It is now believed that the vapors might have been hallucinogenic, thus leading to her behavior.

A view of the full footprint of the Temple from higher up the hillside…

Outlines and random stones are all that remain of most treasuries—much of the site was destroyed by earthquakes and invaders in the first few centuries AD.

The Treasury of the city of Athens—built to commemorate their victory at the Battle of Marathon—has been put back together:

The stunning theater was built in the 4th Century BC and can seat 5000 spectators. It was placed high on the mountain to afford a view not only of the plays but also of the entire sanctuary and the valley below—on a clear day all the way to the Gulf of Corinth (which separates the mainland from the Peloponnese).

Now heading down the hill, there is a smaller sanctuary dedicated to Athena, with a partially reconstructed tholos (circular temple).

There are plenty of beautiful olive trees in the area.

There is something very cool when you see ancient Greek writing (which I can read but not understand)—just the thought that someone wrote this 2,500 years ago and I can still read it today.

Every major ancient Greek site also has an impressive museum where locally-found artifacts are stored. The most famous item in the museum at Delphi is a bronze statue called the “Charioteer of Delphi”, erected here in 474 BC to commemorate the victory of a chariot team in the Pythian Games, which were held at Delphi every four years. Although his left arm and the rest of the statue (which included 4 or 6 horses) are lost, what remains is impressive in its artisanship and detail, including copper details like the eyelashes and lips and the inlaid glass eyes that continue to stare hauntingly after 2,500 years.

Some of the offerings found in the treasuries:

This massive sphinx, an offering from the people of the island of Naxos, once stood high atop a column:

Some detail from a treasury:

So needless to say Thermopylae and Delphi were both rather thrilling ancient sites to visit, with a real sense of wonder and amazement to think of what once happened right where you are standing today. To finish this portion of the trip, I visited a slightly different site: the monastery of Osias Loukas, a Greek Orthodox church considered one of the finest examples of Middle Byzantine architecture, built about 1,000 years ago.

The entrance:

The courtyard:

Interior detail:

Now this is the thing with some Christian establishments. You’re walking around, minding your own business, enjoying the beauty and serenity, when—BAM!—they spring a dead guy on you!

In this case, the dead guy with the claw-like shriveled hand is Osias Loukas (Holy St. Luke) himself, a hermit who lived on this site prior to the building of the church in his honor. Before they decided to put him on display he was buried in the crypt below the sanctuary—you can still visit his original (but now empty) tomb:

So three very different sites in 2 days—not bad, but just the beginning.


The public phone in Delphi. Communications here have fallen a looooooong way since the days of the Oracle.

I enjoyed the glassware at breakfast in my Delphi hotel.

And of course, some classy black-and-white shots.

Next stop, Olympia!


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