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Rediff.com  » Getahead » Have you travelled to the navel of the earth?

Have you travelled to the navel of the earth?

Last updated on: October 24, 2018 15:55 IST

Arundhuti Dasgupta finds herself surrounded by Greek legends and fables in the mythical centre of the world.



IMAGE: The Oracle at Delphi. Photograph: Courtesy Walkerssk-1409366/pixabay.com
 

The bus turns a corner to park by a winding road, disgorging our group of 30-odd tourists into the light.

It is barely after 9 in the morning but already feels like noon. The sun beats down on us, spreading out against the majestic countryside and glinting off the blue of the ocean -- like a god resplendent in his heaven.

Delphi is home to the Greek god of light, Apollo, and this morning he is in full attendance.

The city seamlessly straddles multiple worlds and timelines.

In our imagined geography of the ancient world, it is home to spectacular battles, Apollo's oracles and divine tragedies.

In the present, Delphi is a much-feted and busy UNESCO heritage site as also a modern seaside getaway, selling curios and dishing up gyros and souvlaki to hungry wanderers.

We step out of the cocooned comfort of the bus, our large breakfasts slowing us down as we amble down a scrabbly path to the first spot of the day: the ruins of the Athena Pronaia.

This is the temple before the temple, our guide Joy, a young archaeologist with a deep voice tells us.

In nearly every ancient site across the Peloponnesian landscape that we have travelled through, the pronaia is a regular fixture.

It is a temple (usually) of a goddess that one has to step into before moving to the larger, more popular temple of the place, dedicated (typically) to a god.



IMAGES: The few remaining columns at Delphi. Photograph: Courtesy MemoryCatcher-168384/pixabay.com

The Athena Pronaia used to be ringed by a set of columns, Doric on the outside and Corinthian inside. Now just a few columns remain.

This is a precursor to the real act, the sanctuary of Apollo, which draws millions every day. No trip to Greece is complete without a walk down its sacred path.

It has taken us a couple of days to get here from Athens as part of a five-day tour of classical Greece.

We have made our way through the ancient sites of Epidaurus, Mycenae and Elis (Olympia) to get here.

And for the entire journey, Joy, with patience far beyond her years, has kept us going with a steady supply of stories about gods and kings, peppered with some sharp commentary about hubris and Greek politicians.



IMAGE: The amphitheatre at Delphi. Photograph: Courtesy MemoryCatcher-168384/pixabay.com 

Delphi, the myths tell us, is the centre of the universe.

Zeus, god of sky and thunder, was looking for the perfect spot to rest the navel of the universe, or the omphalos (a large stone that looks somewhat like a menhir out of an Asterix comic).

He sent out two of his eagles, asked them to fly in from two directions till they met at the centre.

The place the eagles converged is where he dropped the stone.

The omphalos stands in Apollo's Grove, on the way to his temple, and has become one of the most popular selfie-spots in Delphi today.

But the star attraction is the Temple of Apollo. It stands silently, as if burdened by the weight of unspeakable secrets of the past.

The structure that we see today is an elevated platform encircled by columns.

This is where the oracles once sat, hunched on bronze tripods, inhaling a heady cocktail of gases, dispensing wisdom and foretelling the ruin or ascent of kings.

They spoke in riddles and every guide has a favourite story.

A popular one is about Lydian king Croesus who asked if he should go to battle against Cyrus, king of Persia.

"A great empire will fall if the king goes to war," the oracle said.

Emboldened, Croesus attacked Persia, only to find that it was his empire that was fated to fall.



IMAGE: Athena's sanctuary, Delphi. Photograph: Courtesy DebraJean-153318/pixabay.com

Many abandon their exploration of the site at the temple, their resolve weakened by the arduous climb that leads to the stadium at the top. But that is a mistake.

Built sometime in the 4th century BC, the stadium overlooks the sanctuary. It was the site of the Pythian Games, a precursor to the Olympic Games, and could hold 6,500 spectators in its heyday.

Neither photographs nor words can do justice to the grand panorama it opens up.



IMAGE: This votive sphinx was originally placed on a high column with a flattened ionic capital at the Temple of Apollo in Delphi. Photograph: Courtesy Tetraktys/wikimedia.org

Like every site in Greece, the treasures unearthed during the archaeological excavations have been housed in a museum next door.

Drop in for an insight into a fascinating world that we know of today only through myths and legends, and do not miss the large sculpture of the Sphinx.

One of the most majestic creatures from the mythical bestiary, it is a must-see.

 

Arundhuti Dasgupta
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