History in the making

The ruins of Delphi in Greece

The centre of the universe is a pretty small place. So small, in fact, that you could drive through it in a matter of seconds – and yet at the same time so vast that it could consume you for an entire day. A lifetime, even. It is, after all, the very centre of the universe and what is held here – the knowledge, the beauty, the sense of history – is astounding.

It was the Greek god Zeus who proclaimed this place, Delphi, to be the centre of the world. Curious to find out where it was, the myth goes, he had two eagles fly from the eastern and western edges of the universe and it was above the western slope of Mount Parnassus – just outside what is now the town of Delphi, 120 kilometres northwest of Athens – that their paths crossed. It was here, Zeus deduced, that the naval of Gaia, Grandmother Earth, was situated. And it was here, late in the Greek winter, that I tried to understand “history”.

Today you could hardly call Delphi the centre of anything. It’s a lethargic little mountainside village whose narrow streets are lined with small hotels, a few restaurants, and higgledy-piggledy curio shops. But what it lacks in grandeur, Delphi more than makes up for in drama. The road to the village, along the steep slopes of Mount Parnassus, rivals Chapman’s Peak Drive as hairpin bends zigzag a route cut between the ski resort town of Arachova and the Corinthian Gulf. Many of the hotels and restaurants that teeter on the edge of the mountainside lure travellers with spectacular views across the valley to the sea and distant mountains.

Sunset from Delphi in Greece

But it’s not for the views that people come to Delphi; they travel here, The centre of the universe, to walk among the ruins of what, some 2500 years ago, was considered by many to be the most important place in all of Classical Greece: the Temple of Apollo. (The Classical period – the fourth and fifth centuries BC – became immensely important to the development of the Western world in terms of politics, art, literature, philosophy and architecture).

Historians have established that it was to the Temple of Apollo that Greek leaders went to find answers from the Delphic Oracle, the priestess Pythia. She would inhale vapours released from the earth and give guidance apparently inspired by the god Apollo (who, incidentally, is the son of Zeus). Pythia delivered messages in a divine language, so her prophecies were interpreted by priests and given to the leaders who always consulted with her before making any major decisions.

Today there is no trace of those vapours (although there are geological explanations as to where and why they existed), but the remains of the Temple of Apollo are still there, surrounded by a hillside of other magnificent ruins – a theatre that could hold an audience of 5,000; a 6,500-seater stadium; the marble building blocks of various columns, a treasury, temple, gymnasium and some retaining walls. The omphalos – the stone naval of Gaia – is there too, safely housed in the awe-inspiring Delphi Museum, a few hundred metres from where it once lay.

It was on a winter afternoon, with chilled air infused by pine needles, that I walked among those ruins; it was quiet except for the hollow clanking of distant goats’ bells that haunted the valley from far-off olive groves. The crisp stillness fuelled contemplation as I tried to come to terms with the history of this place; 2500 years is a lot to comprehend.

There is something utterly profound – and totally humbling – about standing in the middle of history. I wanted to stay as long as I could, and watch the late afternoon shadows lengthen across what was once a stage. I wanted to imagine magnificent marble statues standing tall on their columns, as they had done back in 400BC. I wanted to conjure the ghosts of people who’d walked these same paths. What did they hope for? What did they look like? What did they fear? I wanted to touch history; to be able to trace my fingers over the letters of a hymn inscribed into a wall 1886 years ago.

Ancient writing on a stone in Delphi in Greece

I wonder, had I stayed longer, how long this enchantment would have lasted. At what point would the novelty, the intrigue, of being surrounded by so much history have wilted? Because what had struck me when I strolled the streets of central Athens, five days before driving out to Delphi, was how much a part of daily life this ancient history is for locals.

“We’ve been raised with this history,” one Athenian had told me as I marvelled at the beautiful Thesion temple at sunset. “This is all normal for us.” It totally blew my mind; we were drinking ouzo in a café in Athens, watching for the lights to come on across the city, and immediately below us were the fenced-off ruins of what was once the Agora, a gathering place for Athenians. “You know, this history is all around us; it’s even underneath us,” he continued. “When they built our metro it took so much longer than planned, because they kept on finding more ruins, which they had to tunnel around. And I think sometimes they might just have gone straight through.”

The old neighbourhoods around the Acropolis, the historical heart of Athens, were already a few centuries old when Christ walked the earth. Wander through the fascinating little streets of pastel-coloured buildings and every few blocks you’re bound to stumble across a wall or monument that’s more than 2000 years old. There’s very little fuss surrounding many of these ruins; they’re simply there, as they always have been.

All roads in the tangled web of Monastiraki, Plaka, Thissio, Koukaki, Makrigianni and Kolonaki neighbourhoods seem to eventually lead to the Acropolis, the citadel from which the Parthenon (and other temples) looms over the city. Construction of this Greek icon began in 447BC and it took nine years for the 6500 blocks of white marble to be cut and assembled. It’s surrounded by cranes and scaffolding – has been for years – as efforts are made to restore this mighty building.

I spent five days exploring the streets of Athens’ old neighbourhoods, brooding over the ruins as I sipped on strong Greek coffee and filled up on mousaka – and that didn’t feel like enough time. During winter this city, so full of character, is empty of the summertime crowds who flock here for a day or two before moving onto one of the islands, and Athens’ attractions feel open and unrushed. This sense of space invites contemplation and gives you the time to enjoy simply being there.

It’s a city that I look forward to returning to. Not just to explore its vast history, but also to witness the birth of its future: so many creative people and places are emerging from the rubble of the economic crisis. Aware that the old economic system no longer works for them, young Greek people are finding new ways to make a living and Athens is becoming a hub of creative initiatives built around the collaboration of talents and resources. New life is being breathed into run-down buildings as they, in the same space and time, become cafes and art galleries and theatres and music venues. Graffiti artists are washing the old city with colour. Small bakeries are the new trend. Shop owners in quiet streets organise festivals to attract people to their spaces. Internet start-ups are blossoming. There is a pulling together of people; a pooling of resources; that sense of creation where before there was nothing.

Graffiti in Athens in Greece

It was while marvelling the enormous columns of the ruined Temple of Olympian Zeus that it all made sense to me: creation and destruction are inevitable cycles. This temple, designed to be the greatest in the ancient world, is a good example of that. Its construction began in the sixth century BC but the whims of political turmoil meant that it took more than 600 years to complete; it was ransacked for building materials in Medieval Athens and centuries later blasted by Turkish gunpowder. And yet, despite some being reincarnated into churches and mosques, 15 of the 104 columns still stand.

We now place so much value on ancient history and do what we can to preserve it, and rebuild it, and understand it all. But, I wonder, if we could send Zeus’s eagles 2500 years into the future, or if we could consult with the priestess Pythia, what words of wisdom would they bring us? What part of our present world would they urge us to take better care of? And, I wondered, what would it take for us to listen?


Greece feature in Getaway magazineThis feature was written for Getaway magazine, and appeared in the May 2014 issue of the magazine.
We explored the country with the help of  Discover Greece.

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