The omens ripped from the bleating carcass were again satisfactory, and we again set off in the slight yellow light of a Greek dawn. The plan for today was something a little different from what had gone before as the travelling would mostly happen on Greek public transport. In the latter stages of planning this trek it was decided that Pausanias would firstly not have travelled his own route as fast as we were about to (he wrote his account over twenty years). And secondly, that as he was probably not walking the whole way it was acceptable to make use of the local transport systems to the extent he probably did. Therefore instead of crossing back over Parnassos to get to Delphi instead we manoeuvred around its eastern flank (the side we hadn’t gone past before), to reach Delphi more quickly in an effort to match Pausanias’ account with what we saw there.
In pursuit of this goal we walked the 1.5 kilometres at 7.00am Greek time to the local railway station at Amfikleia. This, when we reached it, struck us as very local indeed with a chalk board for arrivals and departures, and no apparent machine for tickets. Without these then we chanced our hand on the train when it came rattling in (graffiti-stained). In another display of hospitality the Greek train conductor took us under his wing, and was around to tell us that the stop (we were getting off at Levadeia), was coming up in addition to informing the driver of our presence. Accompanied then by his helping hand down to the platform, and the driver’s announcement of our arrival at the station (something he hadn’t done for any other stop), we disembarked. Pausanias who most likely relied on such assistance would himself have been gratified by the attention we were given. A short taxi drive later (delayed due to the cabby’s need to feed the local cats), we were in the provincial town of Levadeia, and the biggest settlement we had been in since leaving Athens.
Ancient Levadeia is written about by Pausanias in his description of Boiotia (the region abutting Phokis to the east). Boiotia (whose most famous city was Thebes), formed itself into a military League at various points in its history, and Pausanias describes Levadeia as very much holding its place amongst that confederacy. Here are a few of his thoughts about it:
“Where the Phokians look down on Orchomenos [another Boiotian city] from the mountains, in the plain is the border city of Lebadeia”
“The grandeur of this city ranks it among the most prosperous cities in Greece”
“[t]hese people believe snakes are as much sacred to Trophonias [a minor local deity] as they are to Asklepios…There is an open-air sanctuary of Demeter Europa and Zeus of Rain…and the temple of Zeus the King. Because of storms and eddies of war, or simply the size of the temple, they left it half finished”
Unfortunately we had not the time to explore the city (our bus was due), but a few points of interest can be gleaned from the area around the bus station in comparison to Pausanias’ account. It seems that Levadeia, at the expense of Thebes, had grown into something of a hub in the second-century AD, and this standing seems to have continued into the modern period; it is still the provincial capital of Boiotia. But its prosperity now is not as noticeable, indeed its heavy industry appears to have died leaving empty windowed factories on the city outskirts. It still seemed to be a border city on some ways, a place from which there were many different routes to take. The ancient ruins Levi describes as fragmentary, and on top of a nearby hill. It is a shame that we couldn’t reach them as the form the deities took were unusual (Zeus of rain and kingship for example). A church now stands among them and showed us for the first time the continuity of religious centres in a landscape.
The bus, when it arrived, whipped us along the edges of cliffs until we reached the shining cliffs of Delphi. The time was around 11.30am and, checked in at the hotel, we set out to explore the navel of the ancient world– the sanctuary itself. Various legends, narrated by Pausanias among others, were created to explain the importance of Delphi. Myths linking the site to Zeus and Eagles, to Gaia, and of course Apollo. It is probably enough to say that the myths and legends come up short when attempting to describe the sheer presence of Delphi terraced to the rocks. It would be difficult to do justice either to Pausanias’ many chapters on Delphi, and the religious area itself as they are both of such scale. Therefore I will give a few points on Pausanias’ description, and then compare our perceptions of the site. In addition I will include all the pictures taken of Delphi to try to give you an impression of its magnitude and impressiveness.
Pausanias’ treatment of Delphi is on the one hand highly coloured, and on the other frustrating. He wends his way up the hillside, disregarding the actual city of Delphi, and focuses his attention on each dedication instead. This is very useful when archaeologists and ancient historians try to reconstruct the site, and identify the objects, but also leaves his narrative (in my opinion to modern eyes), somewhat disjointed. Each object has its own backstory which create tangents and discourses on the obscure (such as Pausanias’s investigation into the size and geography of Sardinia), it is almost Herodotian in this sense. This made it extremely difficult to follow Pausanias around the site as although there was a clear order to the account it strayed. Another factor about his description is that it does not deal with the recent votives and buildings of Pausanias’ day. He strips these away to give an almost undiluted Hellenic picture– nothing could be further from the truth. Pausanias was dealing with the sanctuary in its twilight years where it no longer represented the centre of the world for any civilisation. The new navel was Rome, and even though senators and emperors patronised the city it clearly declined in importance and repair. Clear evidence for this can be found in the fact that Hadrian who reigned just before Pausanias was writing had to reinstitute the religious ceremonies at the temple and altar of Apollo, and in Domitian’s pompous boast about its restoration. Pausanias’ Delphi is a snapshot of one of several centuries before.
Having said all this his book on Phokis is our only true guide to all the riches that lay within the sanctuary boundaries. This makes it essential for an understanding of the placement of objects in the sacred area (often driven by competition), and how ancient people understood the wonders and riches of the city. Pausanias’ capture of it in its Hellenic greatness underlines the fact that it was then that Delphi became the religious and diplomatic centre for Greeks. Pausanias himself was interested by the legends behind the art (as may have been clear throughout my blogs about him), and this lets us into the psyche of his class– interested in, and concerned about myth, but not dependent on them. Pausanias enjoys recording city landscapes, and it is through this that he tells the stories attached to each object (predating ‘A History in a 100 Objects’ by nearly 2000 years).
Moving onto the site it should suffice to say that the tourist industry often hinders and sometimes hijacks the beauty of the site as it bustles and hustles you along. It is a site renovated and rejigged to give a clearer view to that industry as well, and so suffers from the fact that some of its monuments could be queried on the nature of their reconstruction. In addition, it gives a sense of a site slightly at odds with its past, and tailored to fit modern perceptions. Only twice did it really feel ancient: once when crawling through a network of tunnels under the temple, potentially intended for drainage (our wilder theory was that it could have been used to concentrate the Pythia’s fumes after its reconstruction in the 4th Century BC), and second when climbing an ancient staircase bounded tightly with walls on either side. This brought us closer to the past as it gave us a sense of the practicality of such a site, and the bustle of it due to the staircase resembling those in modern Delphi.
This is possibly too sniffy though, the site is well worth the visit (and free for students), its beauty and location alone recommend it. Not only that but the city’s fantastic outdoor collection of inscriptions (some written in minute script), allowed the past to speak to you in small corners of the sanctuary. Then there were the temples and treasuries themselves–awe inspiring, and each worthy of many articles and books.
Pausanias, and this is where he ultimately succeeds as a writer of a travel journal, shows us his site as he would see it, never defending his treatment of it, but allowing the holiness of the site to shine through his work, while dealing with it in a pragmatic way. City and description meld to create a glorious image of a city of artistic brilliance in one of the most striking places in the world.
Joe: “What I most enjoyed was peering into the roped off areas at the edge of the sanctuary into what looked like residential ruins, which along with the rubble in the surrounding area gave more of a sense of the scale of Delphi as a city full of people rather than just a religious site”
David: “Calculating the relative sizes of the theatre and stadium in Delphi we were amused to note that the stadium was significantly larger- well in keeping with preferences today”