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DIDYMA : Oracle centre of the Antique world

DIDYMA : Oracle centre of the Antique world



Didyma was the most significant cult centre on the territory of the great classical city Miletos, preeminent science and art cradle of the Ancient world. Didyma, the largest and the most prosperous Ionian temple erected in Anatolia, famous for its relics, its sacred spring, its sacred laurel grove remained standing for 3 thousand years against all odds, wars, earthquakes and destructions.

Didim, Didyma with its ancient name was founded near the Yenihisar village of the Aydın province, where green mixes with the blue, where the Maeander river meets the Aegean sea. Didyma, known for its Apollo Temple, its treasure, the Didymaion erected in 560 B.C. grew into the main oracular shrine of the Antique world.

According to the myth, Apollo met one day in the area the shepherd Branchos whom he loved and revealed the secrets of divination. Branchos established the first Apollo temple inside the laurel forest, near the water source, on the placement of the current sanctuary. In time, the line of priests who claimed descent from Branchos were called the Branchidae.

Until its destruction by the Persians in 494 B.C., Didyma was the major Anatolian sanctuary dedicated to Apollo, administered by the family of the Branchidae. The Branchidae were expelled by Darius’ Persians, who burned the temple and carried away to their capital Ecbatana the archaic bronze statue of Apollo.

According to ancient Greek historian Herodotos, the Branchidae were guilty of sacrilege and treason towards their gods; they supposedly delivered the treasures offered to gods to the Persian king and followed him into Persian lands to escape the consequences of their treason.

150 years later

Alexander the Great supposedly destroyed the villages of the Branchidae descendants upon the exhortation of his Milesian soldiers, thus punishing the sons for the sins of their ancestors.

After his capture of Miletos in 334 B.C. Alexander the Great reconsecrated the Apollo oracle but placed its administration in the hands of the city of Miletos, where the priest in charge of the oracle was annually elected. Following Alexander’s victory over the Persians, the Apollo oracle “spoke again” and supposedly announced that Alexander was son of Zeus. Alexander ordered the reconstruction of the temple, but it was left to Seleucus I Nicator, the founder of the Syrian Seleucid Empire, who conquered this part of Alexander’s empire, to make a beginning with the project.

About 300 B.C. Seleucus I Nicator brought the bronze cult image, the Apollo statue back, and the Milesians began to build a new temple, which, if it had ever been completed, would have been the largest in the Ionian world. Even though the construction continued for two hundred years, the shrine was never completed.

The Sacred Road leading to the Temple

Apollo god of poetry, light, music and medical science, was also the god of oracular divination. He possessed the ability to transfer his oracular powers to humans.

Divination was the favourite method of ruling and the basis of belief systems in the ancient world, which is true even for Miletos considered one of the first centres where rational and scientific thinking began to develop…

South of Didyma was the port of Panormos where the pilgrims arriving by the sea disembarked. They reached Didyma by walking through the ‘Sacred Road’ connecting Miletos to Didyma.

The oracle was consulted by ordinary people as well as kings on the eve a decision to wage war. Festive processions started from the Sacred Road, torch runs, various competitions and festivals were organized around the temple.

Statues of male and female Branchidae seated on largesize armchairs met the visitors at the last two kilometres portion of the 18 kilometres long Sacred Road.

These statues erected in the 6th century B.C. remained in place at their homeland to welcome their visitors until British Archaeologist Newton transferred them in 1858 to the British Museum in London.

The water of the Sacred Spring

After climbing the stairs to the temple, a walkway bordered by a double range of giant columns led to three adjacent entrances, the main entrance in the middle and two smaller entrances on each side of the main entrance… It was not allowed for ordinary people to use the main entrance, open only to priests. At this point, sibyls in trance provided responses to the inquiries of the pilgrims by pronouncing unintelligible phrases discernible only to priests who translated them to the public.

The two lateral entrances were used to visit the remaining parts of the sanctuary. After crossing through the small entrances, one had to climb down the stairs to a long corridor leading to the main court of the temple.

The entry route lay down either of two long constricted sloping passageways built within the thickness of the walls which gave access to the inner court without a roof, still open to the sky but isolated from the world by the high walls of the cella: there was the ancient Sacred Spring, the naiskos which was a small temple itself, containing in its own small cella the bronze cult image of Apolloand a grove of laurels, sacred to Apollo.

According to Callisthenes, a court historian of Alexander, the spring dried up following the plundering by the Persian invaders, began once more to flow after Alexander passed through and the temple was rebuilt.

Apollo’s Sibyls

Female prophets or priestesses called sibyls in the ancient world were carrying a sceptre believed to have been bestowed to them by gods. They wet the bottom of their garments in the sacred water of the spring or inhaled the mist emanating from the spring with a view to keeping themselves ready to receive the prophecies believed to be inspired to them by gods.

They also had to observe a fast for three days and take purifying ablutions before prophesying. They went into trance by chewing laurel leaves and transmitted to humans prophecies provided to them by gods. Nevertheless, the transmission did not occur directly between priestesses and pilgrims, since the inquirers were not allowed to get into direct contact with the sibyls, but received the responses to their inquiries through further sacred mediums as intermediaries.

Put into rhymed verses, the prophecy was submitted in writing to the inquiring pilgrims by Apollo’s spokesman. Apollo’s announcer was the annually elected highest ranking official of Miletos. A second spokesperson assisted him in fulfilling his duties. Generally, this person was selected from among people possessing the talent to translate the prophecies into poetic language. Sometimes, Emperors acted as Apollo’s announcers, leading to think that the tradition of choosing a literarily gifted assistant was established by those emperors without poetic talent.

As to the question why emperors would take on such a task, the answer is probably the aim to immortalize their names. Evidence to this assumption are the stone blocs of the temple on which the names of 200 Apollo spokespersons are inscribed as a lasting sacred legacy to generations of following centuries.

Unfortunately, epigraphs containing the texts of prophecies proper are of disappointing rarity. A very limited number of such tablets were found during excavations and most of them were shattered into pieces. Historians explain the disappearance of such inscriptions with the effort of Early Christians to destroy reminiscences of pagan faith and culture, who probably crushed the tablets. A further disappointment is the fact that the admonitions and intimations contained in the rarely found prophecies are of a gloomy nature!

A 150 years old story!

The initial data on Didyma sanctuary was collected by French traveller Charles Texier and British archaeologist Newton. First excavations were carried out in 1858 by British and later by French archaeological teams without yielding satisfactory results. Systematic excavations were performed in 1904 under the leadership of Prof. Theodor Wiegand through the auspices of the Royal Berlin Museums (Königliche Museen zu Berlin) and carried on until 1913.

The findings of the exploration were published in 1941 by Hubert Knackfuss in a book entitled ‘Didyma’. From 1962 on, excavation work was carried out by Klaus Tuchelt under the auspices of the German Archaeological Institute (DAI Deutsches Archäologisches Institut). The research conducted after 2000 in the periphery of the Sacred Road led to the discovery of a Roman bath and its adjoining galleries along with a giant size water cistern. Excavations currently continued under the leadership of Prof. Dr. Helga Bumke from Germany’s Halle University led to findings confirming data obtained from earlier discovered tablets.

This is particularly true concerning information on the popular Didyma festivities organized every four years during the Roman period where various sportive competitions along with competitions in the field of oratory art, musical and theatrical performances took place. The festival was held partly in Miletos, partly in Didyma. Why the tragedy performances were staged in Didyma rather than at the magnificent Miletos amphitheatre remained an intriguing question mark for many years.

The answer to that question is probably provided by Prof. Dr. Bumke who declares that, during their 2010 excavations, they found a 23×20 metres large terrace wall extending in circular form which might well belong to a theatre structure that previously existed and was later destroyed.

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