Ionian Odyssey

Didyma: Apollo's Oracle
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Didyma was never a city—it was a temple, one of the largest and grandest ever attempted by the Ionians.

One has to say “attempted” because this magnificent monument to the god Apollo—begun in the 4th century B.C.—was never finished.

Known as the Didymaion, the temple attracted pilgrims for centuries seeking advice from the oracle of Apollo.

In all the Hellenistic world, only the Temple of Hera on the island of Samos and the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus were larger. But the Didymaion outlasted them both.

Although it has lain in ruins for centuries, the temple remains overwhelming, both by its enormity and intricacy. The flawlessly carved marble—much of it once suspended nearly 100 feet off the ground—represents a classical Greek exercise in perfection.

Unfinished Masterpiece
Didyma was home to a temple before the arrival of the Ionians, but around 550 B.C., the Ionian city-state of Miletus replaced it with a new temple dedicated to its Olympian patron, Apollo. The cult center was connected to the city via a 16-kilometer Sacred Road used for religious processions.

The Persians conquered Anatolia not long after the temple was finished, burning it to the ground in 494 B.C. after defeating the Miletus-led Ionian insurrection. After Alexander the Great liberated the Ionian cities from Persian rule in 334 B.C., Miletus laid ambitious plans to reconstruct an even larger temple than before—too ambitious, as it turned out.

The new plans called for a temple 360 feet long by 167 feet wide surrounded by 122 columns 65 feet high, with a total height of some 96 feet, and its enormous cost and size eventually proved beyond the ability of Miletus.

Records indicate that each of the 122 columns cost 40,000 drachmae, a king's ransom compared to a laborer's daily wage that totaled only two drachmae. In 250 B.C., some 60 years after work on the temple commenced, no fewer than 8 architects and 20 construction crews still labored away on the Didymaion.

Herculean Labor
Between the 1st and early 4th centuries A.D., the Roman emperors Caligula, Hadrian, Aurelian and Diolcletian only managed to complete a portion of the temple and erect most of the columns. An Italian traveler in 1446 reported that the temple was still standing, but an earthquake at the end of that century reduced it to a pile of rubble.

Unlike the other sites mentioned here, the Didymaion sits in the middle of a small Turkish town like some visitor from the distant past suddenly plopped down into the present.

Columns, capitals and other pieces of the gargantuan temple are strewn about in the grass as if it collapsed just yesterday. An imposing relief of Medusa that fell from the temple ages ago greets you as you walk down the steps into the temple site.

Only two of the temple's colossal Ionic columns remain standing in all their fluted glory. As you stand in their shadow and crane your neck skyward, you can't help marveling at the artistry and ingenuity of the builders.

You also will find yourself wondering which is the more impressive feat—the ability to turn shapeless slabs of marble into a timeless masterpiece, or the ability to pile these heavy stones so high with only wood, rope and sweat.

Holy Ground
The hallowed sanctuary of the Didymaoin wasn't open to mere mortals. Only the priests of Apollo were allowed inside the sacred courtyard, which you enter through one of two impossibly smooth tunnels built into the temple wall.

The courtyard, which measures 175 by 69 feet, is open to the sky, the base of the interior walls ringed with fallen friezes. In ancient times, a small temple stood here housing the cult statue of Apollo.

Hot springs once gurgled in a now-dry well, over which priests inhaled the sacred vapors for divine guidance.

Lovers, merchants and kings alike all sought advice from Apollo on matters of marriage, business and politics.

Once the oracle spoke to the priest, he retired to a windowless chamber where the prophecy was written down and delivered verbally to the anxious supplicant waiting outside.

The priests of Apollo may be long gone, but it doesn't take an oracle to predict that you'll never again lay eyes on a temple quite as magnificent as the Didymaion.


Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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