Turkey’s Temple of Apollo may decode gray mysteries of antiquity

Turkey’s Temple of Apollo may decode gray mysteries of antiquity


The myth has it that Leto, the pregnant lover of Zeus, so feared the wrath of Zeus’ wife Hera that she took refuge on the island of Delos to give birth to her twins, Apollo and Artemis. During her labor, light burst from the skies and the sun appeared. Hence, Apollo came to be known as the god of light. His most important skill, however, was his oracular prowess. One day Apollo struck a close friendship with a shepherd, Branchos, and taught him the secrets of prophecy. Branchos built a temple in his native city, Miletus, to honor Apollo.

That’s how the Temple of Apollo’s story is being told today in what is now Turkey’s Aegean district of Didim, a popular destination for both Turkish and foreign holidaymakers. The monumental structure — the largest of the surviving oracular centers built in Apollo’s name in Asia Minor — leaves the visitor awestruck.

The temple was an important site for the Ionian civilization, to which Miletus belonged. In nocturnal rites held at the temple, Ionians keen to know their future marched on the sacred road leading to the sanctuary, holding torches and singing hymns. The priests descended to the sacred court, performed ritual ablutions in a sacred spring and then drank from the water. Then, in a state of trance, the priests made mysterious utterances, believed to be conveying Apollo’s words to the audience.

That’s how my guide described the nocturnal rites as I toured the temple, dazzled both by the mythical stories and the imposing structure. I entered the site from the sacred gate as the Ionians did. The still magnificent entrance, marked by two 14.5-meter-tall (47.5-foot) stone columns on both sides, opens out onto a marble courtyard. More ornamented columns are seen inside. The original structure had a total of 124 very tall columns, but not all of them have survived. I noticed iron cages placed on some of the columns, which looked rather ugly and disturbed the ancient fabric of the site. The members of a restoration team working on the site explained that the cages were remnants of reinforcement work conducted five decades ago and would be soon be removed.

Passing through the tunnel in the courtyard, I reached the sacred court and the wells in which the priests washed during the nocturnal rites. According to the guide, the priests went into a trance because they suffered temporary poisoning from the water they drank, hence the utterances attributed to Apollo were actually their ramblings in a state of delirium.

The four 19.5-meter-tall (64-foot) walls surrounding the sacred court defy the centuries. In one exceptional discovery, archaeologists have determined that barely visible lines incised on the walls are actually the blueprint of the temple, scratched into the surface of the marble to serve as a guide for the builders.

The site is littered with laurel trees, which hold the secret of Apollo’s love for Daphne. According to the myth, Apollo once ridiculed Eros, the god of love. To avenge the insult, Eros made two arrows — one that incited love and the other that repelled it. He shot the arrows at Apollo and Daphne. Apollo was eternally infatuated with Daphne and continuously followed her, while she kept spurning him. One day the two came across each other in a forest. Exhausted from running away, Daphne begged the gods to help her escape. The god of nature heard Daphne’s pleas and turned her to a laurel tree at the spot. Hence, Apollo’s laurel crown symbolized his love for Daphne.

The guardian of the temple is Medusa, one of the three Gorgons, the female monsters of the underworld in Greek mythology. Though a monster, she was mortal and of ravishing beauty, living in the temple of Athena. Poseidon, the god of the seas and Athena’s lover, fell in love with Medusa and forced her into sexual intercourse. The enraged Athena transformed Medusa’s hair to serpents and placed a curse in her eyes that turned anything she gazed at to stone. Later on, Athena prompted Zeus’ son to kill Medusa, who was at the time pregnant with Poseidon’s twins. When she was beheaded by sword, the twins — Chrysaor and the winged horse Pegasus — sprang from her body.

Because of her gaze that turned anything to stone, Medusa’s image was inscribed or carved on prominent structures and sites in antiquity as an evil-averting precaution. A Medusa statue was planned at the Temple of Apollo as well, but it was never finished, like the temple itself.

The temple’s construction was doomed to remain incomplete, both because of the monumental plan and the destruction of wars. Building started in the 8th century B.C., but invading Persian armies razed the site to the ground before the plan was fully in place. Two centuries later, Alexander the Great ordered the temple to be rebuilt, but again the construction could not be finished. The temple was abandoned in A.D. 390 after prophecy was banned. Two great fires and a powerful earthquake obscured the site in ensuing years, up until the 18th century when two travelers discovered the ruins.

An excavation was launched in 1905 by the Royal Museum of Berlin and continued until 1937. The archaeological work was resumed in 1962 by the German Archaeological Institute and continues to the present. Past restoration attempts have damaged the structure, with cement used to repair demolished walls. Under the current restoration plan, the original stones will be cleared from cement and the walls will be rebuilt. The biggest headache for the team, however, stems from modern-day damage as visitors have spray painted the names of their sweethearts and favorite singers on the ancient walls. The team has failed to remove the graffiti, but hopes nature itself will do the job, though in 15 or maybe 20 years.

Recently the restoration team has discovered traces of blue and red paint on the steps leading to the priests’ chambers, a section currently off-limits to visitors. The discovery has raised the probability that the temple may have been a colored structure, as many statues were in antiquity. Research on the question of color is continuing. The secret of the colored stones may help decode the gray mysteries of ancient civilizations.