In Delphi, the intriguing transformation of the sanctuary of Apollo into a Christian city

In Delphi, the intriguing transformation of the sanctuary of Apollo into a Christian city

ARCHEOLOGY – The French School of Athens has highlighted a development of the site at the turn of the 5th and 6th centuries.

The last fires of the ancient city of Delphi did not go out with the closure of the panhellenic sanctuary it housed. Dedicated to Apollo and renowned for its oracle and its prophetess, the Pythia, this site perched on the escarpments of Phocis, at the foot of Mount Parnassus, represented for more than a millennium one of the sacred navels of the Greek world. At least, until the prohibition of pagan cults, at the end of the IVe century of our era. Delphi does not, however, decline with its Christianization. On the contrary, and to the great surprise of archaeologists, it develops.

“We thought we knew the city of the beginnings of the byzantine era but what our latest excavations have shown is that it was actually much, much larger than what we had estimated so far”explains to Figaro the archaeologist and lecturer at Paris VIII Nicolas Kyriakidis, director of the excavation of the fortifications of Delphi. Two districts of this unsuspected part of the city have been uncovered since 2017 to the west of its hitherto commonly accepted limits, not far from the village which today bears the name of the old sanctuary. Some vestiges of this forgotten Delphi were barely five centimeters above the surface. Others waited patiently, cowering directly under a European long-distance footpath.

Excavation of the storage space of a house from Late Antiquity, in August 2018. In the background, the modern village of Delphi and the Gulf of Corinth. Greek Ministry of Culture/French School of Athens/Mission fortifications of Delphi/N. Kyriakidis

Late prosperity of Delphi

The archaeological mission of the French School of Athens did not expect such discoveries. Nicolas Kyriakidis remembers the happy and growing astonishment of his teams. “We had gone to study a small fort from the classical period of the IVe century BC. J.-C., in the technical periphery of Delphi, of which we just knew that it had been reoccupied in a very limited way at late antiquity . But what we discovered was that it was not a stockade, but a fortress.. And more.

Around these classical remains, archaeologists have unearthed necropolises as well as several residential sectors spanning more than 500 meters of new fortified lines, with three towers and two gates. All date from the end of the occupation of Christian Delphi, before the abandonment of the city at the beginning of the 7th century. The fortified margin had belatedly changed into an extension on one level of the city. “It’s only the tip of the iceberg, but it’s already completely changing the image we could have of the site”blows Nicolas Kyriakidis.

A tower and a segment of the rampart discovered above the stadium of Delphi. Greek Ministry of Culture/French School of Athens/Mission fortifications of Delphi/K. Robert

Better still, this urban development could be associated with a form of late prosperity of Delphi. Several newly excavated houses can be attributed to a local elite. The research teams notably discovered fragments of a polycandelonstudied by the archaeologist Platon Pétridis, professor at the University of Athens. “It is a glass chandelier that is not very common to find in the fieldsays Nicolas Kyriakidis. It denotes a certain wealth”. A sculpted capital found during the excavations could also have belonged to a relatively comfortable private building. Finally, a hoard of coins dating from Late Antiquity was discovered last summer.

Urban metamorphosis

All these remains were in a hitherto almost unexplored sector of Delphi. Excavated since the end of the 19the century, the city did not begin to reveal its remains from proto-Byzantine times until the 1980s and 1990s. The first archaeological picture of this period between the IVe and the VIIe century reveals a sanctuary of Apollo devoured by the city. While the temple may be converted into a church, the marble and limestone monuments are stripped and reused; dwellings are established in the ancient sacred area. “It’s a bit of a squatsays Nicolas Kyriakidis. The sanctuary is integrated by the fabric of the city.

Delphi survives the – at least official – end of paganism, then the disintegration of the Western Roman Empire. The development of the city under the aegis of the Eastern Roman Empire did not, however, prevent the site from falling into disuse. “There is a probable contraction of the city around 580, marked by the installation of the funerary site on old dwellingsremarks Nicolas Kyriakidis. The final abandonment seems to be dated around 610-620.

A first phase of excavations scheduled over five years was completed this year, paving the way for new publications. The archaeologist and his colleagues, ceramologists, anthropologists and other architectural specialists, work tirelessly to assemble and analyze the material collected. The study of coins, indecipherable as they are, should for example make it possible to specify the chronology of this late extension of the city. And open the way, with the rest of the data, to a new campaign of excavations.

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