Slightly below the ancient site, the terraced Sanctuary of Athena was the first stop for many pilgrims climbing up the slope from the sea. They would pause to pay homage at such shrines as the exquisitely beautiful and photogenic Tholos (Round) temple, dedicated to an unknown goddess. A shrine has stood on this spot since 1500 B.C., when the Mycenaeans established a sanctuary here to the earth goddess Gaia. The formal entrance to the site was the monumental walkway known as the Sacred Way ★, once lined with magnificent temples that city-states erected as votive dedications to Apollo—and as a bit of one upmanship to see who could outdo one another. These were some of the greatest works of antiquity, filled with treasures. Only foundations remain of all but the Athenian Treasury, restored in the 1930s. The 4th-century-B.C. theater ★★ and nearby stadium ★★ hosted the musicians, performers, and athletes who came to Delphi for the Pythian Games, held every 4 years in honor of Apollo. Both afford magnificent views over the sanctuary and surrounding mountains.
The main attraction, however, was (and still is) the Temple of Apollo ★★★. Six limestone columns and rocky foundations, set against craggy cliffs, are all that remain of the temple begun in the 7th century B.C. that, according to legend, was designed by Trophonios and Agamedes, gods who labored as earthly architects. Over the centuries, the temple was financed by Greece’s most important families and foreign powers. Funding the temple was not only a mark of status but also a sound investment in the future, because here one might receive life-altering words of wisdom. Allegedly, questions inscribed on stone tablets would be presented to a Pythian priestess who had undergone a cleansing and purification ritual. Speaking for Apollo, she would utter garbled verse to priests, who interpreted them and passed along enigmatic statements (setting a precedent adapted by today’s politicians). Among the supplicants were rulers and generals who came from throughout the Mediterranean world seeking advice. Perhaps the most famous piece of advice was given to King Croesus of Lydia, who asked if he should attack the Persians. If he did so, he was told, he would destroy a great empire. He did attack, and he did destroy a kingdom—his own.