Didyma is one of those WOW places mostly ignored by the bus-loads of tourists but a real blessing for the truly interested souls. What’s more, it was here that I realized how grand and impressive the famous Temple of Artemis in Ephesos must have been.
My very first encounter with the Temple of Apollo happened by pure chance while driving into modern Didim, which is built smack on top of the ancient town. Yet a couple of re-erected columns immediately drew my attention and these turned out to belong to the very temple I came to see. Once inside the sacred and now fenced area, I was facing the bottom of the stairs leading up to the temple’s entrance. As I climbed the fourteen high steps my eye reached the floor level of the temple; it was there that I felt totally dwarfed. For once, I had the urge to take a picture showing a person next to these enormous bases of 2.4 meters in diameter, simply to have an idea of the proportions. I felt very small, insignificant even. What a building!
My following visit was when I walked in Alexander’s Footsteps with Peter Sommer who in Miletus had drawn my attention to the Sacred Road and its rough direction towards Didyma (see: Miletus, Alexander’s first siege in Asia). I like to believe that Alexander reached Didyma, marching over this very road. Unfortunately, I did not walk the entire distance myself but instead picked up the other end at the north side of the Temple of Apollo in Didyma – a breathtaking moment! It was Emperor Trajan who decided to pave this road around 100 AD using huge white slabs of marble, pure luxury. Today’s visitor has to mentally transpose the many statues and monuments that once lined the route and which are now exhibited at the Archaeological Museum in Istanbul and even some at the British Museum in London). Yet this is one of those places where you can be sure Alexander preceded you.
But let’s go back to this remarkable sanctuary. The first Temple of Apollo was erected as early as the 7th century BC, in honour of the god who speaks through the oracles and by 500 BC it had grown to become one of the leading sanctuaries in Greece. As we know, the Persians had destroyed this temple and it was Alexander the Great who ordered its reconstruction when he arrived here in 334 BC. The size of this Temple of Apollo was, even by Hellenistic norms, colossal, reaching 109 x 51 meters (the archaic temple already measured 87 x 41 meters). A double row of columns ran around the temple, reaching a total of 122. It is said to be built by the same architect as the famous Temple of Artemis in Ephesos and the two re-erected Ionic columns are there to prove it. It must have been a spectacular view for in size and beauty only the temples of Samos and Ephesos scored better.
The bases on which these nearly twenty meters high columns stood are wonderfully well decorated with small panels or garlands of twigs and flowers. The double row of columns held a marble roof. In the grass around the temple, I find one of the Ionic capitals that from so close-by is much and much larger than what one would expect. The same goes for several enormous Medusa heads that once decorated the architrave on top of the columns.
Strangely enough, there was no entrance from the outside into the naos, the sacred heart of the temple. Instead, the visitor had to use one of the two vaulted side corridors that led to the inner courtyard of 21 x 53 meters. Walking through the dark corridor into the sudden brightness of the sacred Adyton which was not roofed the visitor still feels the might and influence of the ancient gods. Turning around in this holy courtyard you’ll discover a staircase in-between the two vaulted entrance corridors; these stairs are 15 meters wide and their 24 steps were meant to lead the visitor into the hall where the oracle was written down and delivered. Matching the height of the columns, this area was covered with marble slabs. At the end of this chamber a special door, 5.6 meters wide and 14 meters high opened into the pronaos. The Adyton court was planted with laurel, Apollo’s hallowed tree, and this is the very shrine of the holy spring where the pilgrims cleansed themselves before approaching the oracle and where the bronze statue of Apollo must have welcomed them, the one which was taken in the fifth century either by Xerxes or by Darius I to Ecbatana and later, probably around 300 BC, returned by Seleucos I (one of Alexander’s successors).
As an oracle Didyma is much less known to us than Delphi, yet in its heyday it was as famous. The prophecies made by the priestess were written down but we don’t know the exact procedure. What we do know however is that Apollo’s voice fell silent after the Persians sacked and looted the site. The temple was left unattended and the sacred well dried up – that is, till Alexander arrived here in 334 BC on his way from Miletus to Halicarnassus. He always had deep respect for the gods and maybe more so for the oracles. When he visited the temple, history tells us that the sacred waters started to flow again. With the spring, the oracle came back to life and as we know the first prophecy went directly to Alexander predicting his victory in Gaugamela and the death of Darius III.
And then, there is the fascinating story about the Branchidae who ruled the Temple of Apollo in Didyma (which belonged to Miletus) since the 5th century BC. They were in charge of the temple’s money and during Xerxes’ conquests of Greece, taking their responsibilities seriously they refused, at first, to hand over their treasury, but eventually they gave in – meaning in fact that they took the side of Persia. When the Greeks came out victorious from the Persian War in 479 BC, the Branchidae had reason enough to fear revenge from their compatriots. Their pro-Persian attitude forced them to ask for the enemy’s protection and that is how the Branchidae packed their belongings and migrated east to Central Asia – the end of the world in those days. When Alexander arrived in Central Asia in 329 BC he stumbled upon their descendants, who still spoke Greek and lived very much the Greek way. Callisthenes, present at that time, wrote that after the festivities and warm welcome, Alexander gave orders to kill the entire male population and sell the women and children as slaves. He then razed their town to the ground and even uprooted the trees and vines. What the Branchidae had done was considered as betrayal of their country and their gods, maybe even sacrilege (see: Alexander Meeting the Branchidae on his march to Maracanda).
It is interesting to learn that the accounting for Alexander’s restoration project has been recovered and I’m amazed to learn that the price-tag for just one column was 40,000 drachmae. Compared to the labourer’s wages of 2 drachmae a day, it is easy to understand that the costs were huge. As a consequence, it is evident that such a sanctuary was a long-term project. As it turned out, the place was a building site for nearly 700 years where at least eight architects directed no less than twenty construction companies, often working simultaneously. In spite of all the efforts and investments, this colossal temple was never finished. Yet, it was considered one of the greatest of all Greek temples and it certainly was one of the biggest!
What few people know is that the south steps of the temple platform served as seats for the north side of the adjacent stadium. These steps ran over 109 meters, i.e. the total length of the temple and allowed the audience to watch athletic races seated on one of the seven rows. Just put your imagination to work! Who knows, maybe Alexander organized some athletic competitions here?
Well, so much for Didyma. In Christian times the temple was converted into a church and Didyma even became a diocese in 385 AD. In 493 AD, an earthquake destroyed the city and its sanctuary.
Recently, illegal digs have uncovered remains of a wall, suggesting by its size and location that it might well pertain to another temple next to the Temple of Apollo. Because of the city’s name Didyma literally meaning “twins”, the dedication to Artemis, Apollo’s twin-sister is rather obvious but, for now, this is mere speculation (see: News from Didyma).
[Click here to see all the pictures of Didyma]
[Click here to see all the pictures of Didyma]