Apollonian Oracle of Abai uncovered

"The Persians did everything in the desert," wrote Herodotus. This included the Phocian City of Abai (in modern day Greece), which contained "a large temple of Apollo … as well as an oracle." Unlike the famous Oracle of Delphi, which Apollo himself allegedly protected by throwing rocks at its attackers, the oracle of Abai went up in flames. 

Foundations of Apollo's Oracle at Abai, Phokis [Credit: Deutsches Archäologisches Institut]
Perhaps this is why the oracle of Abai was largely forgotten, even though Herodotus mentioned it alongside the famous shrines of Delphi and Dodona in Epirus.  For centuries, the ruins near the small village of Kalapodi in central Greece have been associated with Abai, but their exact history have long remained shrouded in mystery. 

Excavations conducted on-site since 2004 by an international team of archaeologists led by Wolf-Dietrich Niemeier, director of the Athens branch of the German Archaeological Institute, have now confirmed what specialists long suspected. Niemeier’s team has brought this sacred place to light, and archaeologists are raving about their findings.  

The two new temples of Kalapodi provide opportunities for historical discovery that many of the other great sanctuaries in Greece no longer offer. In Olympia and Delphi, major excavations were made more than a century ago. Conducted without the proper discipline and methods, the dig-ins overlooked or under-analyzed some of the smallest layers, shards, and plant seeds. The fact that Kalapodi was discovered so late means that the team of archeologists will be able to use the latest methods available, and that the errors of the past will not be repeated.  

Monuments of hatred for all time 

The excavations conducted thus far show that the people of Abai did not build over the southern part of the temple. The sacred buildings razed by the Persians were, according to the 2nd century Greek geographer Pausanias, left "for all time as monuments of hatred" – namely, the hatred of the Persians. 

Reconstruction of the west facade of the Temple of Apollo at Abai [Credit: Gerda Henkel Stiftung/N. Hellner/Gerda Henkel Stiftung]
Although the excavation, which is sponsored by the Gerda Henkel Foundation, is still in progress, preliminary discoveries show that underneath Abai’s approximately 480 temples rests a series of earlier structures dating back to the Mycenaean palatial period (before 1200 BC).  These discoveries indicate that Kalapodi might be a key to unlocking the secrets of the “Dark Ages,” which came after the fall of the Mycenaean civilization and before the beginning of classical antiquity. 

In an older, Late Geometric temple (c. 800 BC), the archeologists were surprised to uncover a wall painting – depicting a battle scene – whose author applied a technique often seen in the frescoed Mycenaean palaces that have survived the ages. 

For the Phocians, who inhabited a region not particularly blessed by nature, the temple and oracle of Abai were of paramount importance. Surrounding enemies – the Thessalians in the north and the Thebians in the east – posed a constant threat; in the south, Delphi, although on Phocian ground, had gained its independence and was protected by its own community. The people that came to the oracle of Abai were thus a major source of revenue for the region. 

Map showing the location of Kalapodi in Phokis where German archaeologists have excavated one of the primary Greek sanctuaries of the ancient world: the Oracle of Abai [Credit: DAI]
The excavations being conducted at Kalapodi are now starting to prove just how lucrative the oracle was. Archaeologists have found numerous votive offerings made of metal, bronze jewelry, and ceramics. A bronze bowl coming from a late Hittite principality of northern Syria, and bearing a particularly intricate relief pattern, demonstrates the international status that the oracle of Abai had in the Archaic Period (8th century). Food residue and ash found inside it are a testament to the temple’s ritual meals.   

Finds from the site allow Niemeier and his team to prove that they have indeed uncovered the Apollonian Oracle of Abai. Within the temple, they found the inscription, “dedicated to Apollo.”  In a nearby modern-day Christian chapel, a re-appropriated stone reads: “The people of Abai have honored Emperor Constantine.” 

According to Pausanias, Abai was also held in great esteem by the Romans. In the 2nd century AD, Emperor Hadrian built a smaller temple alongside the main northern building. Some of the bronze votive offerings found there were gifts from the people of Abai. 

Within the geometric temple, excavators have found a treasure of 12 iron swords, three lances, a shield boss of bronze, a bow and a robe of nobility. It would seem that the local people were not stingy at all when it came to honoring their god. 

That the Phocians were very proud of their military might was long ago noted by Herodotus. After they successfully defeated the Thessalian knights in the 6th century, they extended the northern temple of Kalapodi and filled it with splendid spoils of the war, such as 2,000 shields taken from the slain Thessalians after the battle. 

This, as well as the many other spectacular discoveries being made in Kalapodi, suggest that in the Mycenaean civilization's dark ages, times may not have been so dark after all. 

Author: Berthold Seewald | Source: Worldcrunch/Die Welt [May 23, 2011]


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