Investigating the gods - new excavation season in the Temple of Apollo in Didyma

The Temple of Apollo in Didim, July 2019
The Temple of Apollo in Didim, July 2019

Text and photos by Glenn Maffia

Another archaeological season is now in full flow, much as the inundation of the southeast section of the Apollo Temple is also. It appears that the wonderfully articulate and knowledgeable team assembled this year have no doubt noticed that the aquatic theme is rather of a pressing concern. For their focus of excavation has been correctly identified as the saturation of the stadium section, threatening the existence of the archaic temenos (enclosing wall of a sacred area) and the exciting exploration of an ancient sacred spring within the adyton (inner sanctum).

Red dots and pondering

It has transpired that the ancient gods have been deceitful in their guilt as the gushing flow of water into the stadium area has reduced to a mere trickle now the archaeologists have arrived, though the tell-tale signs remain in evidence. An analysis of the water sample taken last year has proved to be inconclusive, as it shows the chemical constituents of fresh natural water with an admixture of the ‘good old human and animal' sewage stained variety. Therefore, no one seems to be any the wiser if this inundation is merely a broken water pipe or the release of a subterranean reservoir after the recent earthquakes in December 2015 and July 2017. It is perplexing.

Personally, I believe that idiosyncrasy of this potentially destructive leakage allures more to the vagaries of nature rather than the prosaic broken pipe, which one would assume as being more constant in its attitude. Nonetheless, the digging is continuing to ascertain some reason for the obvious conclusions we can witness with our own eyes, and soaking boots.
Those with a keen eye for observation whom wander the road that rises in front of the Temple may notice a series of painted red dots around the southern entrance to the site; these are the plotted geophysical lines of the path of that liquid seepage.

As we know that the ground level inevitably rises with the passing of time due to the accumulation of dust and dirt this road level is significantly higher than the excavated Temple precinct. Water does what water does, and finds the most natural gravitational way of escape.

As a complete aside, these excavations to find the cause of the flow have conveniently (for me) revealed yet more ancient architecture. Beneath the road which descends to the vicinity of the buried foundations of the Theatre, some very interesting Byzantine fragments have come to light, along with the wall of a more recent house (probably built in the late 1700's or early 1800's).

The Byzantine artefact, which I consider as being a doorjamb, is obviously not in situ, but this echoes a constant theme of mine, in which I maintain, "why cut new stone when one has so much in abundance merely lying around". This may have been moved to enhance the ornamentation of the later house, much as Roman and Byzantine artefacts adorn the gardens of the reconstructed houses to this day.

More to come forth

Now, if I may have the temerity to be judgemental in my preferences, let us move into the exciting prospect of excavating the 'sacred spring' in the Adyton, the inner sanctum, of the Temple. This spring would have to be dated to the Hellenistic era at least, possibly even the Archaic, which for me relegates the Byzantine fragment to a lesser importance.

We remain though within the uncertainties of nature's whims, but we are seeing the desire to control this ever-shifting anomaly (in this case, water) within the all too human mind. Here we can observe the excavation of the 'original' sacred spring where the priestess uttered forth her chemically induced profanities, made sweet by a politically motivated high priest.

Nature has a way of dealing with the certainty of human comprehension by 'choosing to change' its (human) predicted pattern... for water does what water does. As Richard Dawkins once wrote, in a different context, "It is like trying to herd cats".

Though what we see today is the excavation of 'a' sacred spring, one of probably many, and revealing an excited human attempt to place order upon a purely natural, and changeable, phenomenon. What it has, so far, revealed is precisely that excitability.

The excavation in 1925 conducted by the German archaeologist Hans Hörmann found a two stairwell descent into the sacred spring, as attested by the excellent map in the Adyton, erected by the German archaeologists. What is more than apparent today is that, according to the archaeologist I spoke to, "they must have thrown the architecture back in", as it is a complete mess of a site. Beautifully cut stone laid under our feet in a confusion of despair. I felt entirely deflated as I was envisaging an 'in situ' subterranean stairwell descending into the realm of the priestesses.

I cannot confirm this, as I have only one source, though during the 1950's this spring gushed forth the water which was considered the sweetest water in the entire village, until the Turkish Government closed the spring. Such a story may enable us to explain this destruction of the stairs.

Remember that the German Archaeological Institute were not working on this site until 1962, could it be that without archaeological supervision the government workers callously, but maybe without intent, used the stones of the stairwell to inter the spring into the depths? That would rather echo back to my, "why cut new stone..." reasoning. History surely does repeat itself.

No doubt that these eminent professionals shall find some oblique meaning within this morass of now haphazard stone, we do have another month or more of pertinent investigation.

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Archaeological excavations in the Temple of Apollo in Didim, 2019
Archaeological excavations in the Temple of Apollo in Didim, 2019
Archaeological excavations in the Temple of Apollo in Didim, 2019
Archaeological excavations in the Temple of Apollo in Didim, 2019
Archaeological excavations in the Temple of Apollo in Didim, 2019
Archaeological excavations in the Temple of Apollo in Didim, 2019