This article has been previously published as a part of book Around Ephesus and Kusadasi: TAN Travel Guide by Izabela Miszczak
Didyma was famous throughout the ancient world as the place where a colossal temple of Apollo stood, and the oracle revealed the future. In its heyday, Didyma was not a city, but a place of worship, connected with Miletus by the so-called Sacred Way. This road was used by the pilgrims who arrived at Didyma, seeking answers to nagging questions.
In the ancient period, Didyma never had the distinction of being the biggest or the most important religious center. The Temple of Apollo located there was the second largest after the Artemision of Ephesus, and its oracle - the second most influential after Delphi. However, nowadays the visit to Didyma is much more exciting experience than looking at a single column that remained from the Artemision of Ephesus.
The beginnings of the sanctuary in Didyma
According to ancient sources, Didyma area had been considered sacred even before Greek settlers arrived on the coast of Asia Minor. It is a very likely situation since the Greeks often took over local places of worship and adapted them in accordance with their beliefs. Similarly, they acted in the case of Anatolian mother goddess Cybele, who was worshiped in Ephesus as Artemis from the Greek pantheon.
The first temple in Didyma was built by the Greeks in the late 8th century BC. It was a simple design, consisting of so-called temenos i.e. a sacred area, surrounded by a colonnade that was added a century later. On the sacred courtyard, there was an altar, a well used to the prophetic activities, and a laurel tree dedicated to Apollo. The existence of this structure was confirmed by archaeological work conducted by a team of German archaeologists under the direction of Heinrich Drerup in 1962.
The Archaic Didymaion
The construction of the mighty temple - the Archaic Didymaion (the Temple of Apollo at Didyma) - was completed around 550 BC. This temple was to bring glory to the most significant of the Ionian cities at that time i.e. Miletus. Today, the remains of the archaic temple are located under the later, Hellenistic construction, but it is possible to reconstruct its possible appearance. It is known that the architects of Didymaion were under the influence of the temples built a little earlier on the island of Samos and in Ephesus.
Didymaion was a dipteros; that is a building surrounded by a double colonnade in the Ionic order. It occupied an area measuring 85 to 38 meters. The outer colonnade consisted of 21 columns at the long sides, eight columns at the eastern side, and nine columns on the western side. The spacing of the columns on the eastern side enabled a broader transition between the columns, creating the impression of the gate of the temple. In total Didymaion boasted 112 columns.
The sanctuary in Didyma was managed by the family known as the Branchidae. They were the priests descended from the legendary Branchos, the son of Apollo. According to another version of the family history, their progenitor Branchos was the son of a hero named Smikros, who settled in Miletus. Before his birth, his mother had a dream in which the sun entered her mouth and went through the entire body and came out of the belly. This was considered a good omen and the boy was named Branchos, which means a bronchus. When Branchos grew up, he became a shepherd. In the mountains, he saw Apollo, who fell in love with him. The god gave his lover a gift of divination, so Branchos founded the oracle at Didyma, which was later managed by his descendants.
The Sacred Way at Didyma
The sanctuary in Didyma was the largest and most significant area of religious worship for ancient Miletus, located about 17 km away. This city was connected with the sanctuary by the Sacred Way. On this road, there were ritual stops, monumental tombs, the statues of the Branchidae family members of both sexes, and the figures of animals. The Sacred Way was renewed at the time of the Roman Emperor Trajan in the years 100-101 AD.
Some of the findings from the Sacred Way are now in the British Museum in London, where they were brought in the 19th century by Charles Newton. Several statues of the priests are displayed at the nearby Museum of Miletus. These figures date back to the 6th century BC. In this facility, there are also statues of sphinxes from a roadside terrace, which served as a resting place for pilgrims.
The destruction of the Archaic Didymaion
The archaic temple of Apollo at Didyma was destroyed in 493 BC by the Persians, a year after the defeat of the coalition of the Ionian cities in the naval battle of Lade. The priests of the house Branchidae were expelled, and the bronze statue of Apollo was taken to Ecbatana - the summer residence of the kings of Persia of the Achaemenid dynasty. The treasures of the temple, including the gifts from King Croesus, were looted. At that time, the sacred spring, which was the basis for oracle visions, dried up.
The Hellenistic Didymaion
For many years, Didymaion remained in the state of complete ruin. It was not until the time of Alexander the Great, when the temple started to be reerected. The story is that, after Alexander the Great had arrived at Didyma, the sacred spring began to flow again. Around 300 BC Hellenistic ruler Seleucus I Nicator brought back the statue of the god Apollo to Didyma. Milesians began to build the temple, which according to the plans was to be the largest in the Hellenistic world. The work was supervised by two architects: Paionios, who also built the temple of Artemis at Ephesus, and Daphnis.
However, the project proved to surpass its contractors, and the building has never been finished. The work on its construction lasted in the third and second centuries BC, and a part of the building was completed only in Roman times. From this period comes the frieze placed over architrave of the outside row of columns, decorated with the reliefs of the heads of Medusa. External columns on the south-western and eastern sides have never been finished.
The temple in Christian era
During the reign of Byzantine Emperor Theodosius II (408-450 AD) Didymaion was turned into a church. It played this rule until 1453, when an earthquake destroyed it.
The first excavations in Didyma were carried out in 1858, in the area of the Sacred Way, under the direction of the British archaeologist Charles Thomas Newton.
The grounds of the temple of Apollo were studied for the first time by French archaeologists, Olivier Rayet and Albert Thomas, in 1872. Their goal was to find the statue of Apollo, and the excavations took two years. The statue was not found. However the dimensions of the temple were determined, and its plan - reconstructed.
In the years 1895-1896 the French team again worked in Didymaion, this time under the supervision of Bernard Haussoullier. The focus was on the northern part of the temple, but for economic reasons this project was quickly abandoned.
More time was spent in Didyma by German archaeologists who worked there on behalf of Berlin museums from 1905 to 1937. Thanks to them, almost the entire temple was excavated. The work was resumed under the supervision of the German Archaeological Institute in 1962 and it lasts until today, with particular attention devoted to the Sacred Way.
The most surprising discovery was made by German researchers in 1979. On the inner wall of the courtyard barely visible lines were discovered. Upon closer examination these lines turned out to be the plans for the temple. They survived thanks to the fact that Didymaion was never finished, and the walls were not polished. From these sketches, the researchers have learned a lot about the planning and construction of the temple.
The temple erected in Hellenistic times was an unroofed building. Its plan, similar to the archaic Didymaion, was the dipteros of the Ionic orde. The temple stood on a high foundation, which consisted of seven steps. In the front of the vestibule, there were ten columns. Inside this room, there were 12 columns, in 3 rows. In total, the temple was adorned with 124 columns: 120 with Ionic capitals, 2 with Corinthian capitals, and two half-columns. On the sides of the building, there were two tunnels with ramps that led to the adyton i.e. the inner courtyard reserved for oracles, priestesses, priests, or acolytes, and not for the general public.
The adyton was surrounded by very high walls built of marble blocks and reinforced from the inside by the pilasters. In this part of the temple, there was a small sanctuary, with the holy spring and the statue of Apollo.
The ruins of the Temple of Apollo in Didyma are open to visitors daily, in summer (April - October) from 8:30 am to 7:00 pm and in winter (November - March) from 8:30 am to 5:00 pm. The ticket costs 10 TL.
The area around the temple has been renovated in recent years, and now it is not possible to reach the entrance to the ruins by car. It is necessary to leave your car in the parking lot, about 200 meters away from the ticket office.
A new promenade leads to the ruins of Didymaionu. Along this promenade, there are several souvenir shops and a restaurant.
By public transport: frequent minibuses go to Didim from Söke. The journey takes approximately 1 hour, and the ticket costs 8 TL.
By car: from the main roads of the region i.e. İzmir-Aydın highway take an exit at Germencik and go in the direction of Söke. There are two access roads from Söke to Didim. The longer and slower one goes through Güllübahçe (with the ruins of Priene) and Atburgazı, through the lovely area of Büyük Menderes River delta and the ruins of Miletus. The distance from Söke is 57 kilometers. Shorter (41 km) and faster route from Söke to Didim leads through Sarıkemer, and in Akköy it connects with the route through Güllübahçe.
If you choose Söke as a starting point, it is possible to make a loop using the above routes and visit Priene, Miletus, and Didyma during one tour.
With an organised tour: you can take advantage of organized trips, known as PMD or Priene-Miletus-Didyma, during which you will be able to visit all three places in just one day. Theses tours are sold by travel agencies in Kuşadası.