Ancient Hydraulis

Reconstruction Project

The reconstruction of the Ancient Hydraulis (water organ), the oldest keyboard instrument in the world, was launched by the European Cultural Centre of Delphi in 1995 with funding from the Ministry of Culture. It was completed in 1999.

The project was supervised by:

  • Vassilis Karasmanis, Professor of Philosophy, National Technical University of Athens, Director of the European Cultural Centre of Delphi (1994-2004)
  • Marios Mavroeidis (d. 1997), Ethnomusicologist, Professor of Music Studies, Ionian University
  • Christoph Stroux (d. 2013), Musicologist, Director of the “Lilian Voudouri” Music Library of Greece, The Friends of Music Society
  • Panos Vlagopoulos, Musicologist, Assistant Professor of Music Studies, Ionian University

Organ built by: G. Paraschos Musical Instrument Workshop

The project was carried out with the collaboration of Professor Dimitrios Pandermalis and his archaeologist colleagues who had discovered the upper part of a hydraulis, dated to the 1st century BC, during the excavation of ancient Dion in 1992. The find consisted of a set of bronze pipes and a horizontal metal supporting plate with decorative elements. It was presented at the Athens Concert Hall in 1994.

The reconstruction of the instrument was based on the systematic study of all the ancient sources, research into ancient Greek musical scales, and the use and working of the various materials in Antiquity. The archaeological find of Dion was faithfully followed for the construction of the pipes.

In May 1999, the reconstructed Hydraulis was presented at Delphi: as faithful a replica as possible of the ancient instrument.

Presentations of the Hydraulis in Greece and abroad:

  • Japan, Tokyo and Shizuoka, as part of the celebrations of the centenary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Greece and Japan
  • Hannover, EXPO 2000
  • Madrid, Second International Exhibition, “Madrid por la Ciencia”
  • London, Queen Elizabeth Hall
  • Crotone, Italy
  • Stockholm, Medelhavsmuseet
  • Washington, The Corcoran Gallery,
  • Athens Concert Hall
  • Archaeological Museum of Delphi
  • Acropolis Museum (in collaboration with the Association of Friends of the European Cultural Centre of Delphi)

and others

History of the Instrument

The Hydraulis (or Hydraulos) is the first keyboard instrument in the world, the predecessor of the church organ. It was invented by the famous engineer Ctesibius of Alexandria and built in the 3rd century BC. Detailed descriptions of its workings are preserved in the texts of Vitruvius (De Architectura X, 8) and Hero of Alexandria (Pneumatica Ι,42).

This strange technological and musical contrivance rapidly spread across the Hellenistic and later the Roman world, where it accompanied festivals and games in the amphitheatre.

The hydraulic mechanism was gradually replaced by bellows. The organ played at the Imperial Court of Constantinople was now a wind instrument called the Organon.

In the 8th century, the Byzantine Emperor Constantine V (741-775 AD) sent an organ as a gift to Pepin the Short, King of the Franks, the father of Charlemagne. The organ was to become a key feature of the Catholic Church Mass and subsequently the non-ecclesiastical, secular music tradition. It gradually evolved into the organ as we know it today.