The Sacred Island of Delos

One of the most memorable and fascinating experiences to be had during a visit to Mykonos is not actually on Mykonos, but a thirty-minute boat ride away…On the sacred island of Delos.

If you are the type to believe in ghosts, then you’ll agree they must be here. The millennia-old history of Delos is filled with the drama, angst and spirit of the ancient Mediterranean human experience. Delos was once the abode of powerful gods, a place of religious reverence and hard political struggle, a playground for the fabulously wealthy, an important port-of-call for Aegean seafarers and the scene of untold human misery, as the region’s central market and clearinghouse for human chattel, bought and sold in iron restraints.

The stark contrasts that are characteristic of Delos and its landscape are among the first impressions to strike a visitor approaching the island. In springtime one is faced with the port’s distinctive, barren scenery with stone-built foundations stretching up and away on surrounding slopes, yet visible here and there among the bleached walls or in dense patches covering open ground are vibrant, colorful wildflowers in shades of yellow, purple and red. Some roofless, low-lying ruins near the residential Hill Quarter become weedy, seasonal ponds where frogs croak loudly, calling to one another. Verdant, broad-leafed fig trees, also drawn to pockets of moisture, sprout from deep, rain-filled cisterns, courtyard wells, and the narrow, overgrown banks of the Inopos, an ancient stream that still continues to flow stealthily from the prominence of Mt. Kynthos, just beyond the theater, down through the ruined city. In the summer, Delos radiates with the extraordinary, lauded light, but also with intense heat exacerbated by the lack of available shade. Hardly a single tree can be found anywhere on the archaeological site, a fact that compels visitors to seek to shelter beneath their own parasols or, for those less well prepared, in a silver of shadow beside a house wall. In these conditions, Delos is both a feast and a torture – just as it must have been more than thousand years ago, when affluent merchants lolled within their breezy, portico-shaded courtyards decorated with finely-laid mosaic floors, while, somewhere below their hillside villas, slaves collected from throughout the Greek East shuffled to the auction block across the baking stones of the open-air markets.

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A primary reason behind Delos’ importance in antiquity was the island’s geographical position at the center of the Aegean Sea, where it became not only a prosperous, international emporium, but a clash-point between eastern and western powers and, in later times, the desolate haunt of crusaders, pirates, and eventually, antiquarians. Since, 1873, archaeologists from the French School at Athens, in collaboration with the Greek government, have excavated large areas of the island’s port city. Particularly intriguing are the maze-like pathways and narrow lanes, onto which opened hundreds, perhaps thousands, of doorways leading to the houses and shops of the city’s former residents.

Delos has too much to see: the remains of numerous temples, altars, colonnaded marketplaces, houses, palaestrae, a gymnasium, a theater and a stadium. For an unforgettable panorama, of this magnificent site, you should climb nearby Mt. Kynthos. From the top, you can look down on much of this, while beyond, in the blue expanse of the sea, you can make out the neighboring islands: Rhenea to the west, Tinos to the north, Mykonos to the northeast and Naxos and Paros to the south.

First and foremost, Delos was home to a religious sanctuary, sacred to Apollo and his sister Artemis, who were reported in myth to have been born here. Their mother, Leto, and several key Delian landmarks are celebrated in the Third Homeric Hymn (early 6th c. BC) “… Rejoice, blessed Leto, for you bore glorious children…as you rested against the great mass of the Cynthian hill hard by a palm tree by the streams of Inopus…” The palm was an unusual tree in ancient Greece and specially revered in Delos – another arrival from afar, conveyed to the island on sea-going ships that were the life blood of Delos. In the first century BC, Roman visitors, including the orator and statesman Cicero, could still see “Leto’s” palm tree standing beside the Sacred Lake. Today, a symbolic palm continues to mark the landscape, although the adjacent lake is now long gone, filled in over a century ago as a preventive measure against malaria.

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Delos’ rise to great economic power and prominence occurred relatively late in history. Limited evidence of a Mycenaean presence during the Late Bronze Age (latter half of 2nd millennium BC) has been discovered in the port area, but the Delos we know today began to emerge in the early centuries of the Iron Age, especially after 800 BC. The island’s sanctuary quickly became a coveted headquarters of religious authority, second only to Delphi in ancient Greece; control over it was similarly contested by powerful neighbors which, in this case, were Naxos, Paros and Athens.

The Naxians underscored their particular dominance with the now-iconic row of white marble, dedicatory lions (late 7th c. BC), standing just west of the sacred lake. Within the Apollo sanctuary proper, near the port, they erected further monuments, including the colossal statue of Apollo (590-580 BC); an L-shaped stoa (colonnaded walkway) that helped to define the sacred space (ca. 550-500 BC); and the Oikos of the Naxians (ca. 575 BC), which may have served either as the first temple of Apollo, a ceremonial dining hall or a storage space for sacred items and valuable dedicatory offerings.

Source: John Leonard, “The Abode of the Gods”, Greece is Mykonos, Summer 2016 Issue