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Delos Review

Arrive at the mythical, magical, and magnificent site of Delos (6 nautical miles southwest of Mykonos) and you might wonder how this barren islet, which has virtually no natural resources, became the religious and political center of the Aegean. One answer is that Dhílos—to use the Modern Greek transliteration—provided the safest anchorage for vessels sailing between the mainland and the shores of Asia; another answer is that it had no other use. A third is provided if you climb Mt. Kynthos to see that the isle (which is not more than 5 km long and 1 km wide) is shielded on three sides by other islands. Indeed, this is how the Cyclades—the word means "circling ones"—got their name: they circle around the sacred island.

Delos's amazing saga begins back in the times of myth:

Zeus fell in love with gentle Leto, the Titaness, who became pregnant. When Hera discovered this infidelity, she forbade Mother Earth to give Leto refuge and ordered the Python to pursue her. Finally Poseidon, taking pity on her, anchored the poor floating island of Delos with four diamond columns to give her a place to rest. Leto gave birth first to the virgin huntress Artemis on Rhenea and then, clasping a sacred palm on a slope of Delos's Mt. Kynthos, to Apollo, god of music and light.

By 1000 BC the Ionians, who inhabited the Cyclades, had made Delos their religious capital. Homeric Hymn 3 tells of the cult of Apollo in the 7th century BC. One can imagine the elegant Ionians, whose central festival was here, enjoying the choruses of temple girls—"Delian korai, who serve the Far-Shooter"—singing and dancing their hymn and displaying their graceful tunics and jewelry. But a difficult period began for the Delians when Athens rose to power and assumed Ionian leadership. In 543 BC an oracle at Delphi conveniently decreed that the Athenians purify the island by removing all the graves to Rhenea, a dictate designed to alienate the Delians from their past.

After the defeat of the Persians in 478 BC, the Athenians organized the Delian League, with its treasury and headquarters at Delos (in 454 BC the funds were transferred to the Acropolis in Athens). Delos had its most prosperous period in late Hellenistic and Roman times, when it was declared a free port and quickly became the financial center of the Mediterranean, the focal point of trade, where 10,000 slaves were sold daily. Foreigners from as far as Rome, Syria, and Egypt lived in this cosmopolitan port, in complete tolerance of one another's religious beliefs, and each group built its various shrines. But in 88 BC Mithridates, the king of Pontus, in a revolt against Roman rule, ordered an attack on the unfortified island. The entire population of 20,000 was killed or sold into slavery. Delos never fully recovered, and later Roman attempts to revive the island failed because of pirate raids. After a second attack in 69 BC, Delos was gradually abandoned.

In 1872, the French School of Archaeology began excavating on Delos—a massive project, considering that much of the island's 4 square km (1½ square mi) is covered in ruins. The work continues today. Delos remains dry and shadeless; off-season, the snack bar is often closed; most guards leave on the last boat to Mykonos in the early afternoon. But if on the way to Mykonos you see dolphins leaping (it often happens), you'll know Apollo is about and approves.

On the left from the harbor is the Agora of the Competialists (circa 150 BC), members of Roman guilds, mostly freedmen and slaves from Sicily who worked for Italian traders. They worshipped the Lares Competales, the Roman "crossroads" gods; in Greek they were known as Hermaistai, after the god Hermes, protector of merchants and the crossroads. The Sacred Way, east of the agora, was the route, during the holy Delian festival, of the procession to the Sanctuary of Apollo. The Propylaea, at the end of the Sacred Way, were once a monumental white marble gateway with three portals framed by four Doric columns. Beyond the Propylaea is the Sanctuary of Apollo; though little remains today, when the Propylaea were built in the mid-2nd century BC, the sanctuary was crowded with altars, statues, and temples—three of them to Apollo. Inside the sanctuary and to the right is the House of the Naxians, a 7th- to 6th-century BC structure with a central colonnade. Dedications to Apollo were stored in this shrine. Outside the north wall a massive rectangular pedestal once supported a colossal statue of Apollo (one of the hands is in Delos's Archaeological Museum, and a piece of a foot is in the British Museum). Near the pedestal a bronze palm tree was erected in 417 BC by the Athenians to commemorate the palm tree under which Leto gave birth. According to Plutarch, the palm tree toppled in a storm and brought the statue of Apollo down with it. Odysseus in The Odyssey compares the Phaeacian princess Nausicaa to the palm he saw on Delos, when the island was wetter.

Southeast of the Sanctuary of Apollo are the ruins of the Sanctuary of the Bulls, an extremely long and narrow structure built, it is thought, to display a trireme, an ancient boat with three banks of oars, dedicated to Apollo by a Hellenistic leader thankful for a naval victory. Maritime symbols were found in the decorative relief of the main halls, and the head and shoulders of a pair of bulls were part of the design of an interior entrance. A short distance north of the Sanctuary of the Bulls is an oval indentation in the earth where the Sacred Lake once sparkled. It is surrounded by a stone wall that reveals the original periphery. According to islanders, the lake was fed by the river Inopos from its source high on Mt. Kynthos until 1925, when the water stopped flowing and the lake dried up. Along the shores are two ancient palaestras, buildings for physical exercise and debate. One of the most evocative sights of Delos is the 164-foot-long avenue of the Lions. These are replicas; the originals are in the museum. The five Naxian marble beasts crouch on their haunches, their forelegs stiffly upright, vigilant guardians of the Sacred Lake. They are the survivors of a line of at least nine lions, erected in the second half of the 7th century BC by the Naxians. One, removed in the 17th century, now guards the Arsenal of Venice (though with a later head). Northeast of the palaestras is the gymnasium, a square courtyard nearly 131 feet long on each side. "Gym" means naked in Greek, and here men and boys stayed in shape (and, in those heavily Platonic days, eyed each other). The long, narrow structure farther northeast is the stadium, the site of the athletic events of the Delian Games. East of the stadium site, by the seashore, are the remains of a synagogue built by Phoenician Jews in the 2nd century BC. A road south from the gymnasium leads to the tourist pavilion, which has a meager restaurant and bar. The Archaeological Museum is also on the road south of the gymnasium; it contains most of the antiquities found in excavations on the island: monumental statues of young men and women, stelae, reliefs, masks, and ancient jewelry.<QUERY>Place Box G Look, Don't Touch text near here</QUERY>

Immediately to the right of the museum is a small Sanctuary of Dionysus, erected about 300 BC; outside it is one of the more-boggling sights of ancient Greece: several monuments dedicated to Apollo by the winners of the choral competitions of the Delian festivals, each decorated with a huge phallus, emblematic of the orgiastic rites that took place during the Dionysian festivals. Around the base of one of them is carved a lighthearted representation of a bride being carried to her new husband's home. A marble phallic bird, symbol of the body's immortality, also adorns this corner of the sanctuary. Beyond the path that leads to the southern part of the island is the ancient theater, built in the early 3rd century BC in the elegant residential quarter inhabited by Roman bankers and Egyptian and Phoenician merchants. Their one- and two-story houses were typically built around a central courtyard, sometimes with columns on all sides. Floor mosaics of snakes, panthers, birds, dolphins, and Dionysus channeled rainwater into cisterns below; the best-preserved can be seen in the House of the Dolphins, the House of the Masks, and the House of the Trident. A dirt path leads east to the base of Mt. Kynthos, where there are remains from many Middle Eastern shrines, including the Sanctuary of the Syrian Gods, built in 100 BC. A flight of steps goes up 368 feet to the summit of Mt. Kynthos (after which all Cynthias are named), on whose slope Apollo was born.

The island has no shade, so don't forget to bring a hat, your sunscreen and plenty of water.

    Contact Information

  • Address: Accessible only by boat from Mykonos town, Delos
  • Phone: 22890/22259 archaelogical museum; 22890/22218 Mykonos port (departures for Delos info)
  • Cost: €5
  • Hours: Tues.–Sun. 8–3
  • Website:
  • Location: Delos
Updated: 12-19-2013

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