When we started looking at activities in Greece, Delos was my number one non-negotiable choice. I always loved the myths surrounding Artemis and Apollo, and visiting the place where the Greeks believed the twin god and goddess were born was instantly fascinating to me.
First of all, the entire island of Delos is an archaeological site. There are no true permanent residents (except the island cats), though there are permanent residences that house the historians, scientists, and archaeologists currently working at the site. 98% of the people we saw on the island were tourists that had been ferried in from Mykonos, like ourselves.
You could easily take a day and explore the island of Delos on your own. The site is set up in such a way that there are plaques at all the notable stops, and the city itself is a maze of curiosities.
Our tour guide took us first into the city of Delos, where we were able to observe the findings of various homes and merchant shops. In one location, we were shown an artifact that appeared to be an ancient fish cleaning table. In the House of the Trident, we were able to observe the beautiful restored columns, recreation of the floor mosaic… and even an ancient indoor bathroom. The ancients in Delos had their own kind of underground plumbing, thanks to the influence of the Minoans (who we spoke about a bit at Knossos).
The city itself was built rising on a hill. Nestled past ruined homes and an impressive cistern, we came to an outdoor amphitheater. This ancient theatre of Delos took over seventy years to build and excavation on it didn’t begin until the late nineteenth century. Excavation of the site was sloppy – stones were removed from the area and scattered around it unlabeled, which makes it nearly impossible to identify which stones were discovered where to establish a fuller historic portrait of the site and the city surrounding.
The koilon seated approximately 6,500 people arranged in a semi circle. Seats were backless except those of the priests, and there is a trough dig between the seats and the moat to allow for water drainage. This particular theatre is rare in that it is one of the few in the ancient world that is made entirely of marble. In recent years, a proposal has been approved to restore the theatre to some aspect of its former glory, which is really exciting! Perhaps in another decade visitors will be able to see recreations of ancient Greek theatre in this location.
Back near the docks, the Portico of Philip V stands enshrouded in construction platforms as restorations take place. One of the sad things about a beautiful open air museum like Delos is that it is under the constant threat of the elements. There are several places on Delos that are either undergoing restoration, or approved and awaiting restoration. I’ll probably talk about this several times as it’s a common concern surrounding ancient ruins, but there are different areas of thought among historians regarding restorations like the ones at Delos. One one hand, the modern materials ensure the site’s integrity while realizing its original grandeur, but on the other introduction of these materials contaminates the original site and often times impresses modern perceptions on to the ancient pieces.
I’m of a subset that enjoys the restorations because I feel they breathe new life into old things, and revitalize the story. I am very much an historian because I want to learn and collect humanity’s stories.
Probably the most famous site from Delos these days is the Terrace of the Lions. The ones outdoors are replicas – if you want to see the real ones, the seven of them can be found in the Archaeological Museum of Delos. Another was taken in the 1600s by the Venetians to guard the Venetian Arsenal. The fate of the last four remains unknown.
In their heyday, the Terrace of the Lions would have been a magnificent guard. They face the sacred lake, overlooking the birthplace of Apollo. As an aside, one thing I learned during my trip to Greece is that Ancient Greeks adored and revered Apollo highly… but Artemis was more of a footnote. The God of the Sun was more important than the Goddess of the Moon, which from an historical and agricultural standpoint makes sense (the sun is pretty important).
While the full guard no longer stands over the lake, and the lake itself has been drained, we did find that the island of Delos in general has its own kind of little lion guard. That is to say, there are quite a few cats perusing the island. They’re all given water by the archaeologists and they looked healthy. They were also extremely friendly to tourists on the island.
Matt and I always make a point of looking for “island cats” when we travel to islands. This started in Bermuda on our honeymoon when we discovered a friendly kitty hanging out outside the Crystal Caves. On Delos, we saw six different cats.
We didn’t have the time, energy, or ideal weather conditions (it was HOT the week we were in Greece) to explore more than about a quarter of Delos. Looking at overhead maps, there are so many things I would have liked to see if we had more time. I think Delos really takes a full day if you want to see the best of it – plan for at least eight hours.
One of the things that would have been amazing to see was the restored Temple of Isis. Up on the hill, this temple is dedicated to Isis, the Egyptian goddess. It’s beautiful to see this temple nestled among all the other ones celebrating Greek gods. There is another notable building in Delos as well that has been labeled a synagogue, indicating a Jewish community lived on the island. While historians dispute whether or not the building was actually a synagogue (evidence is scarce one way or the other), there are inscriptions and references that indicate Samaritans, at least, were on the island.
While I’m sure not all was perfect and peaceful between the communities, it’s wonderful to see so many religions folded together in one place during ancient times without historical reference of holy wars or anything of the like.
While there may not have been a lot of religious turmoil in ancient times, we certainly know that there was societal divides. Most notable of these are between the various city-states, but more immediately relevant in Delos were the separations of the social hierarchy.
Looking into buildings like the house of Cleopatra (not Cleopatra VII of Egypt) we see a large open room with columns and two commissioned statues – one of Cleopatra and one of her husband Dioscorides. The house itself contains twelve rooms which surrounded two open courtyards. Wealthy citizens draped their homes in stunning mosaics and frescos and commissioned statues just as these to symbolize their importance.
There were many reasons for the fall of Delos. On one hand, you could blame the destruction on Syrian king Mithridates VI or because it was ransacked by pirates. Realistically, the fall of the sacred island started many years before that. Like so many sad tales in our time, the fall of Delos can be attributed to human greed and privilege.
In approximately 166 BCE, the Romans who held the port of Delos seceded it to the Athenians, who kicked out most of its inhabitants. Instead, this once beautiful cosmopolitan site became the center of the Sicilian slave trade. By the end of the first century, central trade ports had changed and Delos lost importance. As an island that imported all its necessities and did not allow inheritance (it was forbidden for anyone to be born or die on the island), its loss of relevance as a trade center sparked Delos’s decline. Its true descent began in the second century, and by the eighth, the island was completely abandoned.
These days, Delos is considered a UNESCO World Heritage site. It was attributed in 1990 and is noted to be “exceptionally extensive and rich”. Because it is an island that offers no natural resources and since its treasures were drained by Athens to build the Parthenon, there has been little interest in Delos until modernity when archaeological efforts began. Despite earthquakes, storms, and general erosion, Delos remains impressive.
Mykonos is a popular Greek destination, and should you find yourself on the island, I cannot recommend enough jumping on the ferry to Delos and taking in the history that is being excavated more and more each day. It’s an unusual historical site in both its extensiveness and its preservation, and one of the coolest places I ever have been… and probably will ever go.
Next week, we’ll be exploring Olympia and its Archaeological Museum!
Have you ever visited the remains of an ancient city? If so – which one? I’m dying to hear about all your adventures in the comments!