Located two miles from the island of Mykonos is the small, barren island of Delos, five square km in size, and originally known as Ortygia (Quail Island). It contains an archaeological site which, according to Greek mythology, was the birth place of the god Apollo and his twin sister Artemis. These were the children of Zeus by his mistress, Leto. Zeus’s jealous wife, Hera, banished Leto from earth but she was given sanctuary on Delos by Poseidon, where she gave birth to the twins.
Delos is situated in the centre of The Cyclades, an archipelago of some 2,200 small islands in the southern part of the Aegean Sea.
The small rocky island, has been inhabited since 2500 BC. In the 9th century BC it was colonised by the Ionians who made it their religious capital. It became a sanctuary to Apollo and was one of the most sacred places of the ancient Greeks, second only in importance to Delphi. The site was covered with an assortment of temples and sanctuaries dedicated to a variety of gods.
Because of Delos’ importance as a sacred religious centre, no mortal births or deaths were allowed to take place there. Anyone at risk of either was taken to the nearby island of Rineia.
After the Persian Wars (499 to 449 BC), the island became the meeting place for the Delian League, an alliance of Greek city-states led by Athens, which was founded in 478 BC to liberate eastern Greek cities from Persian rule. The League maintained its treasury there until 454 BC when it was moved to Athens by Pericles.
The island’s importance grew due to its being centrally located on the sea route between the Greek mainland and Asia, and because of its excellent harbours, protected as they were by the islands of the Cyclades. Delos reached its most affluent period during the late Hellenistic and early Roman times. In 167 BC it was declared a free port, which increased its prosperity even more by bringing many foreigners to the city, who established many shrines and temples.
Things were to change in 88 BC when Delos was sacked and looted by Mithridates, the King of Pontus, during his war against Rome. This assault resulted in the entire population, which was around 20,000 at that time, either being killed or sold into slavery, and the city being razed to the ground. It was partially rebuilt by the Romans but in 69 BC it was once again attacked, this time by pirates, after which Delos fell into decline and was eventually abandoned.
Over subsequent years, the island was repeatedly looted of its treasures until 1872 when formal excavation work was begun, work that is still going on today.
The ruins of ancient Delos are on the western side of the island and extend north and south of the harbour along the coast. It consists of four main areas. The first, the Maritime Quarter, is located next to the harbour and was the main residential area when the city was at its peak.
Walking inland from the harbour, one comes to the Agora of the Competaliasts, a marketplace of Roman merchants, dating to 150 BC. At its centre is a round shrine with a square base, upon which offerings were placed. Near to this and dating from the same time, is the Ionic Naiskos (temple) with a marble offertory box decorated with two snakes.
The second main area, the Theatre District, lies southeast from the harbour, and contains the theatre, which could hold 5,500 people. Leading from the theatre is a path that climbs up the 370 feet of Mount Kinthos. Halfway up the mountain is the Grotto of Hercules which is covered with a number of stone slabs.
In the centre of Delos is the third main area, the Sanctuary of Apollo, which was the ancient heart of Delos and was, and still is, its most important area. It once contained several temples, three of which were dedicated to Apollo. In this area there is also a small tourist centre which includes a restaurant and bar. Next to the restaurant is the museum which houses many of the artefacts that have been found at the site.
To reach the Sanctuary of Apollo, one walks along the Sacred Way leading from the Agora. The Way is 45 feet wide, paved and lined with marble bases that once supported statues and monuments. Walking the Sacred Way, visitors take the same route that was used in ancient times by visiting pilgrims and for the annual religious procession.
On the coastal side of the Sacred Way is the Stoa of Philip. A stoa is a portico, usually walled at the back and having a front colonnade, designed to provide a sheltered promenade. It was a gift to Apollo from Philip V of Macedon in 200 BC, who was the then ruler of the Cyclades. It had 16 Doric columns of grey marble, of which only one still stands. The architrave with its dedicatory inscription has survived. On the right side of the Sacred Way is the South Stoa, built in the 3rd century BC.
The entrance to the sanctuary from the Sacred Way was marked by the Propylaea, the monumental gateway, built in 150 BC, with its three portals of white marble and supported by four Doric columns.
The Sanctuary of Apollo contained a number of temples although little remains of them today other than a few columns and stones scattered around the ground. The Great Temple of Apollo, measuring 29.6m by 13.4m with six rows of 13 columns was begun around 477 BC, but was not finished due to the treasury of the Delian League being transferred to Athens in 454 BC, although it was finally completed in the 200’s BC.
Located next to the Great Temple was the Temple of the Athenians which was built between 425 and 417 BC. 17.8 m by 11.4 m in size it has six Doric columns on the façade. It contained a semi-circular pedestal made of Eleusinian marble which held seven statues. It is believed that the temple housed the Archaic statue of Apollo.
The third great temple in this area is the Porinos Naos, which was where the treasury of the Delian League was originally kept.
At the north end of the site is the fourth large area, the Lion District, so named due to its Terrace of the Lions dating to the 7th century BC. The Terrace contained nine lions made of Naxian marble which looked out onto the Sacred Lake and guarded the sanctuary. The lions seen today are replicas which replaced the originals, five of which are displayed in the on-site museum.
The Sacred Lake, which the lions looked over, was where the sacred swans and geese of Apollo were kept. In the centre is a palm tree that was planted in honour of the one Leto is said to have clutched while giving birth to Apollo and Artemis. The lake was drained in 1926.
Delos contains the ruins of numerous villas, many of which contained extremely fine mosaics, some of which can still be seen. For example, the House of the Masks with its mosaic of Dionysus riding a panther, the House of Dionysus containing a mosaic of the god, and the House of the Dolphins, so named due to its mosaic of dolphins.
Excavations of the site started in 1872 by the French School of Athens and they continue with that process. Delos became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1990.