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The Island of Delos: History and Sites

August 12, 2018

The archaeological site of Delos is a protected entire island near Mykonos in the Cyclades. Delos is very closely tied to Apollo and Artemis and was once a huge trade center. Now, the island sits in ruin and is visited by 100,000 people each year as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The Island of Delos, Greece

Mythology

In Greek mythology, the twin gods Apollo and Artemis. Apollo and Artemis were the children of Zeus (a god) and Leto (a Titan), which made Hera (the wife of Zeus) very angry. Hera was so jealous of Leto that she had all the lands shun Leto. Desperate for a place to give birth, Leto came to Delos, which didn’t attach to the ocean floor and, therefore, wasn’t land. In some versions of the myth, Zeus had Poseidon create Delos as a safe haven for Leto. Poseidon’s action is where Delos gets its name, as “Delos” roughly means “appearance”.

Delos was a very sacred place in the ancient world since it was the birthplace of Apollo and Artemis. The island is so sacred that no mortal is allowed to be born or die on the island; women nearing childbirth and people near death would have to travel to nearby islands!

Apollo, the god of light, had a very large cult following and Delos became a sanctuary to him. Each year, the Panēgyris, games in honor of Apollo, occurred. Every 5 years, the Delia festival for Apollo, which included games, took place. Winners of these games climbed Mount Kynthos to be crowned.

Artemis, Dionysus, Serapis, Hermes, and Cabeiri were also worshiped on the island. The Egyptian goddess Isis even has a temple on the island, as she would give worshipers good health and fortune and protect sailors. This wide array of gods worshiped illustrates how diverse the island’s population was!

History

Inhabitation of Delos began in the 3000s BC. Delos peaked as a major cult center between 900 and 100 BC, with the Temple of Apollo being built in the 900s. Delos relied heavily on trade to boost the economy, as crops were hard to grow in the climate. The island took off as a major trade center after 167 BC, when it was declared as a free port. As a trade center, wealthy tradesmen from all over decided to settle on the island, building spacious homes with extravagant frescos and mosaics.

The island was twice looted by pirates (once in 88 BC and once in 69 BC), with population decline beginning soon after. The structures on Delos fell to ruins until the 1870s, when archaeological excavations began.

The Island of Delos, Greece

What You’ll See

Delos is full of religious, public, and private structures. The island is home to the iconic Terrace of the Lions, where 5 of the original 9 stone lions still stand. You’ll also see the Temple of the Delians, the largest of the 3 temples dedicated to Apollo on Delos. A Temple to Isis, which has a statue of the goddess inside, is found on one of the islands foothills. A Doric style Temple of Hera was built around 500 BC, with artifacts recovered from the temple on display in the museum. Finally, you’ll see the Stoivadeion, a huge, phallic-shaped statue to Dionysus.

Situated around the island are a number of public spaces. The Agora, one of the main Delian markets, is located near the Sacred Harbor and includes a temple dedicated to Hermes, as well as two marble monuments for the god. A large fountain, known as the Minoan Fountain, was a major water source for many Delians.

As a major port, wealthy tradesmen moved to the island and built grand homes. One of these homes was the House of Dionysus, named for the mosaic floor depicting Dionysus riding a panther. The House of Masks, the House of Dolphins, and the House of Tridents also have grand mosaic floors. A large Kouros statue sits next to the House of the Naxians, which dates back to the 6th century BC. A wealthy couple lived in the House of Kleopatra, with (now) headless statues depicting their likeness. Finally, there’s the Establishment of the Poseidoniasts from Beirut, a club house where Syrian men could worship their gods and protect their business interests. The Establishment, which dates back to the 2nd century BC, housed several temples dedicated to Poseidon, Hercules, and Rome.

Visit

Getting to Delos is a BIT of an experience. Since the whole island is a protected site, you have to ferry from one of the islands nearby (I went from Mykonos) and plan an entire day around visiting. A ferry trip from Mykonos to Delos takes around half an hour and costs around 20. The ferry usally runs around 4 trips each day. You can also book a number of guided tours for Delos, many of which include travel to and from the island. These tours start at 50€. 

The island is open during the summer months (which runs from April 4 to October 31 in 2018!). Admission to Delos and the island’s museum costs 12€ (6€ if you’re a student, teacher, or over 65).

I hope you enjoyed this post on Delos! Check back next Sunday to discover another archaeological site!

xoxo,

KB

PS: Be sure to check out my previous Site Sunday posts on the Acropolis and the Theatre of Dionysus Eleuthereus! Also, give my Guide to the Greek Mainland and Cyclades a read if you’re planning a trip to this gorgeous country.

Visiting the Island of Delos, Greece
Visiting the Island of Delos, Greece

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