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Elizabeth Boleman-Herring's Greece: The Thinking Traveler's Guide to Hellas - Tour of Ancient Delos

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Tour of Ancient Delos

Mykonos & DelosTour of Ancient Delos

Delos is an isle with a glorious past but no true present. In stark contrast to hedonistic, populous Mykonos, the nearest port of debarkation for Delos-bound visitors, it is both uninhabited and commercially unsullied; there are no shops, accommodation, hot clubs, or restaurants (unless you count the café adjacent the Archaeological Museum of Delos). Apollo’s birthplace is an arid, sun-starched museum al fresco, strewn with precious but shattered marble. It takes imagination, and an archaeologist’s guide book to the site, to appreciate that life once burgeoned on this tiny strip of land at the heart of the Cyclades. (“Delos: Monuments & Museum,” by Photini Zaphiropoulou, Ephor of Antiquities, is a helpful companion on Delos. The artists’ sketches of the site during its zenith are especially enlightening.)

Modern Pilgrims To Delos

I recommend that “thinking travelers” schedule a half-day guided tour of Delos (Note: the Delos Archaeological Museum is closed Mondays), through theYour captain for the day auspices of my travel agents (My Athens-based travel agents: Mr. Dimitris Gritzalis & Family; “Always En Route Travel”; aei@otenet.gr or dgritzalis@hotmail.com; Tel. 30+210.897.5304, 5, 6; Fax 30+210.897.5382). In fact, my travel agents can arrange all your itineraries (airport or port pick-up when you arrive, better rooms and rates at the hotel of your choice, car rental, and the Delos trip, in addition to much else well before your arrival on Mykonos: do make use of their services). Our own Delos excursion departed from the Old Pier on the waterfront, lasted from 10:15 a.m. till 1:30 p.m. (though there are longer tours), and our 30-Euro fee covered boat tickets, entrance fees, and the services of a charming and erudite Greek guide, Eleni Statha.

Southwest of Mykonos by 2.5 nautical miles, a half-hour by motorized caïque—we took the Orca—Delos is a long, narrow lozenge of land, two square miles in size. Mount Kynthos, more properly a hill, rises in the center of the island to a height of 368 feet, and from this vantage point, once honeycombed with sanctuaries and temples to a plethora of gods, visitors have a good view, on clear, breezy days, of Delos’s neighbors: Mykonos, Tinos, Syros, uninhabited Rheneia, and, sometimes, other Cycladic islands.

Best visited in spring, when winter rains have brought out poppies, lilies, and delicious wild asparagus, by July Delos has baked to a dusty, lizard-enlivened desert of schist and granite, frosted with marble antiquities. In the hot summer months, the intense Meltemi winds can make the tricky crossing from Mykonos an unpleasant experience for the queasy. In whatever season, canny travelers will take along windbreakers, sunscreen, hats, bottles of water, and perhaps a snack.

A Naxian Lion

Serious students of Greek history and archaeology may require several days to explore Delos thoroughly. It is physically impossible to cover all the important areas in the course of only one trip, and the caïques do not wait for stragglers. (Do not miss your boat ‘home,’ as overnighting on Delos is highly discouraged and not a particularly pleasant experience.)

Delos was once called Ortygia, or “Quail Island,” for good reason. Zeus, that notorious womanizer, was as resourceful as he was amorous. The father of the gods metamorphosed himself and his mistress, Leto, daughter of the Titans Coeus and Phoebe, into quails for a very important tryst: their union resulted in the birth of Apollo, god of light and learning, and Artemis, virgin goddess of the hunt.

Hera, Zeus’s longsuffering and vengeful spouse, was undeceived by the feathers, however, and dispatched the deadly serpent Python to hound pregnant Leto “that she should not be delivered in any place where the sun shone.” Hera had not counted on peripatetic undersea islets, it seems.

Fortunately, as Pindar recounts in his famous hymn, at the time of Hera’s wrath the sun did not shine on Delos, an unstable and soggy islet that “was blown by all the winds over the billowed sea.” But as soon as Leto, in the throes of labor, set foot on Delos, four pillars “shod in adamant” sprang up from the seabed and held the skittery little rock in place. Formerly known as “A-delos,” or “the invisible,” the island’s name was changed, after the birth of the god of light, to “De-los,” or “clearly seen.”

As Leto had promised that wherever her luminous child first saw light he would remain and bestow great good fortune, tiny Delos thereafter remained stationary above the waves, and sacred to Apollo.

Inhabited since the 3rd millennium BC, most probably by Carians from Asia Minor, who built huts on the high ground of Mount Kynthos, Delos first came into prominence during the Mycenaean period (1500 to 1100 BC). The Ionians followed in the wake of these settlers, and Delos became an Ionian religious center in the 1st millennium BC.

Both Homer’s “Odyssey” and the Homeric “Hymn to Apollo,” which celebrated the great Delian Festival held here, bear out the fact that by 700 BC Delos was a sacred site. Not to be outdone by the locals, other powers, such as Naxos, Paros, and Samos, erected holy buildings and votive offerings on Delos. Athens, Delos’s most determined rival for political and religious supremacy, carried out the first religious ceremony of purification on the island in 543 BC.

Ancient Theater Delos

Following Persian invasions and the defeat of the Asians, the first Athenian League was formed in 478 BC. The headquarters of this embryonic United Nations was at holy Delos, where the league’s incomparably rich treasury was housed until its removal to the Athenian Acropolis in 454 BC.

A second purification of Delos was imposed by the finicky Athenians in 426-425 BC, when Delians were forbidden to die or give birth on their island, and all their graves were summarily removed to nearby, now desolate, Rheneia.

Delos then entered a new period of political, commercial, and religious dominance. Athens’s General Nikias showed up with a huge bronze palm tree (Apollo was said to have been born under a palm), and the Delian Games were revived at this time. Plutarch later recorded the toppling of the tree in a storm.

The island’s greatest period began in 315 BC, however, when Alexander the Great’s general, Ptolemy I of Egypt, ruled the Aegean, and Delos was granted self-government. During this period, Delos’s reputation garnered it offerings from all over the then-civilized world, and rich shrines to many foreign gods—Serapis, Isis, Anubis, Atargatis—and even a synagogue was erected.

Offerings Of Visitors Past

The Romans came next, in 250 BC; they later made Delos a slave market and commercial center. However, most of the island’s beautiful private homes, with their exquisite mosaic floors, date from this period—Aegean echoes of Pompeii and Herculaneum.

Mithridates, King of Pontus (an ancient kingdom on the south shore of the Black Sea), dealt the Romans and Delos a crushing blow in 88 BC. Pausanias, the famous travel writer, numbered the dead at 20,000. In 69 BC, pirates finished the work Mithridates had begun.

Thereafter, Rome fortified the vulnerable settlement, and Athens once again took up the reins of power, but Delos’s heyday had passed. Invasion after invasion followed. By the end of the 5th century AD, Delos’s name had reverted, aptly, to “A-delos.” Under the Turks, in 1566, the once-holy isle became a pirates’ lair and a source of marble—ground up to make whitewash—and metal for ammunition.

Today, visitors may still appreciate the islet’s former grandeur, though; the industrious French, followed by the Greeks, have since 1837 conducted thorough excavations of the site. The Delos Archaeological Museum (Tel: 22890 22259; open daily 8:00 a.m. till 2:00 p.m.; closed Monday and holidays) on the island houses archaic and classical marbles, pottery, Hellenistic sculture, grave stellai from Rheneia, and artifacts documenting the Delians’ everyday life.

Delian Phalluses On Their Plinths

With guide book in hand, or following your guide, seek out the great phalloi on their plinths (symbols of the god Dionysos); the Terrace of the Lions (some of those erected by the Naxians at the end of the 7th century BC—though these are just casts: the real cats have been moved into the museum); the 3rd-century-BC theater; the sanctuary district; the famous mosaic floors (some of which may yet be open to the public); the 2nd-century-BC Temple of Isis; and the Sacred Cave.

A sense of the mystery of the place still prevails: this island was a sacred shrine of pilgrimage for over a thousand years.

Don’t become too engrossed in your maps and reading materials: the caïques depart for Mykonos—and the 21st century—on schedule.

Phallocentric Finds At The Delos Museum