Delos is a huge and impressive archaeological site. It is a place that brings you back in time and connects you with Greek mythology.
The Apollonian sanctuary reached its peak of glory during the Archaic and Classical periods. In that period wealthy Hellenes paid tribute to the gods by building temples and other monuments.
The Terrace of Lions
Delos was one of the smallest islands in the Cyclades and it became an important religious, commercial and political centre in ancient Greece. It was also a major shipbuilding port in the Classical period and it is still considered to be an important archaeological site today.
The most famous feature of the sacred topography on Delos is the Terrace of Lions. It was dedicated by the people of Naxos to Apollo at some point before 575 bc and it originally had nine to 16 squatting, snarling marble felines. They are oriented toward the Sacred Lake and they create a ceremonial avenue comparable to those of Egyptian sanctuaries.
According to classical mythology, Leto, the wife of Zeus and mother of the twins Apollo and Artemis, was looking for a safe place where she could give birth to her children. She finally found the barren island of Delos. But the birth of her twins was difficult. This was because Hera kidnapped Eileithyia, the goddess of childbirth. So it was left to her daughter Artemis to help her through nine days of labor and delivery until the baby gods emerged.
The Terrace of Lions was once the entrance to the Sanctuary of Apollo. In earliest times, boats landed here not in the Sacred Harbour (which was not yet built) but in the Bay of Skardana to the north of the Terrace. This older entry route first passed beneath the gaze of the lions and then towards the Temple of Leto and the sanctuaries of Apollo.
The Temple of Apollo
A UNESCO world heritage site, Delos is an ark of history, floating lazily on the waters of the Aegean Sea just a few miles away from cosmopolitan Mykonos. Today very few of the temples and shrines that once dotted the island remain, but what remains is still a sight to behold.
Upon entering Delos via the Sacred Way, you’ll first come across the imposing Terrace of Lions (replicas, as the originals are held at the Delos Archaeological Museum) lining the path to the Temple of Apollo. The surviving incarnation of the temple dates back to around 600 BC and was designed to inspire, awe and intimidate worshippers.
According to myth, the twin gods Artemis and Apollo were born to Leto, daughter of a Titan, and Zeus, King of the Olympian gods. Hera, Zeus’ jealous wife, hated Leto and banned her from giving birth on solid ground. She was forced to seek refuge on the small island that appeared in the sea and, with the help of Eileithyia, the goddess of childbirth and midwifery, delivered twins.
Apollo would go on to become the sun, light and music; while his sister Artemis became the goddess of chastity, hunting and the moon. The two siblings were also immortal and could never die or be killed, a protection offered to the people of Delos.
The Theatre of Delos
Despite being one of the most important archaeological sites in Greece, Delos remains an almost unknown treasure to many tourists. Yet, the island is a place of enchantment and it holds mythical stories which are bound to capture the visitor’s imagination.
According to Greek mythology, Zeus created the island of Delos to be a sanctuary where his wife Leto could give birth to her twins Apollo and Artemis. Because of this, the island became sacred and nobody could be born or die on it, making it a place of spiritual purity.
After the destruction of Corinth by the Romans, Delos took over its role as a commercial centre and became the main focus of trade with the East and later it also served as a cult centre for Apollo and Artemis. However, its population and building activity waned dramatically after the assaults by Mithridates VI of Pontus (r. 88–69 BCE) during the Mithridatic Wars with Rome.
The Theatre of Delos, which was built in 314 BCE and completed 70 years later, is an impressive monument with a capacity for up to 7000 spectators. It consists of a koilon, or cavea, supported by a marble retaining wall and accessed either through the parodoi on both sides of the semi-circular orchestra or from the lower section via a passageway.
The Agora of Hermaists
After a short ride in the boat, you will arrive at the sacred harbor of Delos. To the right of the pier you will see the Agora of Hermaists (in Greek, Hermaistai) and two shrines dedicated to Hermes and Maia. The ruins of the Agora date from the 6th century B.C. This open-space marketplace was a center for business and commercial associations of people from different regions.
The lion statues that flanked the avenue were donated by members of the Hermaists. On one of the pillars there are two fragments from a marble plaque with the names: Lucius Veratius son of Gaius, Lucius Volusius son of Publius, Aulus Cerrinius son of Lucius, and Zenodoros Maecius son of Quintus.
Apollo and Artemis adored their mother, Leto, and she was very protective of them. For this reason, they would often avenge her against those who wronged her. Among the many stories of their vengeance was that of the giant Tityus who tried to rape her in a forest near Delphi. She called out her children’s names and they rained down arrows on the offender, killing him instantly. Zeus then consigned the monster to the underworld forever.
Delos reached the height of its glory during the Archaic and Classical periods, when Hellenes from all over the Aegean flocked to the holy island to worship Apollo and Artemis. After the destruction of Corinth by Rome in 146 BC Delos replaced Corinth as Greece’s premier trading center and it remained an important place for commercial activity until the mid-first century B.C.