Visiting Delos is one of the best experiences you can have during your time on Mykonos. It is home to one of the most important collections of sculptures in Greece.
The ruins showcase Doric temples, markets, an amphitheater, and houses. It was once a major port and commercial hub in the 1st century BCE.
The Sacred Way
The entrance to the Archaeological Site of Delos is marked by the Sacred Way, the main road on the island. The road leads past several statues, including the ten lion statues that guarded the temple. The original Lions are hosted in the Museum of Delos and one at the National Archaeological Museum of Athens.
When Apollo was born, the Greeks believed that it was a good idea to keep his birthplace safe so that no evil spirit could harm it in the future. This is why Delos was considered a holy site.
In ancient times, the island also became a place of pilgrimage, but its reputation as a sacred island made it an important trading center as well. As a result, it thrived in the 8th century BCE, when Ionian settlers transformed it into an active commercial city.
Delos was a member of the League of the Cycladic Islands, a federal league of the Greek islands that was established in 314 BCE by the Macedonian general and successor of Alexander the Great, Antigonus I Monophthalmus. During this time, magnificent buildings and statues were erected by the Hellenistic dynasties of the Antigonids and Ptolemies on the island.
Its small size (only about five kilometres long and 1.3 kilometres wide) has made the island vulnerable to many power struggles through the centuries. For example, Naxos and Paros unsuccessfully tried to take control of the island in the Archaic period. Eventually, the Athenians took over Delos in 540 BCE and started to “purify” it. In order to do so, they opened every grave, moved all the offerings to the Rhenia islet and forbade births and deaths on the island.
The rocky island of Delos is an ark of history, a reminder of a great era of Greece. It was the heart of one of the most ancient amphictyonic leagues (religious alliances) in the world. Today, it’s an archaeological site and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It has no olive tree groves, orange orchards or pistachio and almond trees, but it’s still a fascinating place to visit.
According to Greek mythology, Leto, mother of the twin gods Apollo and Artemis was unable to give birth on solid ground because Hera her jealous husband wanted to prevent the children from being born. So she searched all over Greece for a safe place to give birth. But the people of each city wouldn’t allow her to be close to their homes and she needed a safe refuge. Eventually, Zeus emerged an island from the sea for her, which later became Delos.
Delos was a major center of religious and commercial activity. The huge complex of buildings included a monumental gateway entrance (propylaea) to the island; temples dedicated to Apollo, Artemis and Zeus; an agora, theater, palaestras and stadium and even a Sacred Lake. One of the most distinctive structures at the site is the Terrace of Lions. The squatting statues were originally about nine to twelve and were believed to be the awakening guardians of the Sacred Way.
The Terrace of Lions
The most distinguishing feature of Delos is a terrace lined with stone lions (the five you see here are replicas). It overlooks the area of the former Sacred Lake, which was supposed to be the birthplace of Apollo and Artemis. It is believed that there were originally between nine and twelve lion statues. Five of them can be seen in the museum, and fragments indicate that there must have been a good number more.
It is thought that the lions were carved by sculptors from Naxos in the 7th century BCE. Stylistically they are characterized by thin, elongated bodies and very detailed limbs. The lions were meant to line and monumentalize a path. It is possible that this was a processional way connecting the temple of Apollo and the north-western quarters with the central shrine and altar.
There is no clear explanation of why lions were chosen to represent this path. One possibility is that they symbolized Apollo, but the lions on Delos are all related to each other, which means it’s unlikely that each lion stood for a separate deity.
Delos was a very important center for religious and political life in antiquity. However, in 88 BCE it was sacked by troops of Mithridates VI Eupator, the king of Pontus, who was at war with Rome. After that, Delos became a ghost town. It was sacked repeatedly throughout the following centuries, and the marble from its ancient structures was pillaged by pirates and foreign invaders.
The Theatre of Delos
The small island of Delos, with its Sacred Harbour, was home to a temple and a community for over a millennium before Olympian Greek mythology made it the birthplace of Apollo and Artemis. The sanctuary attracted pilgrims from all over the Aegean and the island was a rich trading port. Its archaeological remains reflect its cosmopolitan character.
Its small size, however, meant that it was vulnerable to the whims of powerful maritime states. From the Archaic period on, Delos changed hands several times. Naxos and Paros tried to assert control, but it was the Athenians that dominated Delos most of the time until 88 BCE when the Romans plundered the island in revenge for the death of one of their spies on board a Delian ship.
Among the most outstanding monuments of Delos is its ancient theatre. During the excavations in the area of the theatre, any marble architectural members that obstructed the work were moved to the orchestra or into nearby fields without being documented. Consequently, hundreds of unidentified building stones from the theatre remain scattered around the site.
In May 2011, DIAZOMA opened a bank account (the theatre’s “piggy bank”) with the goal of raising funds to preserve this extraordinary monument. The piggy bank is funded mainly through the annual subscriptions of DIAZOMA’s regular members.