Everything about the Aegean Sea and its enchanting islands is legendary. At the very center of the Aegean lies the small windswept island of Delos. It is home to no one and overnight stays are prohibited. The moment our small boat reached this ancient town, now a UNESCO world heritage site, we left the present behind. The entire island of Delos is an archaeological site. For the next few hours, Amarilis, our captivating storytelling guide transported us centuries back to the glory days and walked us through the magnificent city it once was.
Delos is bewildering when one compares its small size to its immense history. This small rocky island near Mykonos (2.05 miles long and 1.3 miles wide) is one of the most important mythological, historical and archeological sites in Greece. For ancient Greeks it was considered the most sacred of all islands because it was the birthplace of immortals. The myth is something out of a dramatic Novela. According to Greek mythology, Hera found out that her husband Zeus’ lover Leto had become pregnant. Hera, known for her jealousy, was infuriated and banned Leto, strictly forbidding any land to accept her. Leto was soon to give birth and became increasingly desperate until Zeus turned to his brother Poseidon, the god of the sea, for help. Poseidon miraculously created a small island with his trident. It was named Delos. Leto arrived on the island and gave birth to twins. First, Artemis, the goddess of the hunt, was born and then she helped her mother during the birth of the sun god Apollo.
Throughout the centuries Delos would be controlled by many different powers but early in the Archaic period the Athenians dominated for almost 500 years. As the birthplace of immortals, The Athenians implemented “purifications” for the island in an attempt to render the island fit for the proper worship of the gods. All burials within sight of the temple of Apollo must be removed and no mortal would ever be allowed to be born or die on this island. Women on the brink of childbirth and people close to dying would be carried to the neighbouring island of Rineia.
Located across the road from the now dry lake where legend places the birth of Apollo and Artemis is the Terrace of the Lions. The original row of either 12 or up to 16 stone lions was built around 600 BCE in honor of Apollo. The lions are facing east towards the Sacred Lake of Delos where Greek scholars of the time believed Apollo and his sister had been born. The lions seemed to have been placed in a position to either symbolically guard the site, or to simply inspire a sense of divine power to travelers on their way to Apollo’s shrine in the area. We strolled by the once sacred location but the lion statues are marble replicas. The original lions can be seen in the small Archeological Museum of Delos along with many other artifacts.
Its reputation as a sacred island and its idyllic location at the very center of the Aegean attracted large numbers of pilgrims and along with them trade flourished. Not only was Delos one of the most sacred places of ancient Greece, it was also the greatest commercial trade center of the world for almost a thousand years.
Delos was a thriving cosmopolitan center with a diverse population that included people from all over the Mediterranean. Wealthy merchants, bankers and ship-owners from all over the world settled in Delos. They then hired builders, artists and craftsmen to build magnificent houses, richly decorated with mosaic floors whose splendor is visible to this day. Home to more than 30,000 people, the city went into decline after it was looted and razed in two separate attacks; residents gradually left the island, and eventually Delos was abandoned completely and almost forgotten.
Strolling through Delos is like walking through history itself. The excavations were initiated by the French School of Athens in 1872 and continue to this day. Archeologist discovered beautiful mosaics, market squares, sculptures, and remains of what used to be magnificent ancient buildings.
There is so much to see and so much more to discover. Make sure to wear comfortable walking shoes and a hat. Also make sure to bring water. It is very hot and there is no shade. Visitors can explore on their own but I highly suggest a tour guide. A good tour guide will captivate your imagination and help you relive the entire history of this island from its rise to its fall. This quiet island has a lot to say and we were mesmerized by her story.