The remains of ANCIENT DELOS (Dhílos), the Cyclades’ sole UNESCO Heritage Site, manage to convey the past grandeur of this small, sacred isle a few kilometres west of Mýkonos. The ancient town lies on the west coast on flat, sometimes marshy ground that rises in the south to Mount Kýnthos.
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Old Delos Days
Delos’s ancient fame arose because Leto gave birth to the divine twins Artemis and Apollo here, although the island’s fine, sheltered harbour and central position in the Aegean did nothing to hamper development from around 2500 BC. When the Ionians colonized the island about 1000 BC it was already a cult centre, and by the seventh century BC it had also become a major commercial and religious port. Unfortunately Delos attracted the attention of Athens, which sought dominion over this prestigious island; the wealth of the Delian Confederacy, founded after the Persian Wars to protect the Aegean cities, was harnessed to Athenian ends, and for a while Athens controlled the Sanctuary of Apollo. Athenian attempts to “purify” the island began with a decree (426 BC) that no one could die or give birth on Delos – the sick and the pregnant were shipped to the neighbouring island of Rínia – and culminated in the simple expedient of banishing the native population.
Delos recovered in Roman times and reached its peak of prosperity in the third and second centuries BC, after being declared a free port by its Roman overlords; by the start of the first century BC, its population was around 25,000. In the end, though, its undefended wealth brought ruin: first Mithridates, of Pontus (88 BC), then the pirate Athenodorus (69 BC) plundered the treasures, and the island never recovered since.
As you disembark from the boat, the Sacred Harbour is on your left, the Commercial Harbour on your right and straight ahead lies the Agora of the Competaliasts. The Competaliasts were Roman merchants who worshipped the Lares Competales, the guardian spirits of crossroads; offerings to Hermes would once have been placed in the middle of the agora (market square), their positions now marked by one round and one square base.
Sacred Way and Sanctuary of Apollo
The Sacred Way leads north from the far left corner of the Agora of the Competaliasts. Formerly lined with statues and the grandiose monuments of rival kings, walk up it to reach the three marble steps of the Propýlaia leading into the Sanctuary of Apollo. On your left is the Stoá of the Naxians, while against the north wall of the House of the Naxians, to the right, a huge statue of Apollo (c.600 BC) stood in ancient times; parts of it can be seen behind the Temple of Artemis to the left. In 417 BC the Athenian general Nikias led a procession of priests across a bridge of boats from Rínia to dedicate a bronze palm tree whose circular granite base you can still see. Three Temples to Apollo stand in a row to the right along the Sacred Way: the massive Delian Temple, the Athenian, and the Porinos, the earliest, dating from the sixth century BC. To the east stands the Sanctuary of Dionysus with its colossal marble phallus.
Northwest of the Sanctuary of Dionysus, behind the small Letóön temple, is the huge Agora of the Italians, while on the left are replicas of the famous lions, their lean bodies masterfully executed by Naxians in the seventh century BC to ward off intruders who would have been unfamiliar with the fearful creatures. Of the original lions, three have disappeared and one – looted by Venetians in the seventeenth century–adorns the Arsenale in Venice. The remaining originals are in the site museum whose nine rooms include a marble statue of Apollo, mosaic fragments and an extensive collection of phallic artefacts. Opposite the lions, tamarisk trees ring the site of the Sacred Lake, where Leto gave birth, clinging to a palm tree. On the other side of the lake is the City Wall, built – in 69 BC – too late to protect the treasures.
Bear right from the Agora of the Competaliasts and you enter the residential area, known as the Theatre Quarter. The remnants of impressive private mansions are now named after their colourful main mosaic – Dionysus, Trident, Masks and Dolphins. The theatre itself seated no fewer than 5500 spectators; just below it and structurally almost as spectacular is a huge underground cistern with arched roof supports. Behind the theatre, a path leads towards the Sanctuaries of the Foreign Gods, serving the immigrant population. It then rises steeply up Mount Kýnthos for a Sanctuary of Zeus and Athena with spectacular views out to the surrounding islands. Near its base, a small side path leads to the Sacred Cave, a rock cleft covered with a remarkable roof of giant stone slabs – a Hellenistic shrine to Hercules.