Delos (Δήλος) was one of the most sacred places of ancient Greece, and one of the most robust trade centers as well. The island undoubtedly owed its success to its superb location at the very center of the Aegean, allowing seafarers to meet it in the middle of their journey as they sailed from the major commercial centers of the Aegean--Athens, Miletos, Corinth, Macedonia, Thassos, Samos, Milos, Rhodes, and Crete, to name a few. Its importance also made it coveted by the most powerful maritime powers that strove for control of its harbors and sanctuary.
There is evidence of habitation in the island that dates back to 3000 BCE, and of elevated importance during the Mycenaean period (1580-1200 BCE). Its reputation as a sacred island began attracting large numbers of devotees, and along with them trade flourished, transforming Delos into a robust commercial port for almost a thousand years after the 8th c. BCE.
Its claim as the birthplace of Apollo gave Delos a strong religious identity that lasted all the way until Byzantine times. In an era when religious festivals were economic engines, attracting thousands of pilgrims and generating healthy economic growth, Delos stood strong at the center of the wealthiest commercial centers and benefited greatly.
Despite being wind-swept and almost barren of vegetation, it had several features that made it conducive to habitation (probably reached 25000 inhabitants by the early 1st century BCE). The island's several harbors and position in the middle of the Cyclades put it on the map of every sailor of antiquity, and the island also had an excellent supply of water from two sources: flowing all year in the small river Poppins and trapped in a layer of limestone that covers a layer of granite below.
Its small size (about 5 x 1.3 km) however made the island vulnerable and easy pray for several powerful maritime powers through the centuries. Naxos and Paros attempted to establish control of Delos early in Archaic period, but it was the Athenians that dominated the island on and off for almost five hundred years. The Athenians initiated two "purifications" of the island. The first one in 540 BCE decreed that all burials within sight of the temple of Apollo be removed, while the second purification in 426/5 BCE removed all burials, and forbade births and deaths on the island. After the Persian wars, starting in 478 BCE, Delos hosted the treasury of the Delian League before its subsequent relocation to the Athenian Acropolis–much to the displeasure of many members of the alliance.
By the end of the 4th century the Hellenic kingdom of Macedonia became the island's protector, and the Delian population doubled with many citizens of other cities settling on the island to take advantage of its position as a strong commercial center. But after the Roman conquest of Greece, the Athenians dominated the island once again and promptly removed all Delians, replacing them with poor Athenians who received pastures on the island by lot. The island continued to enjoy wealth and fame, which led its population to increase.
Over the centuries, Delos was truly a cosmopolitan center with a diverse population that included people from all around the Mediterranean, but in 88 BCE the Romans razed the island during their war with Mithridates (an ally of the Athenians who controlled the island), a calamity Delos never recovered from. Away from the limelight for several centuries, its population dwindled and by the 3d century CE only a small Christian community called it home. Subsequently, Delos was plundered several times in the 8th and 9th centuries and during Ottoman occupation the nearly deserted island became and remained a pirate stronghold. The ancient ruins were also pilfered for marble and stone which were used by the nearby islanders for their own construction needs.
The French School of Archaeology began excavating Delos in 1873. Today Delos is an archaeological site reachable by boat from Mykonos. A small museum among the ruins shelters and exhibits some of the important objects unearthed during the ongoing excavations.
- General views of Delos Archaeological site.
- The Terrace of the Lions
The statues of the lions were dedicated to the Sanctuary of Apollo at the end of the 7th c. or early in the 6th c. BCE. stood as guardians of the Sacred Lake and the Sanctuary. Only four of the lions remain (the number of original lions ranges between nine and nineteen). The ones at the terrace are replicas (first and second photo). The original marble ones are sheltered inside the Archaeological Museum of Delos.
In 1716 one of the lions was taken by Venetians because it reminded them of the lion of Saint Mark. They added a preposterous head to it, and installed it in front of the Arsenal (left) where it can still be seen today.
- The koinon of the Poseidon (left), and the statue of Aphrodite of Delos (or Aphrodite and Pan) which was found in one of the rooms on the south side of the building. The statue of Aphrodite was created between 150 and 125 BCE and it is on permanent exhibit at the National Archaeological Museum of Athens.
- The House of Dionysus with its striking mosaic in the center of its court which depicts the god Dionysus with open wings riding a tiger which wears a necklace of vine and grapes.
- The House of Kleopatra
The sumptuous house was owned by an Athenian, Dioskourides and his wife Kleopatra. The statue replicas are of their likeness.
- The House of the Trident with its exquisite mosaics.
- House interior (left) and general view of the theatre quarter.
- The Theatre Cistern
The cistern collected rain water. Its roof was supported by the eight arches dressed with granite blocks.
- The ancient theatre of Delos
It was built in the 3d century BCE and its spectators had a splendid view of the harbors beyond the orchestra and the Skene. It had a capacity of about 5000 people.
- The House of Masks.
A large complex near a large outdoor cistern. Its interior floor is covered by a beautiful mosaic. In its center, a vignette depicts Dionysus riding a tiger--iconography similar to the mosaic found in the House of Dionysos.
- The House of Dolphins
- The Kynthos Cave
It is mostly a man-made cave in a natural hollow on the rock near the summit of Mt. Cynthus. It is roofed by monumental slabs of granite. It had a statue of Heracles in its center and an altar by its entrance.
- The Temple of Hera (Heraion)
It has a cella and pronaos with two columns in antis on the front facade.
Circa 500 BCE
- The temple of Isis is located in the Sanctuary of the Egyptian Gods. The temple is partially restored
- General view with the House of Hermes (the house with the columns in the middle of the photo).
- The Exedra of Dionysus, or Stoibadeion.
The phallic statues are characteristic symbols of Dionysiac cult.
- The Minoa fountain
It was built in the 6th c. BCE and it is 4 meters deep. The column in the middle supported the roof and dates to the renovations of 166 BCE.
- Agora of the Italians
- The Letoon
- The House of the Lake has a nicely preserved mosaic with simple geometric patterns, while the ancient stucco still remains on parts of its walls.
- What remains of the oldest temple of Apollo (The Poros Temple). It was built by the Athenians in the late 6th c. BCE.
- Ruins of the Temple of the Athenians
It was between the Temple of the Delians and the Poros temple. It was built of Pentelic marble between 425-420 BCE.
- The base of the Colossus of Naxos (left) and the House of the Naxians with two surviving fragments of the Colossal Kouros statue (right)
- The Sacred Way from the south and the Stoa of Philip
- One of the many wells found in the houses in Delos. Note the deep cuts on the marble, made by the long use of rope rubbing against it as inhabitants fetched water with a bucket tied at the end of it.
- Residential buildings
- The aerial view and model of Delos provide some help with orientation within the archaeological site.
Also see: Delos Archaeological Museum