Archaeological Site of Delos

Situated just two miles from Mykonos, the island of Delos was one of the most important sacred sites in ancient Greece filled with temples dedicated to the gods. It is now an extremely interesting and important archaeological site.

The island was populated since the 3rd millennium BC and in ancient times it served as a religious centre and a port. Encircled by three islands – the Cyclades – and conveniently located between mainland Greece and the Asian coast, Delos’ harbours were always bustling.

Delos was the birthplace of Artemis and Apollo, the twin offspring of Zeus and Leto. According to Greek mythology, when Leto became pregnant Hera, Zeus’ jealous wife, banished her from earth, but Poseidon rescued her and gave her Delos as a place to give birth in peace. In the Homeric Hym to Delian Apollo, Leto addresses the island in desperation:

Delos, if you would be willing to be the abode of my son Phoebus Apollo and make him a rich temple --; for no other will touch you, as you will find: and I think you will never be rich in oxen and sheep, nor bear vintage nor yet produce plants abundantly. But if you have the temple of far-shooting Apollo, all men will bring you hecatombs and gather here, and incessant savour of rich sacrifice will always arise, and you will feed those who dwell in you from the hand of strangers; for truly your own soil is not rich.

In around 1000 BC, Delos was colonized by the Ionians and made their religious capital. For a period of time, no one was allowed to be born or die on the island to protect its sanctity. Instead, those on the brink of either were taken to the nearby islet of Rinia. The Delia, a grand festival, was hosted on the island in honour of Apollo, Artemis and Leto.

Delos became more politically active by the 7th century BC. It was the capital of the Amphictionic League, eventually controlled by the Athenians who often harassed the Delians. In 315 BC, however, the Egyptians gained control of the Aegean Sea and the Athenians no longer wielded the same might.

In late Hellenistic and Roman times Delos was at the height of its prosperity as a free port and the financial and trading centre of the Mediterranean. Its population soared with an influx of migrants from places as far away as Rome, Syria and Egypt, reaching 30,000 by 100 BC. The various groups of settlers built their own shrines and lived quite harmoniously together. The island’s commercial role surpassed its religious importance by Roman times.

But Delos’ prosperity was not to last. In 88 BC Mithridates, the king of Pontis, attacked the island as part of a revolt against the Romans. The islands 20,000 inhabitants were either killed or sold into slavery, sacred treasures were looted, and the entire city was virtually destroyed. Roman attempts to rebuild the city – even a defensive wall constructed in 66 BC – were continuously hindered by further pirate raids. Delos was in decline and it was gradually abandoned. In the 2nd century AD, Pausanius wrote that the island was inhabited only by the temple guards.

Despite its now barren landscape, Delos was still the victim of further destruction and looting by pirates and various competing rulers – the Knights of St. John, Venetians, Turks and the rulers of Mykonos and Tinos.

Some marbles were taken from the island in the 17th century by Sir Kenelm Digby for king Charles I’s private collection.

Excavation work on the island began in 1872 by the French School of Archaeology and is still continuing to this day. The only people living on the island now are French archaeologists and the site guardians and only X number of visitors are allowed per day.

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