The island of Delos (Greek: Δήλος, Dhilos), isolated in the centre of the roughly circular ring of islands called the Cyclades, near Mykonos, had a position as a holy sanctuary for a millennium before Olympian Greek mythology made it the birthplace of Apollo and Artemis. As a cult centre Delos had an importance that its natural resources could never have offered. As Leto, searching for a birthing-place for Apollo, addressed the island

Delos was called also Asteria, Pelasgia, Chlamydia, Lagia, Pyrpilis, Scythias, Mydia, and Ortygia. It was named Ortygia from ὄρτυξ, “a quail,” and Lagia from λαγώς, “a hare,” the island formerly abounding with both these creatures. On this account, according to Strabo, it was not allowed to have dogs at Delos, because they destroyed the quails and hares. The name Delos was commonly derived from δῆλος, “manifest,” in allusion to the island having floated under the surface of the sea until made to appear and stand firm by order of Poseidon. This was done for the purpose of receiving Leto, who was on the eve of delivery, and could find no asylum on the earth, Hera having bound it by an oath not to receive her; but as Delos at the time was floating beneath the waters, it was freed from the obligation. Once fixed in its place, it continued, according to popular belief, to remain so firm as even to be unmoved by the shocks of an earthquake. This, however, is contradicted by Thucydides and Herodotus, who report that a shock was felt there before the Peloponnesian War

Delos was celebrated as the natal island of Apollo and Artemis, and the solemnities with which the festivals of these deities were observed there never failed to attract large crowds from the neighbouring islands and the continent. Among the seven wonders of the world was an altar at Delos which was made of the horns of animals. Tradition reported that it was constructed by Apollo with the horns of deer killed in hunting by his sister Artemis. Plutarch says he saw it, and he speaks of the wonderful interlacing of the horns of which it was made, no cement nor bond of any kind being employed to hold it together. Portions of this altar are identified by archaeologists in the scattered blocks of marble lately found in the so-called Hall of the Bulls, to the east of the great temple, and named from its “taurine” capitals representing recumbent bulls. The Athenians were commanded by an oracle, in the time of Pisistratus, to purify Delos, which they did by causing the dead bodies which had been buried there to be taken up and removed from all places within view of the temple. In the sixth year of the Peloponnesian War, they, by the advice of an oracle, purified it anew by carrying all the dead bodies to the neighbouring island of Rhenaea, where they were interred. After having done this, in order to prevent its being polluted in the time to come, they published an edict that for the future no person should be suffered to die, nor any woman to be brought to bed, in the island, but that, when death or parturition approached, they should be carried over into Rhenaea. In memory of this purification, it is said, the Athenians instituted a solemn quinquennial festival.

When the Persian armament, under Datis and Artaphernes, was making its way through the Grecian islands, the inhabitants of Delos left their rich temple, with its treasures, to the protection of its tutelary deities, and fled to Tenos. The fame of the sanctuary, however, saved it from spoliation. The Persians had heard that Delos was the birthplace of two deities who corresponded to those who held the foremost rank in their own religious system—the sun and moon. This comparison was probably suggested to them by some Greek who wished to save the temple. If we may credit the tradition which was current in the days of Herodotus, Delos received the highest honours from Datis. He would not suffer his ships to touch the sacred shore, but kept them at the island of Rhenaea. He also sent a herald to recall the Delians who had fled to Tenos, and offered sacrifice to the god, in which 300 talents of frankincense are said to have been consumed ( 97).

Delos [Source]

Coin of Delos.

After the Persian War, the Athenians established at Delos the treasury of the Greeks, and ordered that all meetings relative to the confederacy should be held there ( Thuc.i. 96). In the tenth year of the Peloponnesian War, not being satisfied with the purifications which the island had hitherto undergone, they removed its entire population to Adramyttium, where they obtained a settlement from the Persian satrap Pharnaces ( Thuc.v. 1). Here many of these unfortunate Delians were afterwards treacherously murdered by order of Arsaces, an officer of Tissaphernes ( Thuc.viii. 108). Finally, however, the Athenians restored those that survived to their country after the battle of Amphipolis, as they considered that their ill success in the war proceeded from the anger of the god on account of their conduct towards this unfortunate people ( Thuc.v. 32). Strabo says that Delos became a place of great commercial importance after the destruction of Corinth, as the merchants who had frequented that city then withdrew to this island, which afforded great facilities for carrying on trade on account of the convenience of its port, and its advantageous situation with respect to the coasts of Greece and Asia Minor, as well as from the great concourse of people who resorted thither at stated times. It was also very famous for its bronze. The Romans especially favoured the interests of the Delians, though they had conceded to the Athenians the sovereignty of the island and the administration of the temple (Polyb. xxx. 18). But on the occupation of Athens by the generals of Mithridates, they landed troops in Delos and committed the greatest devastations there in consequence of the inhabitants refusing to espouse their cause (87 BC). After this calamity it remained in an impoverished and deserted state. The town of Delos was situated at the foot of Mount Cynthus, in a plain watered by the little river Inopus, and by a lake called Trochoeides by Theognis and Herodotus. Remains of the great temple of Apollo, of the temple of Leto, a theatre, a private house, and of several porticoes are among the antiquities that are now visible. Since 1877, M. Homolle and others, on behalf of the French Archaeological Institute, have prosecuted very extensive investigations on the site of the town.

"`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." Homeric Hymn to Delian Apollo

"House of Cleopatra" Sculptures (Cleopatra and Dioscourides). Late Hellenistic Sculptures c. after 138 BC, Delos Museum, Inv. A 7763, A 7799, A7997a. The sculptures were in the entrance of the "House of Cleopatra". Height 145 cm (Dioscourides) and 148 cm (Cleopatra). Discovered 1907. Cleopatra with a himation (mantle). The folding of her chiton below the himation is visible.

Inhabited since the 3rd millennium BC, between 900 BC and AD 100, sacred Delos was a major cult centre, and a natural meeting-ground for the Delian League, which was first founded in 478 BC. In 166 BC Delos was given by the Romans to the Athenian city-state, but in modern times it has become uninhabited. It is currently only used for archeology and tourism— "you will feed those who dwell in you from the hand of strangers".

Landmarks on the island include:

  • The small Sacred Lake in its circular bowl, now dry, is a topographical feature that determined the placement of later features.
  • The Minoan Fountain was a rectangular public well hewn in the rock, with a central column; it formalized the sacred spring in its present 6th century BC form, reconstructed in 166 BC, according to an inscription. Tightly-laid courses of masonry form the walls; water can still be reached by a flight of steps that fill one side.
  • There are several market squares. The Hellenistic The Agora of the Competaliasts by the Sacred Harbour retains the postholes for market awnings in its stone paving. Two powerful Italic merchant guilds dedicated statues and columns there.
  • The Temple of the Delians is a classic example of the Doric order; a pen-and-wash reconstruction of the temple is illustrated at Doric order
  • The Terrace of the Lions dedicated to Apollo by the people of Naxos shortly before 600 BC, had originally nine to twelve squatting, snarling marble guardian lions along the Sacred Way; one is inserted over the main gate to the Venetian Arsenal. The lions create a monumental avenue comparable to Egyptian avenues of sphinxes. (There is a Greek sphinx in the Delos Museum.)
  • The meeting hall of the Poseidoniasts of Beirut housed an association of merchant, warehousemen, shipowners and innkeepers during the early years of Roman hegemony, late 2nd century BC. To their protective triad of Baal/Poseidon, Astarte/Aphrodite and Echmoun/Asklepios, they added Roma.
  • The platform of the Stoibadeion dedicated to Dionysus bears a statue of the god of wine and the life-force. On either side of the platform, a pillar supports a colossal phallus, the symbol of Dionysus. The southern pillar, which is decorated with relief scenes from the Dionysiac circle, was erected ca. 300 BC to celebrate a winning theatrical performance. The statue of Dionysus was originally flanked by those of two actors impersonating Paposilenoi (conserved in the Delos Museum). The marble theatre is a rebuilding of an older one, undertaken shortly after 300 BC.
  • The Doric Temple of Isis was built at the beginning of the Roman period to venerate the familiar trinity of Isis, the Alexandrian Serapis and Anubis.
  • The Temple of Hera, ca 500 BC, is a rebuilding of an earlier Heraion on the site.
  • The House of Dionysus is a luxurious 2nd century private house named for the floor mosaic of Dionysus riding a panther.
  • The House of the Dolphins is similarly named from its atrium mosaic, where erotes ride dolphins; its Phoenician owner commissioned a floor mosaic of Tanit in his vestibule

See also

World Heritage Sites in Greece


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