As the birthplace of Artemis and Apollo, the Greek island of Delos (Greek: Δηλος; Dhílos, "Brilliant") was a major sacred site for the ancient Greeks, second in importance only to Delphi. At its height, the sacred island was covered in a variety of temples and sanctuaries dedicated to a variety of gods. Today, it is a fascinating archaeological site located just two miles from Mykonos.
History of Delos
Remains of a settlement found on top of Mt. Kinthos show that Delos was inhabited since the 3rd millenium BC. Originally known as Ortygia (Quail Island), it was a religious center and busy port from ancient times. Although a barren island with virtually no natural resources, its harbors are protected by the three islands that circle around it (the Cyclades) and it is conveniently located between the Greek mainland and the Asian coast.
According to Greek mythology, Delos was the birthplace of Artemis and Apollo, the twin offspring of Zeus by Leto. When Leto was discovered to be pregnant, Zeus' jealous wife Hera banished her from the earth, but Poseidon took pity on her and provided Delos as a place for her to give birth in peace.
The Ionians colonized Delos around 1000 BC and made it their religious capital. The island was so sacred that, at one point, no one was allowed to be born or to die there - those about to do either were rushed off to the nearby islet of Rinia. A great festival, the Delia, was hosted here in honor of Apollo, Artemis and Leto, as described in Homeric Hymn 3.
By the 7th century, Delos was also the political capital of the Amphictionic League. The Athenians soon joined the league and assumed control, giving the Delians trouble on a regular basis until around 315 BC, when the Egyptians became the rulers of the Aegean Sea.
Delos was most prosperous in Late Hellenistic and Roman times, when it was declared a free port and became the financial and trading center of the Mediterranean. By 100 BC the island had a population of 30,000, which included foreigners from as far away as Rome, Syria, and Egypt. Each group built its own shrines and lived in relative harmony despite their differences. By Roman times, the island's commercial role exceeded its previous religious importance.
But in 88 BC Mithridates, the king of Pontus, attack on the unfortified island as part of a revolt against Roman rule. The entire population of 20,000 was killed or sold into slavery, the sanctuary treasures were looted, and the city was razed to the ground. The Romans partially rebuilt the city, but revival was prevented by continous pirate raids.
A Roman legate built defensive walls around the city in 66 BC, but by then Delos was on its way out. It was gradually abandoned in the centuries that followed. In the 2nd century AD, Pausanius recorded that it was inhabited only by the temple guards.
Delos was never forgotten, however, which meant further destruction and looting by the successive rulers of the area - pirates, Knights of St. John, Venetians, Turks - as well as its neighbors Mykonos and Tinos. In the 17th century, Sir Kenelm Digby removed some marbles from Delos for the collection of Charles I.
Formal excavation work began in 1872 by the French School of Archaeology, which still continues today. The island is still uninhabited except for the French archaeologists and site guardians.
What to See at Delos
Boats from Mykonos arrive on the west coast of Delos Island, in the Commercial Harbor near the south end of the ruins. The island is small, only 1.2km wide and covering 5 sq km of barren, hilly landscape.
The ruins of ancient Delos extend north and south along the coast and consist of four main areas: the Maritime Quarter (next to the harbor); Theater District (southeast of the harbor); Sanctuary of Apollo (north of the harbor in the center of the site); and Lion District (north end of the ruins). A small tourist center in the Sanctuary of Apollo includes a pricey restaurant and bar, but no overnight accommodations. Informational signs among the ruins are in Greek and French.
The first major monument visitors encounter is the Agora of the Competialists (c.150 BC), an open area occupying the area between the Sacred Harbor and the Commercial Harbor. In the center of the ruins is a round shrine and a square base, where offerings were placed.
The Competialists were Roman merchants and freemen who conducted annual festivals in honor of the Lares Compitales: Roman gods of the crossroads associated with Hermes. These were minor gods, but as patrons of travelers and commerce, very important to the island's inhabitants. The nearby Ionic Naiskos, with a marble offertory box decorated with two snakes, also dates from about 150 BC and was probably built by the Competialists.
From the left side of the Agora, the Sacred Way (or Dromos) leads to the Sanctuary of Apollo. A paved road 45 feet wide, the Sacred Way is lined with marble bases that once supported statues and monuments donated by kings and generals. This was the route traveled by ancient pilgrims and the annual procession during the Delia festival.
On the left (coastal) side of the Sacred Way is the Stoa of Philip, a gift to Apollo from Philip V of Macedon (c.200 BC), who was then ruler of the Cyclades. The dedicatory inscription on the architrave has survived. The stoa had 16 Doric columns of grey marble, of which only one still stands. On the right side of the road is the South Stoa, built in the 3rd century BC.
The Sanctuary of Apollo was the ancient heart of Delos and is the most important area for today's visitors as well. It once contained three great temples dedicated to Apollo along with many other temples, altars and monuments. Also nearby are the Sacred Lake, Sanctuary of Dionysus, site museum and tourist pavilion.
Entrance to the sanctuary from the Sacred Way was marked by the Propylaea (c.150 BC) three portals made of white marble and supported by four Doric columns.
Sadly, little remains of the great temples today. The first of them is the Great Temple of Apollo, begun around 477 BC, neglected after the treasury was transferred to Athens in 454 BC, and finally completed in the 200s BC. It was a Doric peripteral structure with six rows of 13 columns measuring 29.6m by 13.4m. The metopes were left plain and the architrave was decorated only with palm leaves and lion spouts.
Next door is the Temple of the Athenians (425-17 BC), a Doric amphiprostyle building with six columns on the facade and a total area of 17.8m by 11.4m. In the cella, seven statues made of chryselephantine stood on a semicircular pedestal of Eleusinian marble. The temple was probably home to the Archaic statue of Apollo (see below).
The third great temple in the sanctuary is the Porinos Naos (6th century), measuring 15.7m by 10m, where the treasure of the Delian League was originally kept.
On the right side of the sanctuary is the ancient House of the Naxians (7th-6th century BC), a shrine where the sanctuary treasures were stored.
Against the north wall is the base of a colossal Statue of Apollo (7th century BC) made of Naxian marble, which Plutarch said was destroyed when a bronze palm tree blew over onto it in 417 BC. It was probably re-erected in its present position. A piece of the foot is in the British Museum, a hand is in the Delos site museum, and part of the trunk and the thighs are behind the Temple of Artemis on Delos.
The statue base bears several inscriptions: the original dedication in Archaic letters, which reads "I am of the same marble, statue and pedestal"; a 4th-century dedication reading "The Naxians to Apollo"; and later graffiti from Venetians and 17th-century travelers.
The granite base of the bronze palm tree, with a cylindrical hole in the center, can be seen on the west side of the Sacred Way. Part of the dedicatory inscription survives, naming Nikias as the donor.
Inland of the sanctuary is the tourist pavilion and site museum, which displays a variety of artifacts found during excavations. Admission is included in the site ticket. Next to the museum is the Sanctuary of Dionysus, best-known for its monumental phalluses.
On the north end of sanctuary was the Ionic Temple of Artemis (rebuilt c.179 BC), on a site that had been sacred since Mycenaean times. Many statues of Artemis were found here and are displayed in the museum. Ionic porticoes on the east and north side provide borders to the sanctuary of Apollo's twin sister. On the left side of the site is a curious semicircular platform, which may be a cult object from c.1500-1400 BC.
The Lion District, occupying the north end of the ruins, is named for the famous Terrace of the Lions (7th century BC). Here at least nine elegant lions made of Naxian marble guarded the sanctuary, looking out to the Sacred Lake. This arrangement recalls the avenues of guardian animals in Egypt, such as at Karnak. The lions on the site are replicas; five weathered originals are displayed in the museum. Another one has been at the Arsenal in Venice since the 17th century.
The oval Sacred Lake, drained since 1926, is where the sacred swans and geese of Apollo were kept. A palm tree has been planted in the center in honor of the one Leto clutched while giving birth to her divine twins.
Beyond the Terrace of the Lions is the Institution of the Poseidoniasts of Berytos, an association of merchants from Beirut who worshipped Baal, identifying him with the Greek god Poseidon. The complex includes several courtyards, chapels, meeting rooms, and shops.
The Maritime Quarter was the main residential area of Delos when the city was at its peak of prosperity, and the ruins of many beautiful mansions and villas can be seen here (south of the site entrance). Many of them were paved with fine mosaics; some of these are still in situ. The House of the Masks has a mosaic of Dionysus riding a panther, and the House of Dionysus has another depiction of the popular god.
Further south in the Theater Quarter is the great classical theater of Delos (which could seat 5500 people) and more houses with mosaic floors. Especially notable is the House of the Dolphins (just east of the theater), with a fine mosaic depicting the gentle sea creatures.
The southeast end of the ruins is occupied by the various sanctuaries of both Greek and foreign gods.
A path from the southeast corner of the Theater Quarter leads steeply up Mount Kinthos, a conical hill rising 113m (370ft) in the center of the island. On the way is a Grotto of Hercules covered with stone slabs and there are fine views of the ruins and surrounding islands from the top.
Quick Facts on Delos
|temples; city ruins; ruins
|Visitor and Contact Information
|37.399687° N, 25.267053° E
|Delos Island, Greece
|+30 22890 22259
|View hotels near Delos
- Robin Barber, Blue Guide Greece, 6th ed. (London: A&C Black: 1995), 649-61.
- Fodor's Greek Islands, 1st ed., 282-85.
- Introduction to Delos - Frommer's Greece
- Delos (Dhílos) - Rough Guide to Greece
Map of Delos, Delos Island
Below is a location map and aerial view of Delos. Using the buttons on the left (or the wheel on your mouse), you can zoom in for a closer look, or zoom out to get your bearings. To move around, click and drag the map with your mouse.