Moving to Crete has brought many, many highlights and one highlight stands out like a shining light. That being the trip to the Sacred Island of Delos, an historic location from antiquity that claimed its place on the list as a World Cultural Heritage and UNESCO world heritage site. Delos is an important Greek antiquity and archaeological island nestled in the centre of the archipelago of Cycladic Islands in the Aegean Sea. It was with a heart full of gratitude as I made my way to the Port of Naxos for a day trip island hopping, to make the journey to the Sacred Island of Delos. Leaving from Naxos it’s an hour journey passing by the Island of Paros before arriving to Delos. Unlike many other Greek Islands, there are no olive tree groves, orange orchards, pistachio, almond or walnut trees grown on the island. Yet this small 3.43 Km² rocky and barren island has a long inhabited history dating back to 3rd century BC and became one of the most sacred places and commercial centres of the ancient Greeks. In the 9th century BC the island was colonised by the Ionians, making the island their religious capital with the original sanctuary of Apollo. In Greek Mythology, Delos was the birth place of the twins Apollo and Artemis. Leto the twins’ mother and lover to the God Zeus, being the twins father was banished by Zeus’s wife Hera whose jealousy prohibited all earthen places give Leto a safe place for the birth of her children. In some mythological accounts it is said that Zeus then pleaded with his brother Poseidon to make visible and grant access to the small island of Delos. Delos in Greek means “clear or brought to light”. In honouring his brother’s request Poseidon raised the land and gave Leto access to birth her children. In classic Greek Mythology Leto gave birth to Artemis, Goddess of the Moon – wild animals, hunting, vegetation, chastity and childbirth and (in one legend) Apollo was born one day later. It was also said that when the God Apollo was born, Delos shone in light and flowers bloomed across the island. The God Apollo thus became known as the God of Sun and light. Following the birth of the twins, the Goddess Hera then spared Leto, as her children claimed their place on Mt Olympus and honoured protecting their mother. It was during the time of antiquity, the myth of the god Apollo and goddess Artemis rendered the island sacred, and in 450 BC all existing graves were relocated to the nearby island Rineia. In 426 BC and edict was passed prohibiting any mortal to be born or die on the island. Even during the years of the islands most affluent period, during the late Hellenistic and early Roman times and particularly the period from 167 BC when Delos was declared a free port, which greatly increased its prosperity and brought many foreigners to the city; women close to giving birth and people close to dying would be taken across to the neighbouring island of Rineia. All who lived and formed trade on the island were aware of its sacredness and its uniqueness. To this day, no deaths are permitted, nor can any child be born on the island, so that no one can claim land as a birth right, plus this circumstances also ensures Delos preserves its purity. Due to the islands central location on the sea route between Greece mainland and Asia and its excellent protected harbours, by the islands in the Cyclades in 167 BC a declaration was passed and Delos became a free port. This brought rich merchants, bankers and ship owners from all over the world to settle on the island. This then attracted many builders, craftsmen and artists who built the new settlers lavish houses that were richly decorated with statutes, frescoes and exquisite mosaic floors. During the early 1st century BC it was estimated that the population of Delos stood at 30,000 people. While commercial trade merchandise was around 750,000 tons a year. As the boat neared the island, we passed by a sail boat anchored a short distance from the sacred port, one of two ports on Delos adjacent to the uninhabited island of Rineia. As the boat I travelled on approached Delos, I could see the captains puffs of smoke from his cigarette, yet focused as he guided the boat towards the Commercial Port. Hearing voices speaking in different languages and the hum of the boats engines in harmony with the rolling of the waves. Looking out and across the island one bears witness to the ancient ruins of this sacred and once important commence island location. Sighting surviving marble columns, a ruined theatre, a number of marketplaces, numerous temples dedicated to various Gods and Goddesses from both Greece and other foreign deities that stand together and fine homes that were once inhabited by wealthy Athenians, was a sight to behold. Houses and temples to the gods that contain important and detailed mosaic artworks that can be seen throughout the island is testament to Delos’ once grand and glorious history. Docking at the commercial port then disembarking and paying the entrance fee I was free to roam and explore at my own pace. The Agora (or marketplace) of the Competaliasts is adjacent to the sacred port. In the centre of the agora stands a circular marble monument dedicated to the God Hermes, as the god of Commerce and was one of the main marketplaces in the ancient Hellenistic city with a thriving community of Roman merchants in 150 BC. Members of a brotherhood of freed men and slaves during Roman antiquity formed the Competaliasts and belonged to the cross ways who invoked as patrons the lares (household) gods of Roman divinities that are scattered throughout the agora. Walking along the laneway towards the ancient theatre, I saw and overheard a local tour guide to a large group illustrating and explaining the use of an underground natural water well that was once a meeting place to gather water. The local neighbourhood on the way to the ancient theatre and surrounding the House of Dionysus was home to many wealthy Athenians. A fine mosaic cubic designed floor complete with an anchor that would have once welcomed the home owner’s guests was the first of many detailed mosaic floors. Whilst an interesting and detailed rectangle building block with carved motif of birds, crosses and fish now lay amidst the ruins is in the same neighbourhood. The marble pillars of the House of Kleopatra, home of wealthy Athenians, Dioskourides and his wife Kleopatra who lived here around 138 BC. A replicate of an original statue of the husband and wife stands at the entrance of the home. A short walk away I find myself standing beside the huge marble columns of the House of the God Dionysus that can be seen approaching the island and from many other locations across the island. Another worthy feature of Dionysus’ house in the centre of the courtyard is an exquisitely designed late 2nd century BC mosaic floor, depicting Dionysus as a winged spirit, holding the thyrsus like spear adored with ribbons and being carried on the back of a tiger with a wreath of wines and grapes around his neck. An image of a wine goblet is also shown in one corner; a representation as Dionysus was the god of wine and theatre during ancient Greek. Leaving the House of Dionysus and continuing along the laneway to the theatre, I stopped by the House of the Trident. The information sign for The House of the Trident notes this house belonged to a merchant from Syria, as the decorative statues of loins and bulls on the columns, are known as symbols of the Syrian gods Hadad and Atargatis. Also in The House of the Trident there are a number of decorative mosaic floors, including one of a slender dolphin curled around an anchor.
Continuing on and just before reaching The Theatre, one passes by the cistern of the theatre that collected rain water. The original cistern roof of stone was supported by eight arches of granite blocks and stone well mouths from which water was drawn. Then turning slightly to the left your eyes catch the once grand 3rd century BC theatre that seated 6500 spectators. The Theatre quarter, is the oldest district in the ancient city. Either side of theatre, within its irregular and stony slopes are ruins of small shops and a number of private homes behind the shops. The original stage structure of the theatre was built of wood and spectators sat around the hill side. Then in 296 BC construction began with building one of the few ancient Greek theatres completely built of marble and was completed in 240 BC. Like others, I choose to sit for a short time to admire the surroundings and be in awe. Looking around you can appreciate the enormity of the theatre, whilst looking ahead you see the harbours and the crystal waters of the Aegean sea glistening in the afternoon sun.
Note the curved design in the lower seating, which is not unlike other ancient Greek theatres, where the curve enables the sound to reverberate and carry upward to those seated in higher rows. Very ingenious design for acoustics.
Leaving the theatre I take a path along the back lanes that connects to the earthen step path leading to the Grotto of Heracles, the summit of Kynthos and the Sanctuary of Zeus and Athena. However, rather than continue walking to the summit of Kynthos, I choose to make my way along the upper laneway in the opposite direction and stopping for a moment to capture the enormity of the theatre auditorium where very few of the marble seating has survived the years of time and the hands of pirates and looters. Located on a flat area at the base of the stone stairway to Kynthos is an area known as Inopos and the Sanctuaries of the Foreign Gods. Yet the first temple that I see is the Temple of Hera, sister and wife to Zeus whose jealousy was the reason for Delos’s glory. Zeus known as the God of the sky in ancient Greek mythology was also considered the ruler, protector and father of the Gods of Mount Olympus and humans. The Goddess Hera, known as the Queen to the Olympian gods and of heaven, was also worshipped as the goddess of marriage and of the life of women.
What does the Goddess Hera represent for you? Learn where Hera in supporting you in your life as shown in your personal horoscope? Hera’s well preserved temple built in marble dates back to 500 BC. Yet the smaller Heraion temple of the goddess from 700 BC has been preserved under the raised floor of the later temple site. The marble alter is well preserved and during the 1912 excavation of the Delos site, many tributes were found on the pedestal within the temple, many of which can now be seen in the Delos museum. Close by the Temple of Hera located in the sanctuary of Egyptian Gods stands the marble façade and partially restored Temple of Isis, the goddess and great mother. Isis was worshipped for her gift of protection, healing, nutritional, loving and compassionate qualities, in addition for her strength, initiative, independence and rational approach to life. The partial restoration of the Temple of Isis was carried out by the Athenians in 135 BC and the statue of the goddess was added, dated by inscription in 128 BC. Her temple was built during the 2nd century BC; in the Doric style architecture on a high overlooking hill and in close proximity to the Temple of Serapis. A third Egyptian temple was also built dedicated to the Egyptian family trinity of Isis, Serapis and Anubis. Also in the Sanctuary of Foreign Divinities, yet completely isolated from the Egyptian sanctuaries, is the Sanctuary of the Syrian gods Hadad and Atargatis. Construction of the Syrian sanctuaries was also during the 2nd century; however buildings in the vast complex are not so well preserved. Early worship of these gods were honoured as small and private gatherings, until an Athenian high priest supported and made the temple official at the end of the 2nd century. Continuing along an upper path, I pass the large multi level House of Hermes as seen by the marble columns, multiple rooms and the staircase leading to an upper level. Then I find myself back on the Sacred Way that was once home to arcades and statues. However, the most important structure on the coastal side of the Sacred Way is the Portico (Stoa) of Phillip V that leads to the Sanctuary of Apollo; also known as the Temple of the Delians, and the Great Temple. The largest of the three cult temples dedicated to the God Apollo on the sacred island. The Portico with 16 marble columns at the front protected the row of shops at the back and was designed to provide a sheltered promenade for shop keepers and shoppers. It was during the period of Delos independence between 314 – 166 BC, that the rulers of the Hellenistic States competed with constructing monumental buildings on the sacred island. Philip V, King of Macedonians built the 16 column Portico in 210 BC when he was also the ruler of the Cyclades as a gift to the god Apollo. Amongst the ruins of today, only one column remains standing. Standing alone amongst the Portico (Stoa) of Phillip V ruins is a pillar statute with the head of the Greek God Hermes, the messenger god, also the god of commerce, communication and learning. I’m back where I started on the sacred way all though this time I’m walking North, past the Oikos (house) of the Naxians to the Sanctuary of Apollo. The Temple of the Delians is the largest of the three temples dedicated to the god Apollo, within the official sacred enclosure of land honouring the god Apollo on the island of Delos. Construction of this temple which was funded by the Treasury of the Delian League, commenced in 476 BC but the building process was interrupted in 454 BC when the Treasury was transferred to Athens. Work recommenced during the period of Delian Independence, after 314 BC, however was never completed and many columns lay scattered around the temple. An image of a reconstructed temple shows the grandeur of the ‘propylaea’, the structure forming the entrance of the temple and bounded by six unfluted marble columns. Inside the temple was the cult statue of the god Apollo and many centuries worth of precious offerings, giving the temple a museum style feel of the sanctuary’s history. The Poros Temple or Porinos Oikos is the smallest and oldest of the three temples to the god Apollo. The temple was built during the period of the Athenians in the late 6th century of poros stone. On my way to The Terrace of Lions of Naxiona, I pass the ruins of the Temple of the goddess Artemis, the Treasuries and a number of other buildings in ruin including the Temple of the twins mother, Leto located close to the Agora of the Italians. The Italians settled on Delos from as early as the 3rd century BC and their presence became stronger during the mid 2nd century BC with Rome’s rise to predominance. Many bankers and merchants came from Southern Italy and Sicily and aligned their patronage to one of the Greek gods, whether Apollo (Apolloniasts), Poseidon (Poseidoniasts) or Hermes (Hermaists). During the late 2nd century, they built what became known as the Agora of the Italians, the meeting place for the members of the Italian community. It was around 130 BC that the marshes of the Sacred Lake were filled with earth to construct the largest and most flamboyant building on Delos. Continuing past the Agora of the Italians and situated along a natural path, is The Terrace of the Lions. The statues of lions were dedicated to the sanctuary of Apollo by the Naxians at the end of 7th century BC and stood facing the Sun across the Sacred Lake where Apollo and Artemis were said to be born and were the ceremonial guardians of the twins’ birth site. Nine lions with stretched out backs and crouched haunches once stood along the terrace of Lions that were made of Naxian marble, however only five remain which are replicas. The original marble statues are housed inside the Archaeological Museum of Delos. Beyond the terrace of Lions is the re-erected columns belonging to the Establishment of the Posidoniasts of (Berytos, the great commercial centre of ancient Syria), modern day Beirut, that was built in the 2nd century BC. A religious and commercial centre of Syrian merchants, warehouse owners and ship owners who worshipped Baal, a god they identified with the Greek God Poseidon. The entrance of the Establishment of the Posidoniasts leads into a court consisting of four sacred inner temples that provided worship to Baal-Poseidon, Astarte-Aphrodite, Esmun-Ascelepius and one inner temple being dedicated to goddess Roma, whose headless statue survives today. On the way to the Sacred Lake and the one lone palm tree that was planted in the centre in memory of the palm grove that grew there during antiquity, that is also reprehensive of the sacred palm to which Leto gave birth to the twins; I detoured to see the Lake House and the Lake Agora (market). The Lake Agora was the main market for wine from Southern Italy and Sicily together with wheat and flour for making bread.
Many of the stores consisted of only two doors, one leading to the primary entrance and the other to an outside area at the back. It was interesting to learn that the Lake Paleastra, (a modern day version of a sports training club, that was used for gymnastics, educational and athletic training) dating back to the 2nd century BC was located across the road from the Lake Agora. During excavations large permanent stone grinding wheels were found and smaller ovens that would have been used to bake flatbreads. Also amongst the ruins of the once busy marketplace of bakeries and wine sellers lies the remnant of a wine amphora (a clay vessel used in ancient times to store wine, olive oil and other prized liquids). A short stroll from the Lake Agora is the small, yet tastefully simple Lake House that was constructed in the later decades of the 2nd century. The Lake House occupied a whole block and as shown has a number of well-preserved peristyle of monolithic columns and a mosaic impluvium, being a square basin in the centre of the atrium, which received rainwater from an opening in the roof. Like many of the Delian houses, the two story Lake House was built to the specific style and taste of the owners. However, a common feature amongst these styles of homes were that all the rooms looked inward and were built around a square central court given light and air as there are no external windows. This design made the buildings safer, cooler, and quieter and protected house opponents from the noise of the city. As noted above the Sacred Lake is adjacent to the watchful eyes of the Terrance of Lions and is also close by to the Lake House. During 1925 the Sacred Lake was drained to prevent disease and maintain favourable health of mind and body. The lake was original formed as a circle like wheel and would be filled by an overflow of the Inopos reservoir which flowed from a series of regulated overflow holes from a water source on the slope of Mt Kynthos.
During antiquity pilgrim boats would dock at the Bay of Skardana and ascend the step climb as the entry point to the island and first pass by the Sacred Lake with its palms, swans and geese, then continue along the terrace of lions gazing upon them as they passed walking towards the Temple of Leto and stopping to page homage at the Sanctuaries of Apollo and Artemis. What a site to behold and a magnificent welcome following a pilgrimage across the sea to reach the sacred island of Delos and pay homage to Apollo – God of Light and Artemis – Goddess of the Moon (during early antiquity).
With the rise of Delos as a prominent commerce and centre of trade with a tax free port began the construction of the Sacred Port in the 6th century. Then becoming the greatest commercial centre in the Mediterranean, the Sacred Lake is now one of the last sites a visitor sees. The Sacred Lake also makes the northern limits of the sacred area during early antiquity. The extensive ruins of the Hippodrome, Archegesion, Gymnasium, Stadium, Stadium quarters and Synagogue that lie beyond the sacred area on the hill of Skardana in the north, were all constructed during the Hellenistic period and after. Due to time constraints I make my way to the Delos Museum, however not before stopping by to see the Minoan Fountain. The Minoan Fountain was built in the 6th century BC and is four metres deep. The column at the foot of the marble steps once supported the roof and dates to renovations that were made in 166 BC. The fountain once served as a public well and well as a sacred spring. The Archaeological Museum is a stone’s throw away and I have time to soak up many of the items found since excavations began on Delos in 1872. Initially the museum comprised of only five rooms, however with subsequent finds the museum was expanded in 1931 and again in 1972 to now consist of nine rooms that adds to the story of worship and life on Delos. Throughout six of the nine rooms various exhibits present sculptures, reliefs and engravings found throughout Delos. A further two rooms house prehistoric and late Hellenic pottery, whilst the last room houses numerous personal items from private residence. At the time of writing, a new Archaeological Museum is being proposed to showcase the incredible and richly historical collections of artefacts depicting worship and life on the sacred island of Delos. The museum houses five of the original marble lions from the terrace of lions… … a statue of the Goddess Artemis, … a head statue of Hermes from 430 BC, and so much.
I truly could have spent many hours in the museum, however time was passing and I needed to be back on the boat in time for departure. Walking along the Sacred Way back to the Commercial port… …to stop and take in one last look of what was once a pilgrimage centre of the ancient world that began around 1000 BC and then becoming the busiest port during antiquity. Moments in quiet reflection of human co-habitation within a 3.43 Km² island location that honoured diversity of culture and religion living in harmony. This harmonious co-existence was to change with the lead up to the 1st century AD with Delos being sacked and looted in 88 BC, by Mithridates, ruler of the Kingdom of Pontus in northern Anatolia and one of the Roman Republic’s most formidable and unwavering opponents. This attack saw the entire population of Delos, approx. 20,000 people being killed or sold into slavery and leaving very little of this once glorious island home standing. Romans returned and partially rebuilt, only to again be attacked in 69 BC by pirates of Athenodorus, an ally of Mithridates, burning any standing remains and looting anything they sort as valuable. Delos then fell into rapid decline and was eventually abandoned, or temporarily occupied by pirates from the 6th century AD and used as pastureland until 1873, when formal excavation work began and ongoing excavation continuing to this day.
Those who would like to explore the island and pay tribute to its myth, magic and magnificent history are permitted to do so, however only as part of a day trip from the islands of Naxos (Paros) or Mykonos.
Walking in Delos is like walking through ancient times, yet now its enchanting landscape is home to nobody. I return to the Commercial port in time to board the boat that will take us to Mykonos for a short stopover, before returning to Naxos.
At the time of writing The Culture Ministry in Greece is carrying out a major restoration project of the archaeological site of Delos. This blog is the part of a series of posts sharing my travels throughout Greece and her Islands. I hope you enjoy reading and that I bring some inspiration (if needed) to visit this amazing and magical part of the world. Leave a comment and let me know, and visit A Soul Awakening to subscribe and receive new blog posts as they become available.
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