1. Morphology - Geology
Delos is situated in the heart of the Aegean, in the centre of the Cyclades that form a dance circle around it, “hearth of the islands” as Callimachus calls it, i.e. shrine and centre of the islands.
The total area of Delos is very small; the monuments excavated to date cover an area of some 0.9 km2 in the middle of the island. The island is a granite mass 11-15 million years old. As a result of tectonic activity, the small-scale erosion of the rock, the morphology of the terrain and the climatic conditions, most of the surface of Delos is rocky. Almost all the eastern coast consist of sheer rock dropping precipitously into the sea. The north and west coasts taper off more softly into many small coves and sandy beaches.
The small valley of the Sanctuary is surrounded by low hills, the highest of which is Kynthos (Kastro) on the southeast (112.6 metres). Kynthos dominates the island. From its summit one can see the whole of Delos and the surrounding Cycladic islands.
2. Climate - Water
Delos has a temperate island climate. Winters are mild with rare frosts and even rarer, short-lived snowfalls. Summers are fresh and rainless, but it is often humid in the early morning. Strong north winds (meltemia) of up to 6-9 on the Beaufort scale blow during July and August.
The island has no natural sources of water, but in the granite substrata there is a limited ground water horizon at a relatively shallow depth, which is significant for the island. From antiquity to modern times, the island’s drinking water comes from the same wells (well of Cleopatra, well of Maltezos) in the atriums of the ancient houses. In antiquity, in addition to these private wells, there were many public wells and fountains; moreover, all houses had large cisterns below their atriums in which they collected rainwater from their roofs.
Rainwater in antiquity formed the famous Inopos River which flowed from the foothills of Kynthos. The rainwater that was collected in the lowest part of the island, north of the Sanctuary, formed the celebrated wheel-shaped Sacred Lake.
The climatic conditions and varied terrain create suitable habitats for the development of various plants. What does not seem to have changed on the island from antiquity up to the present day is the flora that makes Delos a huge natural botanical museum with a large variety of plant life, in addition to being an important archaeological site. To date, 537 species have been recorded, many of which have medicinal properties and have been used from antiquity to modern times for healing purposes.
3. The myth
Even though it is one of the smallest islands in the Aegean, Delos was the most famous and sacred of all islands in antiquity, since, according to the legend, it was there that Apollo-Helios, god of daylight, and Artemis-Selene, goddess of night light, were born – it was, in short, the birthplace of the Light, which the Greeks always regarded as the most precious good.
Homer relates the charming myth. Leto, pregnant by Zeus, wandered from Thrace to Imbros, Lesvos, Chios, Samos, Kos, Euboea and Attica searching desperately for a place of refuge in which to give birth. But no place would receive her; they all feared the rage of Hera, the wife whom Zeus had betrayed. Only one unimportant and invisible (adelos) bit of rock that floated around the Aegean, disdained by all, agreed hesitantly. The desperate Leto vowed “by the earth and the broad sky and the waters of the Styx, that the Sanctuary and the altar of Phoebus will be here forever and he will honour you above all other places.” Poseidon or Zeus anchored the windswept, barren, floating rock to the sea floor with diamond columns, and thus from adelos the little island became “what mortals call Delos, but what the blessed gods on Olympus,” who see the world from on high, “call the black earth’s far-seen star” (Pindar).
Although the wanderings of Leto, who by then was about to give birth, stopped on Delos, her pain did not, as Hera detained Ilithyia, goddess of childbirth, on Olympus. After Leto suffered nine days and nights of torment, the other goddesses intervened and dispatched Iris to Olympus, who by promising Ilithyia a nine-cubit necklace of gold and amber, convinced her to hasten to Delos.
As soon as Ilithyia arrived on the island, the exhausted Leto “embraced a palm-tree with her arms, knelt on the soft meadow” and gave birth first to Artemis and then to Apollo. As soon as the fair-haired god was born, “the earth smiled, Delos was inundated with golden light and became a flower-bedecked meadow, swans began singing and the dazzled goddesses cheered.” Themis, Dione, Rhea, Amphitrite and other goddesses wrapped the divine infant in swaddling clothes and fed him nectar and ambrosia, while Zeus himself watched the birth of his children from the top of Mt Kynthos. This great gathering of otherworldly powers, who cooperated in harmony and contributed to the birth of Light, charged Delos with positive energy forever.
The oldest vestiges of human presence on the island date to the 3rd millennium BC. Traces of a prehistoric settlement were found on the summit of Kynthos, a naturally fortified position from which people could easily monitor the small valley and the sea around it in those troubled and insecure times. Myths indicate that Minoans settled on the island, but nothing has yet been found to document their presence. The Mycenaeans who came to the island in the late 15th century BC, having already established their sovereignty over the Aegean, felt safe enough to settle in the small valley by the sea. Anios, the mythical Mycenaean king of Delos, son of Apollo and great-grandson of Dionysus, established relations with several states in an effort to preserve neutrality in the conflicts of the age. He played host to the ruler of Troy, Anchises, and to the fleet of the Achaeans and later to Aeneas, son of Anchises, who had managed to escape from burning Troy.
By about the 9th century BC, the island was already considered the birthplace of Apollo. The Homeric Hymn to Apollo (circa 700 BC) describes the glorious festivals of the Ionians, when they went to Delos with their wives and children in order to worship the god with hymns, dances, athletic and musical contests.
As early as the Archaic period, the Sanctuary of the twin gods Artemis and Apollo occupied a large area and was renowned and respected amongst all Ionians. It included temples, buildings and statues dedicated by the powerful cities of the time. North of the Sanctuary was the shrine to Leto, mother of the two gods, while in the foothills of Kynthos, some distance away, was the temple of her rival, Hera.
Naxos, and later Paros, tried to assert themselves by taking advantage of some of the Sanctuary’s glory. However, the city that ultimately prevailed was distant Athens, legitimizing its presence there with various myths. Between 540-528 BC, Peisistratus tyrant of Athens, upon instruction from the Delphic oracle, conducted the first catharsis or purification of Delos, removing the graves around the Sanctuary. Apollo was the god of light and death was darkness – thus the dead were a taint on such a holy site. During the reign of either Peisistratus or his sons, the poros Temple of Apollo was built and housed a larger-than-life statue of the god, a work by Tectaeus and Angelion.
Delos emerged unscathed from the turmoil of the Persian Wars because the Persians too considered the island sacred and did not sack it, as they did with the other islands in the Cyclades. In 478 BC, after the end of the Persian Wars, the of Greek cities was formed in order to deal with future threats. The headquarters of the League was on Delos, which was where the enormous sums contributed by the city-states were kept and where their representatives met. Very soon the Delian League evolved into an Athenian hegemony, and the allies became subjects of the Athenians. The funds from the common treasury were moved to the Acropolis in Athens in 454 BC, ostensibly for reasons of security; in reality, however, they were intended to finance Pericles’ ambitious building programme.
In 476 BC the second temple of Apollo, the Great Temple, or Delian Temple, was begun. Its construction was interrupted because the League’s funds had been moved to Athens. Building was resumed during the Period of Independence (314-166 BC), but the temple was never completed.
During the early years of the Peloponnesian War, the Athenians, crowded within their city walls, were in desperate straits due to the plague that killed off many inhabitants “like sheep”, as Thucydides writes. It is estimated that in 427/6 BC the victims of the plague numbered 30,000. Thucydides reports that the Athenians had reached such a state of shamelessness that “neither fear of the gods nor the laws of men restrained them any longer”. In such an atmosphere of despair and insecurity they committed a heinous crime, the “purification” of Delos, supposedly for reasons of piety. They opened up all the graves on the island, even the most recent ones, and moved the bones and funerary offerings to Rineia, where everything was buried in a common pit. At the same time, they decided that no one was to be allowed to be born or die on Delos; and that women close to delivery and the seriously ill should be transferred to Rineia. From that time on, no one was born, no one died, and no one was buried on the holy island; the inhabitants of Delos, as was the intention of the Athenians, were left without a homeland. In 422 BC the Athenians completed the “purification” by exiling all of the local population. The Delians took refuge at Adramyttion in Asia Minor (today Edremit in Turkey), having been invited there by Pharnaces, but were betrayed and massacred by Arsaces. The few who survived were allowed to return to Delos after the intervention of the Oracle of Delphi.
Immediately after the purification, and despite the fact that they were still at war, the Athenians out of remorse or fear began the exceedingly costly task of constructing yet another temple to Apollo, this time of white Pentelic marble, and established the Delia or Delian Games, a festival in honour of Apollo. This third temple, the Temple of the Athenians, was splendidly inaugurated during the or deputation to Delos, that was funded and led by the moderate Nicias, in 417 BC.
After the death of Alexander the Great, the Aegean suffered almost forty years of upheaval due to the wars between the ambitious generals who succeeded him. In 314 BC Antigonos declared Greece free and proclaimed a return to Alexander’s policy of democratic governance. His fleet reached the Aegean where Limnos, Imbros and Delos had already revolted against Athens and the Cyclades against Cassander. Even though Athens still retained the prestige of being the intellectual centre, it was a city of no strategic or political importance at that time and played no substantial role in developments. Antigonos and his son, Demetrius Poliorcetes (the “Besieger”), established the (Koinon) of the Islands, with Delos as its religious centre, whereupon Delos was declared free and independent (314-166 BC).
After the end of the 5th century BC, the only significant construction activity on the site of the Sanctuary was the partial completion of the Temple of the Delians and the building of a new temple to Artemis. During the period of independence, however, the rulers of the Hellenistic states vied with each other in constructing magnificent buildings on Delos, where all Greeks could gaze upon and marvel at the wealth and power of the kings who had built them.
The entire site of the Sanctuary was studded with hundreds of marble and bronze statues, costly votive offerings from cities or wealthy individuals; unfortunately, only their inscribed pedestals survive.
5. Commercial centre
The period of independence came to an end when the Macedonians were defeated by the Romans at Pydna in 168 BC. In 166 BC, the Romans granted Delos to the Athenians who once again exiled the Delians – this time permanently – and installed their own settlers on the island. The Romans, who were thenceforth to regulate the fate of the Mediterranean, proclaimed Delos a free port aiming thus to precipitate the financial ruin of the rival Rhodians. The fact that Delos was exempted from tax (ateleia) by the Romans, as well as its exceptionally favourable geographical location, as well as the destruction of Corinth, hitherto an important commercial centre, in 146 BC, resulted in Delos becoming the hub of the transit trade between East and West, North and South. Powerful Rhodes was economically ruined, while Delos soon became the maximum emporium totius orbis terrarum (Festus), the greatest commercial centre in the world. A natural by-product of the island’s growing wealth was the sharp increase in population and intense construction activity. The city grew larger, new districts sprang up and many private residences and public buildings were constructed.
The Archaic port in the northwest of the island was small and could no longer serve the increased commercial activity, so the necessary new harbour installations were gradually built on the more favourable western part of the island. On the noisy wharves ships from all over the Mediterranean were constantly loading and unloading tons of merchandise and thousands of slaves.
6. The City
By the end of the 5th century BC, in addition to the priests and servants who were required to run the enormous Sanctuary, there were also many other inhabitants on the island.
The City spread over the slopes of the six low hills surrounding the small valley of the Sanctuary within a few decades after 166 BC, when the ateleia was declared. The result of this rapid growth was a haphazardly built city with no town plan and no regular street layout. This is especially evident in the Theatre Quarter, the oldest and the most expensive quarter of the city. Wealthy and average houses are side by side, with no class distinctions. Tall houses did not allow the sun to penetrate through to the narrow (1.45 - 3 m. width) irregular streets, which must therefore have been dark, damp and full of mud during the winter. Owing to the contour of the terrain, the narrow, stone-paved streets of the Theatre Quarter and the dirt roads in the other districts were all fairly steep, and steps had to be built in some places.
In the newer quarter of Skardanas, inhabited mainly by well-to-do Italians and foreign merchants, it is evident that there were attempts to follow a city plan and to build on city blocks, but it was not always adhered to. The streets in this region are much wider (4.50 - 9 metres); however, gradual encroachments kept being made in order to enlarge the houses and create new shops. In every unexploited nook and cranny in the already densely populated city centre, new little shops, craftsmen’s workshops and houses kept springing up. It is obvious that the wealthy new residents did not see Delos as their homeland but as a temporary seat for their professional activities.
However, the city had a complete drainage system: each house’s drains were connected to the main network that ran along all the streets. Wastes were dumped into the sea.
In the financial reports of the Sanctuary, reference is made to sums of money allocated for cleaning the Sanctuary. It seems that there were no other provisions made for cleaning the city or for dealing with refuse.
Compared to other contemporary cities and particularly to Alexandria, “which is crossed by wide avenues so that horses and carts can pass”, Delos was little more than a small, haphazardly built, dirty commercial city. The only thing that made it different was the existence of the ancient Sanctuary and the myths surrounding the island.
7. Destruction and desertion
The wealth that had been accumulated on the island and the Delians’ friendly relations with Rome were the main causes of the island’s destruction. The island was devastated and sacked twice: in 88 BC by Mithridates King of Pontos, who was at war with the Romans, and again in 69 BC by the pirates of Athenodoros, an ally of Mithridates.
The ancient city had developed only as an extension of the port; it flourished as long as the transit trade between east and west was concentrated there; and it ceased to exist when the port became unsafe and trade moved to the harbours of the West.
After Delos was sacked for the second time the city gradually dwindled, was abandoned and forgotten. Tertullian, apologist of Christianity, cited the later Sibyllic oracle in a characteristically spiteful way: “kai Samos ammos kai Delos adelos eseitai”, a play with puns and rhymes meaning: “Even Samos shall be sand, and the Far-Seen [Delos] unseen”.
In the early centuries AD, there was even a considerable Christian community on the island, as testified by the remains of eight early Christian basilicas and the fact that Delos is mentioned as being the see of a bishop. After the 7th century AD, however, it appears to have been totally deserted and the uninhabited islet became a pirates’ lair for many centuries.
8. The excavations
The first excavation was conducted on Delos in 1772 by Pasch van Krienen, a Dutch-Prussian officer of the Russian occupation army; his findings ended up in St Petersburg and Bucharest, together with other pieces of ancient marble. In 1829, an Italian requested permission to excavate on Delos, but changed his mind after visiting the island, in the conviction that he would find nothing worthwhile. In the same year, the members of the French Expédition Scientifique de Morée dug a few test trenches in some buildings near the sea.
Systematic excavations began in 1873 by J. Lebègue, member of the French Archaeological School at Athens, and Panagiotis Stamatakis, employee of the Ministry of Ecclesiastical Affairs and Public Education, and continued by the French Archaeological School at Athens under the supervision of a Ministry employee.
By the early decades of the 20th century, the Sanctuaries had already been unearthed as had a part of the ancient city, most of which fortunately still lies under a protective layer of some two metres of soil. The Greek Archaeological Service and the French Archaeological School continue to conduct excavations to this day, but on a much smaller scale, since the main concern of the Greek Archaeological Service is to protect, conserve and make accessible the monuments that have already been excavated, a task that requires enormous outlays. But the section that has already been excavated, perhaps the most extensive archaeological site in the world, gives the visitor a clear and unique picture of the Sanctuary and of the ancient city.
9. The Delos Museum
The findings from the excavations are kept in the Delos Museum, and include all or part of some 30,000 vessels, statuettes, small objects, 8,000 sculptures, and 3,000 inscriptions. Most of the sculptures, a few pottery and small objects are exhibited in the Museum’s eleven halls.