As the site of Apollo’s birth (Artemis’ birthplace was sometimes debated), Delos possessed tremendous sanctity. In the late seventh century bc, the Ionian islanders of Naxos dedicated a sculptural group of between nine and twelve marble lions (perhaps inspired by Egyptian avenues of sphinxes, such as those linking Luxor and Karnak) on a terrace overlooking the sacred lake.
Six or seven decades later, Peisistratus, bolstering Athens’ claim to lead the Ionian Greeks, purified the area around the sacred lake, disinterring remains from a nearby graveyard and reburying them on the far side of Delos. He also began building a temple to Apollo, facing the Sacred Harbour, its inner sanctuary dominated by a massive statue of the god. Meanwhile Polycrates, the tyrannos of Samos, dedicated the nearby (and much larger) island of Rhenea to Apollo, linking it to Delos with a chain, through which divine ‘energy’ could flow.
During the Persian invasion of 490 bc, Hippias (Peisistratus’ son, now a Persian collaborator) made lavish sacrifices at Delos to win Apollo’s favour for his traitorous cause. He failed. After Persia’s defeat, Delos became the site of the assembly and treasury of the Greek – or Delian – League (478 bc). In a solemn ceremony at the Sacred Harbour, Ionian ambassadors swore allegiance to Athens, dropping red-hot iron bars into the sea to seal their pledge.
A colonnaded temple to Apollo was begun just south of that built by Peisistratus, facing a colossal statue of the god (9 m/30 ft tall) dedicated by the Naxians in the seventh century bc. It was not completed until the end of the fourth century bc. When the League’s headquarters were transferred to Athens in 454 bc, Athens continued to stake a claim to Delos. In 426/425 bc, during the Peloponnesian War, it removed all graves from the island to Rhenea, proclaiming that henceforth no one might give birth, die or keep a dog on Delos. Athenians also built a third temple to Apollo between the existing two.
In the early Roman era, Delos, now a bustling free port and sizeable community with over twenty thousand inhabitants, hosted a thriving slave market and attracted worshippers of many other gods. Temples were built to Isis and Ba’al, as well as the oldest surviving Jewish synagogue. But Delos’ isolation left it vulnerable to attack. By the end of the first century bc its fortunes were already in decline. In time, thanks to its lack of agricultural land, it was abandoned.
Serene yet implacable, Apollo orders an end to fighting on the west pediment of the fifth-century BC Temple of Zeus at
Delos in History & Today Photo Gallery
Today Delos’ only permanent inhabitants are lizards, insects – and quails, which bustle busily about the marble ruins. Although the foundations of its Classical temples and some columns still survive, together with remains of its fine Hellenistic theatre, Roman and Egyptian shrines and Roman houses (some still with wall paintings and mosaics), much of the ancient splendour of the island must be imagined. The sacred lake has now been drained – mosquitoes once danced low over its waters, like Apollo’s arrows the bringers of disease – though a solitary palm tree still stands near its parched and fissured shore, while replicas of five Naxian lions keep watch above it. And above them all, Apollo, god of light, stares down unblinkingly.
Delos is a popular cruise destination, but independent travellers may take one of the frequent ferries (30 minutes) from nearby Mykonos. All must be prepared for the merciless sun and the lack of any real shade on the island.
Facing the Sacred Harbour (separated by a narrow spit from the ancient Commercial Harbour, where most now disembark) is the site occupied by three sixth- and fifth-century BC temples to Apollo, their unusual west-facing entrances aligned to an earlier Bronze Age shrine. A path (left) leads towards the Temple of Leto, the Avenue of Lions and the (now drained) Sacred Lake. Enthusiastic walkers can proceed to the Stadium and Synagogue on the far side of the island. Other paths lead off (right) towards the fine theatre, above which remains of large houses contain well-preserved mosaics and wall-paintings. In this area, too, are the sanctuaries of Syrian and Egyptian gods. A paved pathway leads the top of Mount Cynthus with panoramic views of the Cyclades.
The small Museum (which also sells refreshments) contains finds from Delos, including the originals of the Naxian lions, a Mycenaean ivory plaque showing a warrior in a boar’s-tusk helmet, an archaic statue of a young woman, an impressive bronze mask of Dionysus and a second-century BC statue of Apollo. There is also a good collection of pottery and a stunning (if hastily drawn) fresco showing Heracles, two boxers and a musician.