Delos island near Mykonos is one of the most important mythological, historical and archaeological sites in Greece and of the biggest in Europe. Let’s indulge into ancient history via the mythical path!
Delos, birthplace of Apollo
As the myth would have it, despite being married to Hera, ever-amorous Zeus enjoyed many extra-marital adventures that bore him numerous offspring. One of these was the lovely Titaness Leto.
When Leto fell pregnant by Zeus she had to search desperately for a place to give birth to Apollo and Artemis, with jealous Hera in relentless pursuit. However, for fear of Hera’s wrath and spite, various cities and islands refused to take the hapless Leto in.
When it seemed that her flight would have no end, she eventually found herself carried on the wings of the south wind to Delos in the middle of the Aegean. Leto begged the island to accept her and promised that her son Apollo would found his temple there, that he would make the island wealthy and famous.
The island was won over and Leto stayed and gave birth to the twins. Delos was to know greatness, first as a religious center and later as a busy commercial port. In turn it was glorified, lauded, destroyed, rebuilt and destroyed once again; a rich history which lasted several hundreds of years.
History of Delos
In the 7th century B.C., the Naxians erected many buildings and countless offerings dedicated to the god. The House of the Naxians, the Colossus of Naxos and the renowned Terrace of the Lions are the most known.
One year after the end of the Persian wars, in 479, the Athenians founded a maritime league (the Delian Confederacy), which was an alliance between the Athenians on the one side, and the Ionian cities and the islands of the Aegean on the other, with Delos as its headquarters.
The purported aim of the alliance was to create a united defense against the Persians, but in fact it was the means by which the Athenians would establish their hegemony in the Aegean Sea and gain control over the sanctuary of Delos. After the defeat of Athens in the Peloponnesian War in 404 B.C., Delos enjoyed a short independence until 394 B.C., when the Athenians regained possession.
The glory days of commerce
Later with the Macedonians prevailing, Delos became part of the Macedonian sphere of influence. In 314 B.C. the island became independent without, however, being neutral since once again it became a member of a new island alliance, under the leadership of Ptolemy I of Egypt.
In 166 B.C. the Romans declared Delos a free port, waiving all duty otherwise to be paid. The island was once again handed over to the Athenians and all native Delians were exiled to Achaia, never to return.
Thanks to its duty-free status, Delos developed into the chief international exchange center for Eastern Mediterranean commerce. It became also the main slave market of Greece. This led to the arrival in Delos of wealthy merchants, bankers and shipping magnates from Athens and other parts of Greece, from Italy, Egypt, Phoenicia, Syria, Palestine, and Asia Minor, who then established their businesses, and built their lavish mansions here.
The fall of Delos
However, this proverbial paradise was not destined to last forever. In 88 B.C. Mithridates, King of the Black Sea, was at war with Rome and because Delos remained loyal to the latter, his army descended on the island and sacked it. Twenty thousand people lost their lives. The city was partly rebuilt, but in 69 B.C. it was yet again destroyed, this time by the pirates of the Aegean. Delos was no longer a safe haven.
Merchants who had not fled the sacking of the year 88, fled now for safer destinations. New ports in Italy (Ostia, Pozzoles) and in the Middle East took over from Delos. The French School began systematic excavations in 1873 and works are still in progress. Between all the ancient cities which have been excavated in Greece, Delos is the best preserved and unique in that it has been uncovered in its entirety, with its harbors, market places, theatre, gymnasium, stadium, wrestling arenas, its temples and sanctuaries, and districts of private residences. The ruins of Delos constitute the largest archaeological site in Europe.
HOW TO GET THERE: Three boats daily: at 09:00, at 10:00 & at 11:00
Verify the timetable in the low season.
A local tip: Escape the crowds and climb Mount Kynthos. From the top of the mountain you will enjoy a panoramic view of the surrounding islands.