Apollo and Artemis, twin siblings, were born under a palm-tree on Delos. Although Homer himself had earlier referred in passing to the altar of Apollo on Delos in the Odyssey (VI. 162), the story of the god's birth on the insignificant islet of Delos is first told in detail in the Hymn to Apollo: in it the poet stresses – and the island itself apologises for – its barren rocks and utter poverty, seemingly so inappropriate to the home of the most resplendent of the Greek deities. But the divine association which followed had the effect of supercharging this tiny granitic, outcrop in the sea into the most sacred place in the ancient Aegean – the sea's political centre in the aftermath of the Persian wars, its commercial hub for many centuries, and consequently one of the most important archaeological areas in the Greek Islands today. Delos was closely surrounded by grand and powerful islands – Naxos, Paros, Kea, Tenos, Euboea – and from the beginning Delos may have appealed as a kind of neutral territory in the midst of these powers, in which the Ionian peoples could meet for their communal festival in a place that was specifically not one of those larger islands. Thucydides (III. 104) comments that Pan-Ionian athletic gatherings and poetic contests were from earliest times held on Delos.
The establishing of a cult of Apollo, as early as the 9th century BC, subsequently reinforced by the attentions of two powerful leaders of the 6th century BC, Peisistratus, tyrant of Athens, and Polycrates of Samos, soon brought Delos preeminent fame and wealth. It also brought it grief. As the Aegean powers throughout later history sought to dominate the island and its cult for their own political ends, the people of Delos were repeatedly moved, exiled, repopulated or captured like pawns in a wider strategic power-game. The island knew immense wealth at times – latterly as a Hellenic-wide centre of commerce in slaves – and at other times, destitution and destruction.
Delos was also called Ortygia or ‘Quail Island' in remote Antiquity. Later ancient writers created a play (based on a specious etymology) on the name ‘Delos', suggesting that the island was formerly ‘a-delos' (‘invisible') until the birth of the resplendent Apollo made it ‘delos' (‘visible'). The island is only c. 5 km long by c. 1.3 km wide, and is formed of granite and gneiss. Delos was once well-endowed with fresh water which remained trapped above the lower layers of granite and was accessible through shallow wells. The landscape is eroded and treeless: the only seasonal torrent is the ancient Inopos which drains the plain to the north of Mount Kynthos into the Bay of Skardana (northwest), forming a small circular lake along the way where once the sacred grove of palm-trees grew. The island's two harbours in the middle of the west coast are protected by the two reefs, Megalo and Mikro Rhevmatiari.
The remains of a prehistoric settlement on the top of Mt Kynthos indicate that Delos was inhabited at the end of the 3rd millennium BC. The Mycenaean period saw the first organised settlement in the harbour area and the establishment of a cult of Artemis which was to continue on the same site in later times, later as the sister of the new god, Apollo. The Ionians who began to colonise the Cyclades around 950 BC brought to Delos the cult of Leto, a possibly Lycian mother-goddess in origin, who was now described as having given birth to both Artemis and Apollo on the island. Festivals called Delia in honour jointly of Apollo, Artemis and Leto then began to be celebrated on the island.
In the 7th century BC, Delos, under the protection of Naxos, became the head-quarters of a league of Aegean Ionians. In this period the island was notably embellished first by Naxos – the giant kouros statue of Apollo and the ‘Terrace of the Lions' – and later by the island of Paros. Polycrates, the 6th century BC tyrant of Samos having conquered the Cyclades, is said by Thucydides (III.104) symbolically to have attached Rheneia to Delos with a chain and dedicated it also to Apollo.
From early on, the Athenians took advantage of their kinship with the Ionians to enter the league of which they soon became the presiding element, sending religious embassies annually to the sanctuary led by ambassadors called ‘Deliastae', and later termed ‘Theoroi'. Latterly, as the uncontested masters of its religious affairs, they ordered a ritual purification (catharsis) of the sanctuary on more than one occasion. The first purification (only of the area of the island which was visible from the sanctuary itself) was orderd by Peisistratos, tyrant of Athens, in 543 BC.
The inhabitants of Delos took refuge on Tenos at the outbreak of the Persian Wars in 490 BC; but the Persian commander Datis, who had sent his fleet to Rheneia, left sacred Delos untouched. After the Persian defeats in 480/479 BC, the island acquired further honour and importance as the home of the Delian League, or ‘First Athenian Confederacy' – the maritime league founded in 478 BC under the leadership of Athens. The League's treasury was established on the island until it was transferred to Athens in 454 BC. A new temple of Apollo was built in Athenian, Pentelic marble between the two pre-existing temples to the god. In 426/5 BC, following an outbreak of plague, the Athenians ordered a second purification of Delos on the instigation of the Delphic Oracle, this time of the whole island (Thucydides, III, 104). They exhumed all but the most sacred burials which were on Delos and transported them to Rheneia, passing at the same time a decree that thenceforward no one should die or give birth on the Delos, and that all who were near the time of either should be carried across to Rheneia. Strabo adds that it was unalwful even to keep a dog on the island (Geog. X. 5. 4).
After the purification, the Athenians restored the Delian Festival which had lapsed in the course of years, and they instituted the Delian Games which were held every four years and comprised athletic sports, horse-racing, and musical contests. As acknowledged leaders of the Delian Confederacy, the Athenians took the most prominent part in the ceremonies. Even though the islanders and other participated in providing choruses and animals for the sacrifices, the leader, or Architheoros, was always an Athenian. For the festivities, the Athenians sent the Theoris – a sacred vessel believed to have been used by Theseus – every year to Delos. During its absence, the city of Athens was also purified and it was forbidden to execute criminals. Before the vessel's departure, sacrifice was offered in the Delion at Marathon in order to ensure a safe voyage. On arrival in the island, the embassy from Athens processed to the temple, singing the ‘Prosodion' – the hymn recounting the story of Leto and the birth of the divine twins, and intoning chants in honour of Apollo. The ‘Géranos', or sacred ‘dance of the flight of the crane', was performed before the altar of Apollo. The Delia ended with theatrical plays and banquets. The ‘Lesser Delia' were a smaller but annual festival.
Athens further increased her grip on the island by actively settling it with her own citizens, and in 422 BC she banished the remaining Delians on the pretext that they were impure and unworthy of the sacred island. She allowed them to return later at the bidding of the Delphic Oracle. Athenian overseers, called Amphictiones, administered the temple with the nominal concurrence of the Delians. An interesting account by Plutarch (Nikias, 3) tells how in 417 BC Nikias, at the head of an Athenian embassy, disembarked in Rheneia and crossed to Delos in procession on a temporary bridge of wooden barges that he had constructed. He brought with him and dedicated beside the Temple of Apollo a life-size, bronze palm-tree. The tree later fell over and in the process toppled the giant marble kouros statue of Apollo which had been erected by Naxos over a century and half earlier.
Delos tried repeatedly to shake off Athenian control. First, after the defeat of Athens at Aegospotami in 404 BC, the island appealed to Sparta and, from 401 to 394 BC, enjoyed a short period of independence. But Athens soon regained possession of the island and in 378 BC instituted the ‘Second Athenian Confederacy', substantially different from the first Confederacy in that it was purely defensive and not an instrument of imperialism, as the latter had ultimately become. Only two years later the Athenians again had to reassert their authority when the Delians attempted to regain control of the sanctuary for the second time.
The Hellenistic era brought a fundamental shift in the island's character, as its commercial significance became almost as great as – if not greater than – its religious importance. On the strength of this, it entered the most prosperous and cosmopolitan period of its history, now with substantial resident communities of Egyptians, Syrians, Phoenicians, Palestinians and Jews. Rich offerings continued to flow into the sanctuary, and the number of honours decreed to foreign benefactors underlines the variety and importance of the island's diplomatic and commercial relations. The contemporary inscriptions that have survived give a detailed picture of the temple's administration and of the island's constitution. Delos was a democracy with an archon, a senate and an assembly. The care of the sanctuary was in the hands of four annually elected hieropoioi, who combined the offices of priest and administrator. A significant development for the island was the arrival of the first Roman settlers on Delos around 250 BC. It did not take long for the Roman merchants to predominate over other foreign communities. As a calculated correction to the commercial power and dominance of the island of Rhodes, which had irked Rome by its ambiguous behaviour in the Third Macedonian War, the Roman senate allowed the Athenians to reoccupy the island in 166 BC and made Delos into a tax-free port. This gave the island a crucial competitive edge. In the process, the Delians were expelled from their home yet again and the island became a clerurchy under the control of an Athenian Epimeletes (manager), even though the Romans still remained the true masters of the island and its trade. Strabo (Geog. X. 5, 4) points out that, after the razing of Corinth by Rome in 146 BC following a diplomatic incident, the merchants of Corinth moved to Delos and ‘were attracted both by the immunity which the sanctuary afforded, and by the convenient situation of its harbour' right at the hub of the Aegean trade routes. He adds that the religious festival had by now become a commercial affair dominated by the Romans. It was under Roman control that Delos was to become the slave-market of Greece, with as many as 10,000 slaves changing hands in a single day. As commercial gain replaced religious importance the urban landscape of the town was also transformed by the grand buildings and maket-places constructed by the various guilds of foreign merchants. Italian merchants, with the backing of Rome, formed an association under the title of ‘Hermaists', and commercial syndicates of merchants from Tyre, Beirut, Alexandria, and elsewhere formed similar trade associations. The fine houses of a prosperous, mercantile bourgeoisie multiplied in the area to the southeast of the harbour.
After the island was comprehensively sacked in 88 BC by Archelaus, the general of Mithridates VI, Delos was never again to recover her former greatness – even though it was retaken for Rome the following year by Sulla, partially rebuilt with Roman aid and put once again under Athenian control. In 69 BC the island was again sacked by pirates. This led to the building of a wall round the city by the Roman legate, Triarius, to protect it from further attacks. Delos had by now become a by-word for conspicuous decline in Roman literature. In the 2nd century AD Pausanias observed that the island would remain virtually uninhabited if the temple guard were withdrawn. Philostratus (3rd century AD) even claims that the Athenians put the island up for sale and that there were no offers. The grand structures of Delos were used as a quarry for ready-cut building material by the Venetians, the Turks, and even the inhabitants of Mykonos and Tinos. The first excavations by French and Greek archaeologists date from as early as 1873 and have continued with only occasional interruption until the present day.
(Open daily, except Mondays & Public Holidays, 9-3. The return boat fare does not include admission to the site.)Already from the arriving boat the ruins can be seen stretching over a considerable area along the shore and up the hill behind. The shuttle-boats moor on a new mole constructed in what was the middle of the ancient harbour. The extension of the line of this mole eastwards roughly divides the site in two – the sacred centre of the Sanctuary on the left side, and the residential and commercial area to the right-hand side. In early times, when the religious nature of the site prevailed, the centre of activity was the former; while, during the later ascendancy of the commercial importance of the island, the rising slopes to the right became a new focus of much of the island's activities. Visible to the left is the area where the original temples of Apollo and Artemis stood at the heart of a large sacred court, surrounded by other sacred buildings and temples of other divinities, just inland of the mole. The sacred lake, where the palm-trees associated with Apollo's birth grew, overlooked by the Terrace of the Lions, stretches further to the north. On the periphery of this main area and over towards the opposite shore of the island were later Hellenistic residential and recreational areas. - Visible to the right are the residential and commercial buildings, mostly dating from the Hellenistic Age and after, which are the best preserved structures on Delos, rising up the slopes of the hill towards the city's grand theatre which is visible above and to the right. Beyond this was a newer area given over to the communities of foreign merchants and to the temples of the cults they brought with them. Behind and yet further to the east rises the summit of Mount Kynthos (112 m), reached by a cut stone stairway.
Info: McGilchrist's Greek Islands
(From McGilchrist’s Greek Islands, © Nigel McGilchrist 2010, excerpted with his gracious permission. Click for the books)