My daughter and I recently visited Athens and several of the Greek islands of the Cyclades. On our last day of visiting Mykonos, we made the highly recommended side-trip to the island of Delos. We are both very interested in archaeology and ancient ruins, and we were told that Delos was once considered one of the most important religious sites in Greece as it was the legendary birthplace of Apollo, god of music and light. For us it was a no-brainer. It was a quick half-hour journey by ferry to the island. This very dry, rocky island is like an open-air museum of antiquity; there were ruins visible in every direction.
We chose not to hire a guide so we could go at our own pace. We enjoyed our leisurely, though sometimes challenging ramble up the rock-strewn dusty hills through the ruins of what was once a thriving and very active town. The homes were built very close together and many shared common walls.
We peeked into many former dwellings which now seem very small and claustrophobic. But there were many pleasing surprises.
Suddenly a statue would appear in a space that was once an elegant home; often that statue would be headless. Peeking through what was once a “window” opening in a wall, one could see, in the shadows, a floor mosaic, faint in color, but well preserved, attesting to the artistry of the local inhabitants.
As we climbed higher up the main hill of the island, we came upon the ruins of former temples and a vista of the islands and the surrounding Aegean that was breathtaking.
Although it was quite warm that day, and we were parched, we managed to spend about three hours walking through most of the significant ruins on the island. Once the center of an Apollo cult, sadly, the temple of Apollo is now completely in ruins, as is the area adjacent to it. But if you closed your eyes for a moment, you could almost imagine the splendor that once existed.
Our last stop on Delos was to see the “lions” of Delos: Five of the original nine lions sculpted from marble (facsimiles of the originals now in museums) line the Terrace of the Lions, a 50m-long promenade that leads to the Sacred Lake. Sadly, there is not much left of the lions, but enough to indicate how important this island once was as a sacred place of worship for the Greeks.
Exhausted from walking in the heat, we never made it to see the actual “sacred lake” which is now merely a slight depression in the earth, completely dry.
We felt very pleased with ourselves for having made the decision to visit this World Heritage site. It is worth mentioning that “for a few decades in the fifth century B.C., Delos was important enough to be the headquarters of the Delian League, the confederation of Greek city-states, and the repository for it’s treasury. By 100 B.C., under Roman occupation, Delos had a cosmopolitan population of 25,000, drawn from throughout the Mediterranean world; its market sold 10,000 slaves a day.
It even had a second robust act, developing under the Romans into a flourishing center of trade, with a huge slave market, on the shipping routes between the Aegean world and the Middle East. Delos was gradually abandoned, however after most of the population was massacred in a wave of attacks beginning in A.D. 88. Except for occasional visits by Venetians and crusaders, the temples, mosaics, and shrines were left to the elements….”
(Frommer’s, Athens and the Greek Islands 2017).
Even with the extensive ruins that remain, it takes a huge stretch of the imagination to imagine Delos as having been an active trading center and religious site. The hills and ruins of Delos are completely silent and you can hear only whispers of what once was. As we sailed away from Delos we took a last look at what almost seemed like a mirage.
On the return trip we were both silent, deep in thoughts about our experience on the island.
Back at the wonderful Hotel Leto, we prepared to leave Mykonos. Our stay here went quickly, but it was totally satisfying. We wouldn’t at all mind returning to Mykonos one day…but next time we’d do more relaxing and swimming!
Next stop: Sensational Santorini!