Delos, the center of the Cyclades, has been inhabited since at least the 3rd millenium
B.C. It rose in importance as the Greeks did and around 480 BC it became the center of
the Delian League. The Delian League in turn kept its treasury on Delos making it a
rather wealthy location. They also passed several decrees, including that no one could
be born or die on the island. Pregnant women were quickly shipped off to neighboring
islands as was anyone who became ill.
Delos became immensely wealthy and was so impressive that the Romans kept it as a free
port when they came into power. It finally collapsed in 88 BC when Mithridates conquered
it. What is left today is one of the most extensive ruin sites anywhere in the world.
The entire island is strewn with sections of walls and marble fragments. It is also still
being excavated. This is the view from the small harbor where one arrives at Delos.
Unfortunately, you only have about four hours on the island, which is not even remotely
enough. We visited the museum first which is where the famous marble lions that
once guarded the sacred lake are now stored. The 'sacred lake' is the supposed birthplace
of Apollo. We were awestruck within a few minutes of arriving on the island. In all
directions are the remains of temples, homes, and monuments. There is also an impressive
array of different cultures that left their mark on the island. Shrines for Samothracian,
Egyptian, and Syrian Gods are interspersed amongst the Greek ones. This is the Temple of
Isis which stands above most of the town. (Or at least the town that has been excavated
Entire sections of the residential areas are more or less intact. The streets are still
clearly outlined, many of them with sewers running underneath. The northern section of
town featured more modest living quarters. Here most of the homes were only a couple
rooms. Wildflowers have taken over in force in most places which only enhances the whole
effect. These columns once supported the roof of a club house of sorts used by merchants
from Syria. The building was a gathering place for Syrians (who oddly enough mostly
worshipped Poseidon at the time) as well as a hostel.
As we explored some of the homes in that quarter of town, we started to come across one
of the most amazing features of Delos. It has been over 2000 years since the height of
civilization on the island, there have been numerous pirate raids and looting of antiquities
and yet some sections are remarkably intact. It is uncertain how long this particular
house had been destroyed and the flooring inside exposed to the elements, yet the tiling
in the main room remains, surrounded by a raised marble border. It's hard to tell from
this picture but the floor here is made up of individual tiny stones.
Most of the homes consisted of a central room which varied in size and opulence. Off of
this room would be several smaller chambers, presumably bedrooms and such. The nicer homes
also contained private cisterns and in some cases water running through private bathrooms.
The central section of town contained many of the functional temples for the Greek citizens.
There was also a central square/agora. The large flat stones which tile the agora still
show the post holes that would have been used for tents in the marketplace. Naturally,
the primary worship on the island was to Apollo. The statue of Apollo which stood
overlooking the harbor was enormous. Sketches made in the 18th century of the upper half
of the statue exist in the museum. Today all that is left is a section of the torso
which is still daunting.
Behind Melanie here is a section of that temple and scattered all around it are further
remnants. Many of the random chunks of marble strewn all over the island are in the
process of being painstakingly classified and categorized for eventual reconstruction.
It's basically the world's largest jigsaw puzzle. A platform a little north of here
called the Stoivadeion was a sanctuary to Dionysus. It was flanked by phallic statues
which still exist. We didn't pose in front of those for artistic reasons.
A hill rises on the south side of town and that area is known as the theater district.
It is there that some of the truly opulent houses can be found. Two themes show up
most often in the mosaics. The dolphin was the symbol of Apollo.
The panther was associated with Dionysus. This amazing mosaic,
which again has been long exposed to the elements, can be found in the central room of
the 'House of Dionysus'. This is the centerpiece of a very large mosaic, several
The House of Dionysus was large enough to have mutiple stories although the upper floor has
since collapsed. Along with the central mosaic, the decorative plastering on the walls in
some rooms is still visible. Viewed from higher up the hill, the elaborate floor is
surrounded by eight Doric columns. Private rooms upstairs would have had a view down into
this central court. This home dates from around 125 BC and several artifacts from it can
be seen in the museum including dice and utensils.
Across the street is the House of Cleopatra (no relation to the Egyptian Queen). Entering
this home you would have encountered this long hallway with sculptures of the owners
(Cleopatra & Diouresis) of the house at the end. You would not have seen us standing in
front of them of course. You'll have to excuse the slight tilt of the camera, ruins don't
present many flat surfaces. Also, I apologize for the Lite beer shirt, we won it at a bar
so it was free. To the right of us was a ballroom with another nice mosaic on the floor and
to the left was a garden room with a lovely view of the harbor and the rest of the town.
If you're wondering why so many Greek statues are headless, there are two main reasons.
The first is that if you're a pirate it's much easier to carry off a head than the entire
chunk of marble. The second, is that often the heads were sculpted separately and then
screwed into the rest of the statue. There is an entire room of heads back at the
Archeological Museum in Athens.
This is a very long page, so here's a brief interlude before we continue on.
That window was in the House of the Trident which is quite intact and still has its roof.
It is one of the few things which is gated off. For the most part though, visitors are
free to wander anywhere about the island. The diagonal-patterned floor in this picture
was once part of the next house up the road from the Trident House. Once these walls
were complete, now however they have a nice view of Tinos in the distance.
It couldn't really be called the theater district without a theater of course. At the
top of the hill past the nicest homes is the actual theater. It's not as impressive as
those on mainland Greece and it's not in this picture as it was temporarily overrun with a
certain French school group singing interesting lyrics on the assumption that no one else
nearby could speak French. It is however a natural semi-circular bowl. These stones here
are lined up for the agonizingly slow process of rebuilding the seats themselves, very few
of which are still on the hill. The wall in the background is part of the original city
wall, apparently in case of an overland attack by a herd of unruly goats.
Behind the theater is the centerpiece of the city's remarkable water system. The
largest cistern actually featured vaulted stone arches above it. This was particularly
important as Delos has no fresh water sources. It is a relatively small island with a
central mountain and a quick descent to the sea, so all water had to be trapped from
Delos is surrounded by the larger islands of the Cyclades. Mykonos is the closest major
island, 2 or 3 kilometers away. This view looks north across the ruins to the mountainous
island of Tinos in the distance. The white spots are not snow, they are villages.
The most famous of all the mosaics on Delos is that of Dionysus riding a panther. This
is found in the completely intact House of the Masks (named for another mosaic featuring
theater masks). Several rooms in this building contain large sections of the original wall
decoration as well as mosaics covering the entire floor. It is difficult to tell from the
distance you're forced to remain from it, but this mosaic is so incredibly detailed that
there are over 100 stones in the eye of the panther alone. The building itself was
probably a hostel for actors.
This the House of the Masks from above. The mosaics are under the roofed area in what
were likely the public rooms. The columns define the courtyard which was fairly standard
on Delos and the uncovered network of rooms around the outside were likely the rooms that
actors stayed in. This picture is taken partway up the mountain that dominates the
island - Mt. Kynthos.
At 113 meters (370 ft), it's a healthy climb to the top of Mt. Kynthos, not the sort of
thing you'd want to do very often if footwear was limited to sandals. Nevertheless the
priests in Delos came up here regularly - it was also sacred. It has a fine view of the
surrounding islands as well as all of Delos. The small uninhabited island to the left is
Ekati, and the larger one beyond that is Renia. The vague shadow far off beyond that
would be Syros. Besides a rewarding view of the surrounding islands, you can learn from
up here that you'd need several more days to see all of Delos. Low stone walls criss-cross
the entire island and we never even came near the stadium, the gymnasium, or several other
homes famed for their mosaics.
Here again is the Temple of Isis, although much closer up. You can see that she's lost
her head too. Another Egyptian god, Serapis, has a temple as well. Also nearby are the
remains of a theater devoted to Syrian gods (before Poseidon) where crowds would gather
to watch orgies. Those crazy Syrians.
This is where we ran out of time and had to return to the boat for the trip back to
Mykonos. On the boat back we met up once again with fellow travelers Randy and Bev.
They offered us cookies and in return we told them about our impending escape to Santorini
(I didn't say it was a fair trade, that was all we had to offer.) If you read through
the Mykonos page you already know they decided to accompany us. If not, you can go read