Sunday, August 14, 2011

Ancient Delos -- one of the 'must-see' places of Greece

At Ancient Delos
On Tuesday 26 July we visited Delos.  We were surprised to encounter Chuck and Lynn from S/V CYAN on the same ferry.  Small world.  We did not even know they had made it to Greece yet.  Last we heard they were still in Turkey.  It was nice to catch up briefly.  They were in a guided tour group and we did not see them again once the ferry docked.

Carvings at base of pillar
In ancient Greek, delos means clear, brought to light.  According to the myth, the island of Delos appeared from the waves when Lito took refuge there and gave birth to twins Apollo (god of light) and Artemis (goddess of hunting).  One could easily spend days visiting the ancient site and still not see it all. 
Ram carvings at base of pillar
But one day was sufficient for us -- there being not an archaeologist or historian among our group.  Just regular old tourists who didn't know exactly what we were looking at.   It is advisable to visit Delos with a guide to make the most of it.  But being the thrifty folks that we are, we did not want to spring for the big bucks and pay for a guided tour.  That gets a tad costly for a group of 7.  Besides, with a 2-year-old in tow we knew this would not be an easy day and none of us would have been able to really pay attention to the guide or retain much of what he or she might have told us.
Seeking shade in the heat
The island of Delos is located just a few nautical miles from Mykonos.  There are several ferry trips daily except on Mondays.  You are not allowed to approach Delos in a yacht unless first obtaining a special permit (if you can get it) from authorities in Mykonos.  Therefore, it is best to take the tour ferries.  Delos is hot and there is no shade anywhere, so bring lots of drinking water and an umbrella.  Delos has always been a religious (since 1000 BC) and commercial center (since 478 B.C.).  The island is tiny, comprising only 4 square kilometers; but is home to the oldest and largest open-air archaeological site in Europe.  Modern excavations began in 1873 and continue even today by Greek and French archaeologists, although we saw almost no work underway today.

Partially restored house
The site has many houses, temples and sanctuaries as well as an indoor Archaeological Museum. The museum was built in 1904 and originally had 5 rooms. Today the exhibitions are held in 9 rooms. Six of them house the statues and other findings from Delos. Two rooms are filled with pottery from various places (from prehistory to the Hellenistic period), while the last one contains an exhibition of daily objects found in private houses. Within the exhibition there are funerary statues (7th -1st century B.C.), pottery (25th -1st century B.C.), clay figurines (2nd-1st century B.C.), jewelry (2nd -1st B.C.) and other small objects, as well as mosaics (2nd- 1st century B.C.). 
Temple of Apollo at Ancient Delos.  Note statue remains in center.
According to mythology, after Zeus (the philandering king of the gods) impregnated the mortal Lito with Artemis and Apollo, he sent her away from Olympus in an attempt to shield her from the wrath of his jealous wife Hera.  Lito desperately sought a place to give birth.  She wandered the Aegean Sea; but was refused by island after island, each afraid of Hera's fury.  At last the exhausted Lito came upon a floating island shrouded in mist, but it also cowered under Hera's threats.  Lito swore by the river Styx (the most sacred of all oaths) that if she were allowed to give birth on the island that it would no longer have to float and that her son Apollo would bring fame and riches to its shores.  Upon hearing this vow, the reassured island stopped drifting and welcomed her.

A window in time
Unhappy and vengeful, Hera made the goddess of childbirth prolong Lito's labor for 9 days in revenge.  When the infants finally arrived, the mist disappeared and the island basked in light.  The island's name thus changed from 'Adelos' (meaning invisible) to 'Delos' (meaning visible).  True to Lito's vow, Delos soon became the seat of her son's worship.  Attracting a multitude of pilgrims, Apollo's sanctuary grew to be one of the most important religious and cultural centers in ancient Greece.

Aaron at top of mountain
Zach at top of mountain

Although Delos was colonized by the Ionians in the 10th century B.C., its status as a center of worship arose only in the 8th century B.C.  After it emerged untouched from the Persian Wars, Delos became the focal point of the Delian Legue.  During these years, the Athenians ordered at least 2 'purifications' of the island in Apollo's honor.  The second 'purification' in 426 B.C. decreed that no one should give birth or die on its grounds -- an order that worshipers took retroactively.  They exhumed graves and moved bodies to a 'purification pit' on nearby Rheneia island.  After Sparta defeated Athens in the Peloponnesian War, Delos enjoyed independence and wealth.  This prosperity soured, however, during the Roman occupation in the 2nd century B.C., when Delos became the slave-trading center of Greece.  By the end of the 2nd century A.D., after successive sackings, the island was left nearly deserted.  Today its only residents are thousands of lizards and a few members of the French School of Archaeology, which has been excavating here since 1873

Mosaic tiles on floor in Trident house
There were far too many ancient temples and sanctuaries and houses on this site to mention here.   Some of these are:  Agora of the Competaliasts, Sanctuary of Apollo, the Propylaea, Temple of Apollo (a/k/a Temple of the Delians, completed 4th century B.C.), Terrace of the Lions (an entire story in its own right),  House of the Lake, the Sacred Lake, the Roman Agora, Temple of Isis, Grotto of Hercules, House of the Dolphins, House of the Masks, House of the Trident, House of Dionysus and the House of Cleopatra. Many pages could be devoted to each of the civilizations that occupied this island, particularly the Roman period.  

We were impressed with the remains of the Dexamene, an extremely deep and large cistern beside the amphitheater.  The cistern had 9 huge arched compartments visible down in a valley-like indention in the mountainside.  There was a lot of water in the cistern on the day of our visit, even though there had been no rain here for months.  At the time the island was inhabited there was a large lake for a fresh water supply.  This lake was drained in the early 1900s in efforts to prevent mosquitoes carrying malaria.  When Aaron and Zachary hiked to the top of the mountain, they saw a very, very deep cistern with a lone huge tree growing in the middle of it.  There was no mention of this in our guide pamphlets.

All in all, a pretty darn impressive ancient archaeological site with very interesting history.  But one day was enough for us.

Fresh Pasta
Pasta display on streetside
When we returned to Mykonos Aaron and Lynn treated everyone to a lovely lunch at a fresh pasta restaurant inside the winding narrow alleyway-streets of Mykonos Old Town.  We had passed their pasta display the previous day and just had to return to sample their fare.  Each of us tried a different pasta dish (different shapes, different flavors and different sauces) and all were fantastic.  Delicious!  Absolutely delicious!

All shapes & colors of fresh pasta
Mosaic tiles on floor

Sitting in amphitheater
We were also impressed with the size of the amphitheater.  

And most especially impressed with the mosaic tiles on some of the floors and walls of the 'mansions' and temples.  Colors were still visible on the mosaic tiles -- laid up to 3500 years ago.
Note 3500 yr-old wall plasters & floor mosaic tiles
Plus several interior walls of the mansions and temples had remaining sections of layers of plaster.  Amazing
Mosaic floor tiles

Mosaic floor tiles exposed to full sun and still in place after 3000 years.

1 comment:

  1. How beautiful! I feel like I've learned so much just from this post ... really interesting! I think one day would be enough for us too, however. That pasta looks like something you could make a necklace out of! =)


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