Tuesday, 3 November 2015

The Island of Delos

17 July 2012

My week touring the Greek islands didn't feel complete without a visit to Delos, one of the small islands off Mykonos. 

Once the centre of the political world, it is now an archaeological reserve with ruins as far as the eye can see, and unfortunately, acres of dry grass that obscured various monuments, murals and carved marble remains. Progress is slowly being made in clearing away this organic matter, but given the size of the site and the state of the Greek economy, this will take a while. In the interim, one requires a good camera, a better imagination and an appreciation of the bits that are visible. 

My Greek island tour ended on Mykonos, but due to the inclement weather, it didn't allow time to visit Mykonos or the neighbouring island. As a result, I postponed my departure with the express purpose of spending a day on Delos despite the seering summer sun.

I could never regret it, but compared with many of the other ancient monuments I've visited, Delos is a confusing place. As it was the middle of summer, the (overgrown) weeds vegetation had dried to a colour not too dissimilar from the rocks and marble fragments that littered the site. In addition, many of the ruins were little more than rubble, and there weren't many signs (those there were seemed to be in French and Greek). The combination of this provided not clarity or delineation across the site making it very difficult to get an idea of how the island would have looked in its heyday.

In Greek Mythology, the island is blessed with the dubious honour of being the birth place of the god Apollo. His mother Leto, pregnant to Zeus, was cursed, by Zeus' very pissed wife Hera, to be unable to give birth on solid land and so she roamed Greece for ages looking for some small piece of land on which to rest. Delos defied Hera's orders and accepted her, and it was here that she finally gave birth to Apollo (with his twin sister Artemis acting as midwife).

For this reason, the island became a centre of Apollionic worship.
Later, during the Classical Era, Delos was the head office of the Delian League. This was a political alliance between the Greek city states in the wake of their defeat of the Persian Empire in the Persian Wars. As this alliance included cities on the mainland (like Athens) in addition to island states and the Greek cities on the west coast of modern Turkey, it was decided that the island of Delos would be the base. This may have been due to its central location, its religious importance, and the fact that it wouldn't have had a native population of its own. In fact, at one point, no-one was allowed to be born or die on Delos so that there could not be a native population to claim inheritance of the island.

Unfortunately, the Delian League was not an alliance of equals. The Athenians were a stronger power due to their naval force, and as they provided the commander they effectively had the power of veto over the other members. This was indeed proved before long when the island state of Naxos left the league and Athens used her power to force them to rejoin under more humiliating terms. Before long, the treasury on Delos, that held each state's tribute to the league was moved to Athens 'for safekeeping', an excuse increasingly hard to believe as the funds were commandeered by Pericles to build the Parthenon.

What does remain on Delos is delightful to wander amongst; remnants of statues, fragments of columns of varying heights, rubbed out walls and huge sections of mosaics. All I would recommend though is to undertake some kind of guided tour; with a tour guide or using the book as a guide, so you have some idea of what it is that you are looking at or wandering through.

One of two pillars supporting the remains of a phallus outside the Stoibadeion/Temple of Dionysus.

Columns of the Poseidoniasts

The famous Terrace of the Lions can be seen  in the middle of the photo

The Minoan Fontain

The Temple of Isis

This is where having a decent camera become handy. Unprotected from the elements, lots of the mosaics on Delos look pale and insipid and nothing like the images for sale in the gift shop. However getting my photos home and tweaking the contrast drew out the spectacular details from beneath the dust.

Mosaic of Dionysus riding a panther from the House of Dionysus.

This ruins gets its name from the beautifully detailed dolphin mosaic in the centre of the atrium.

Viewing Delos now, in this economic climate, I feel the desire to keep tabs on the site and return again in about 20 years. I hope that by then some money and energy will have been spent on preserving and restoring the ruins so that tourists (even enthusiastic ones like me) have a better idea of the history and stories of this place when they visit. 

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