Wednesday, May 5

Delos


Our last morning in Mykonos coincided with this season’s first guided tour to the island of Delos, located a couple of kilometers west. The Cyclades islands of Greece are so named as they encircle this small, barren outcrop in the southern Aegean Sea. Delos was once the most powerful, and sometimes most sacred, island in all of ancient Greece. It was considered the mythical birthplace of twins Apollo and Artemis; the god of sunlight and the goddess of moonlight. By the 8th Century BC it was well established as a shrine to Apollo.

Its history then began to unfold at the whim of who ever was in power. The Athenians controlled it by the 5th Century BC and established the modern equivalent of a national treasury on the island. Here all of the treasure of its allied islands was stored. The alliance became known as the Delian League, named in honour of the island itself. The city state of Athens later decreed that nobody could be born or could die on the island, effectively strengthening its hold on Delos.


As its religious prominence grew, so too did the island’s importance. Merchants and traders flocked to island to service thousands of pilgrims. At its height this tiny, rocky island of 6 sq km was home to more than 20,000 inhabitants. The Romans declared Delos a free port in 167BC. This encouraged more trade and wealth to flood into the island’s economy, including a lucrative slave trade. More than 10,000 slaves a day were traded here at its height.


However, Delos soon fell into decline as trade routes shifted and ancient religions fell out of favour. The last inhabitants left the island by the 4th Century AD. Today, all the remains of this rich and varied history are a series of ruins, including a number of magnificent marble statues. On our final day in Mykonos we spent almost three hours on Delos touring some of its most renowned sights. For three days we'd sat on our hotel balcony looking across a glassy sea at this thin strip of land so I relished an opportunity to finally visit.


Our guide took through the once opulent Theatre quarter where the city’s wealthiest residents lived. She pointed out intricately tiled mosaic floors, colonnaded courtyards and an underground network of water reservoirs used to store water on this parched, hostile island. Perhaps the most stunning of the mosaic floors was that from the House of Dionysos. It depicts the Greek god of wine, Dionysos, riding a snarling tiger. The colourful detail is astonishing.


We also sat in the marble seats in the main amphitheatre, once reserved for local patrons of the arts and other prominent citizens. However, the most memorable sight was the island’s world famous Terrace of the Lions. This is a row of marble beasts that line one of the city’s main thoroughfares. The lions you see today are replicas. The originals are housed in a nearby museum which we had an opportunity to tour before our boat departed for Mykonos.

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