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The enchanting Greek island of Delos September 27, 2006

Posted by grhomeboy in Greece Islands Aegean.
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For centuries, the enchanting Greek islands in the Aegean have exercised a powerful charm over travelers. The image, however, is sometimes overlaid with another, one of over-development, islands clogged with boatloads of tourists, hotels and restaurants. That’s true for the most part until you pull into the smallest but most famous of the Cyclades Islands, the sacred island of Delos, the reputed birthplace of the golden-haired Apollo, god of sun, and his twin sister, Artemis, goddess of the moon and the hunt.

The Cyclades (which means “circular islands” or “ring”) are grouped around tiny, 3-square-mile Delos, once the flourishing religious, political and financial center of the Aegean. Today, not only are there no hotels, restaurants, crowds or wild nightlife, but there are some very untouristy regulations: Visitors must leave by sunset as it is illegal to stay overnight. In fact, in 426 B.C., Delos was considered such sacred ground that no one was permitted either to be born or die on the island. Instead, residents in either condition were quickly shipped over to neighboring Rheneia. Today, only a few permanent inhabitants remain: museum staff and a small team from the French School of Archaeology, that began excavating the area in the late 1800s.

And that’s where the considerable appeal of the island lies, in the wonders that have been extensively unearthed over the years. They intrigue the modern eye, for Delos is one vast, outdoor, archeological museum. It was once the wonder of the ancient world, and today the landscape is strewn with an amazing array of surviving fragments: marble columns, gateways, porticos, statues, mosaic floors and much more. Because of Apollo, Delos became a place of pilgrimage where great religious festivals were held. Events included sports competitions at the stadium and gymnasium, while scenes from Apollo’s life would be presented in the 3rd century, marble, 5,500-seat Ancient Theater (in the southern part of the island). The Sacred Lake, which was once fed by a river and filled with sacred swans and geese, is now a dried-up depression. But this is the place the ancients believed that Leto gave birth to Apollo and Artemis.

Looking out over the Sacred Lake is the impressive 164-foot-long Terrace of the Lions, vigilant guardians dedicated to Apollo at the end of the 7th century B.C. by the Naxians. It is believed that originally there were from nine to 16 of these marble lions, crouching on their haunches, with their front legs upright, who “roared in open-mouthed silence.” Today, only five remain.

The 42-foot-wide paved Sacred Way, lined with statue bases, leads to the Sanctuary of Apollo, a collection of temples built in his honor. You’ll see fragments of statues and altars as well as the huge, rectangular marble base that once supported the almost 30-foot-high statue of Apollo. Its widespread appeal is evident from the fact that one of his hands is in Delos’ archaeological museum, while a foot fragment is on display in the British Museum in London.

It was the Roman occupation that transformed Delos from a religious sanctuary into a robust international marketplace. Traders and pilgrims throughout the Mediterranean world began arriving at the Sacred Harbor for commerce around 200 B.C., which resulted in Delos reaching its most prosperous period. Evidence of that thriving era can be seen in the expansive Agora of the Competialists (on the left of the harbor). This area, once heavily embellished with statues and monuments, was where grain and slaves were traded. Foreigners who flooded the island built temples and altars to their own gods.

Today, an impressive array of cultural leftovers from that period marks the landscape. For example, a spectacular relic from antiquity still stands within the surviving portions of the Temple of Isis a statue of the goddess of health and fortune that has unfortunately lost its head. Other remains on top of Mount Kythnos include the Sanctuary of the Syrian gods and another to the Egyptian god, Serapis.

Riches derived from the huge volume of trade enabled wealthy Roman bankers and Egyptian and Phoenician merchants to build elegant one and two-story houses along narrow, twisting streets. What remain today are marble columns, plastered painted walls and some exquisite color mosaics. Especially remarkable are the dazzling mosaics found in the courtyards and floors of the houses near the Ancient Theater. Among them are the House of Dolphins that has a large, beautiful, well-preserved mosaic of gods riding on the backs of dolphins, and in the House of Masks, thought to be have once been a hostel for visiting performers, is a famous mosaic of Dionysus, draped in flowing robes, riding a fierce-looking panther. It is depicted in such incredible detail that the eye of the panther alone has more than 100 stones.

To explore this island of great beauty, excursion boats are available from Mykonos and other neighboring islands.

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