A slave to history

Delos, I’d never heard of the place. It’s a small island just a half an hour ferry ride from Mykonos and it first cropped up when I was researching Mykonos. I’d bought a Greek Islands travel guide and Delos had two whole pages devoted to it.

When we arrived at Mykonos, our hotel loaned us a book and Delos had 33 pages dedicated to it. I determined it was my one “must see” at Mykonos.

Getting there was a laugh; the 9.15 ferry had been altered to 10.00 and they said they would return at 1.00 or 1.30. Lorraine, acutely aware of the time factor occurring due to our later exit to Santorini, pleaded with them for 1.00 or we wouldn’t travel. They instantly decreed a 1.00 return; so much for timetables.
We eased from the harbour and into the morning wind, soon arriving at this fabled place. At first view it seems extraordinary that 25,000 people (our guide said 30,000) lived here at one time. This tiny windswept speck of just 6.85 square kms in the Aegean Sea has a history, and what a history it is.

According to legend, Leto had sex with Zeus (she wasn’t alone there) which greatly upset Hera, Zeus’ wife. Fleeing the scene, Leto found that no one wanted to know her because Hera had threatened destruction upon anyone assisting her, so Leto arrived at the almost uninhabited Delos and gave birth to the twins, Artemis and Apollo, whilst clinging to a solitary palm tree. Thus the scene was set for Delos to become an island of worship and the temple building began.

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The island then became a centre for commerce and, when it became a free trade port, the place boomed; the biggest money earner being slaves. Ancient writers claimed 10,000 were sold here per day; this can be readily dismissed however; perhaps a few hundred would be more likely.

Still, standing on the island today imagining a multitude of ships plying trade back and forth almost beggars belief. Though protected, the port is small and they must have berthed one on top of the other, as sailing ships were wont to do in the 19th century, yet this was over 2,500 years ago.

Our guide showed us shops and houses, explaining sewerage systems (they were flushed with sea water to conserve drinking water), house construction (no windows to prevent malaria carrying mosquitoes from the lone swamp), the Italian agora (market place) and theatre, emphasising how important it was in Hellenic culture as it was free and troubadours used to travel around the Mediterranean to various venues. Only males were allowed to act in plays and mostly males attended.

I was fascinated with the fact that so many other gods had temples here and enclaves from different countries had their own ghettos on the island. For example, the Poseidonites came from Beirut to worship here; had their own temple and own area where they lived. Apart from Apollo, the main god worshipped here, there was a veritable horde of them, including Artemis (his twin sister), Hestia, Asclepius, Heracles, Zeus and even one dedicated to twelve gods. Needless to say, Lorraine’s favourite will always be Bacchus!

The greatest of the many statues dedicated to Apollo was 9 metres high, sculpted from a single block of marble weighing 32 tonnes. They built a temple to it where it was supposed to reside but got the measurements wrong. The statue was too big to fit in and so was installed outside where it could be seen from the harbour. In 1416 a Florentine attempted to raise it, to no avail. In 1675 its head was cut off and has been lost forever, but the torso and pelvis were also dragged away but for some reason were abandoned and still lie there whilst the Delos Museum has its left hand and the British Museum a section of the left leg.

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From 700 B.C. the place started to flourish and, when later it became a free trade (no taxes) port from 314 B.C. to 166 B.C., with slaves the number one commodity, it boomed. Eventually the Athenian league, in a cleverly disguised ploy to take it over, decreed that the place needed to be cleansed so all births and deaths had to take place on the neighbouring island of Rhenia, thus ruling out any hereditary type claims and then Athenians were implanted here using a ballot system, so popular was the place.

Later, when under Roman control, around 87 B.C. Mithridates Eupator, who already ruled all the countries around the Black Sea, looted the place to obtain money to hire mercenaries. It is estimated that 20,000 people were slaughtered and that caused the demise of Delos.

During the ensuing centuries people would come and take building materials, leaving little for today’s tourists to savour, but enough to give a good outline of the place and cause one to enthuse about what an amazing place it was.

The Avenue of the Lions, some temples and an area of houses behind the theatre still contain enough upright walls and columns to give you a general idea of how thriving Delos was in its heyday, and you can still imagine the agora with different kingdoms vying for a presence there and erecting ever larger facades to denote their presence.

Definitely a place worthy of your time if you’re in the area.

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