Just off the coast of Mykonos lies the small island of Delos, easily reached by regular boat rides and the destination for an excursion that we’d booked. Before I get on with the description of our trip to Delos I just want to say that the island might just be the most humbling historical location I’ve ever visited. Looking at the pictures as I’ve been preparing this post has brought back a lot of incredible memories of our visit to Delos and its ancient Greek ruins and for a while I was struggling to put into words just what being there in 2016 was really like or why it stood out so much. I think, though, that I can explain it in terms of how it was different to any other place steeped in history that we’ve visited. It was a vast, open site with an astonishing amount of archeological ruins around the place that just seemed to exude the passage of time as you looked at them but it was the silence that amplified the sensation of you being a passing speck of matter through this important location; we weren’t the only tour group visiting Delos but because of its secluded position, reliance on boats for tourism, and huge scale it just felt empty making you feel small. We had great weather (well, could’ve done with a few degrees fewer if I’m being honest) with little wind which made any time you were isolated from the main group feel like you had the place to yourself, gazing out for hundreds of metres in any direction at avenues of stone pillars and eroded statues, with inscriptions and designs from thousands of years ago on nearly everything you stared at. You simply must visit Delos if you’re spending any time in Mykonos.
Boat Trip To Delos
We’d booked a full day excursion with Royal Princess which started with a gathering on the dock under scorching early morning heat and a not inconsiderable wait to board the boat that would take us onto Delos. We sat on top as the boat made its way out from Mykonos which left us exposed to the sunshine for the voyage, something we decided we wouldn’t repeat when coming back as it proved to be quite uncomfortably hot.
The Island Of Delos
According to Greek mythology Delos was the birthplace of both Apollo and Artemis. This was likely because Delos had already been a place of significant importance in the Cyclades group of islands for a millenium beforehand with its history including some time as the home of pirates allegedly later expelled by King Minos, then as a holy sanctuary. It also functioned as an important centre of commerce, possibly coming through a need to import nearly everything for its inhabitants, then because it was made into a free port by the Romans looking to undermine the trading influence of Rhodes.
From the dockside we walked as a group up a slow incline, stopping at the ruins of various houses and important buildings that had been close to the shoreline where we learned a little of the history of Delos as well as what had been found by archaeologists to suggest the functionality of those places we peered into.
Delos Theatre Quarter
Over the top of the incline from the dock area on Delos we entered what was described as The Theatre Quarter with a fair number of fancy houses given over to the arts and the remains of the theatre itself, around which we sat, impressed with the size of what we were experiencing for the first time.
The House Of Dionysos
From the theatre we retraced some of steps into a location we’d passed on the way up: The House of Dionysos. One of the more complete buildings on Delos it was easily identifiable from nearby by the presence of several, tall columns but inside its walls it was the impressive floor mosaic that attracted the eye. As we walked around the artistic floor decoration we stopped to look into many of the rooms off the courtyard area of the house, some of which retained some of the original plaster and faded wall paintings too.
Our tour took us back through the marketplace of Delos then onto the more religious centre featuring wider avenues and the remains of numerous temples. Many of the stones in this area bore inscriptions indicating their history or pointing to some part of the history that the rulers of the island at the time wanted to impart to the locals and visitors; religion has always been a political tool.
The Terrace Of The Lions
At this point on our Delos tour we were given free time to either explore on our own (with some pointing out of locations of interest by our guide) or head off to the shop and café. We watched as a huge portion of our fellow cruisers set off immediately for the shop. Despite the heat, despite being almost out of water, we didn’t want to waste any time at the fabulous archeological site so made for the Terrace of the Lions. Only seven of the original nine-to-twelve lions remained but were in position as they would have been two-and-a-half thousand years earlier forming an avenue very much like the sphinxes did in ancient Egypt. Either the artists responsible for the sculptures had never seen lions before or there’s been a huge chunk of evolution in the intermediate years but they still formed an impressive sight.
I’ve already said that Delos was practically silent during our visit once you moved away from the tour group and that was what alerted us to the fact that there initially seemed to be no wildlife at all. Admittedly, the island was pretty desolate so didn’t seem to have much that would attract living creatures to its landmass but we remarked at one point that we’d not even seen or heard any birds during our visit. As we looked a little closer, though, we did pick out a few moving things in the form of a few lizards and a dragonfly that led me on a merry chase for a while as I tried to get a photo of it. We even spotted a single dove sheltering from the sun at the House of the Trident.
From the stone lions we walked among the stone ruins of the agora and past the Minoan fountain, numerous impressive columns, and some fairly intact sculptures on our way towards the Stoibadeion which had a certain piece of statuary that attracted the eyes from quite a distance.
From Wikipedia’s entry on Stoibadeion:
The Stoibadeion contains a rectangular platform containing a statue of Dionysos […] Two pillars, one on each side of the platform, each support a huge phallus, the symbol of Dionysos. […] Three sides of the southern pillar have relief representations: the central scene shows a cockerel whose head and neck are elongated into a phallus, on either side are groups containing Dionysus and a Maenad, with a small Silenus on one side and a figure of Pan on the other. The southern pillar bears an inscription that it was erected ca. 300 B.C. by a Delian named Carystios in celebration of a victorious theatrical performance he sponsored.
We concluded our visit to Delos by heading back towards the boat through the temple area and past the Portico of Philip V of Macedonia. As I’ve mentioned before, this cruise around the Mediterranean provided some highs and lows with the service on the ship and the less-than-impressive historical site of Knossos falling in the latter category. The visit to Delos was most definitely one of the high points of the cruise, though, and I can’t recommend it enough if you’re staying on or visiting nearby Mykonos; the disparity in its grand scale and my feeling of insignificance in its history is something that will live long in the memory. I wouldn’t hesitate to revisit Delos and simply retrace the exact same route we took through its streets and buildings but there was plenty we still didn’t see in our time there anyway so if we’re in the area we’ll be back.