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What is Delos?

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  • Written By: Brendan McGuigan
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 10 November 2016
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Delos is an island in Greece. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and has been since 1990. The site is incredibly important historically, contains numerous archeological remnants, and features heavily into Greek mythology. It is a wonderful destination for visitors in Greece interested in the history of the islands.

Delos was first occupied sometime in the 3rd millennium BCE. The early inhabitants used the island as a religious location, and it acted as a sanctuary long before the Greeks decreed it the birthplace of two of their most important gods.

Greek mystery cults had roots in Delos as well, and Dionysus was worshipped on the island for more than a millennium between the 10th century BCE and the 2nd century. The site was also a place of worship devoted to Leto, the Titaness who was the mother of Zeus’ children, Apollo and Artemis.

In the birth myth of Apollo and Artemis, it is said that when Hera, Zeus’ wife, discovered Leto was pregnant with his children, she was powerless to do anything to stop the pregnancy. Instead, she decreed that the children could not be born on any firm land, nor on any island. So Leto made her way to Delos, fabled as a floating island, neither firm land nor island, and there gave birth to two of the mightiest gods of the Greek pantheon.

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The Athenians took an interest in Delos during the 6th century BCE. In order to better seize control of the island, they dug up all graves on the island, and transported them to the mainland, helping to sever ties of those who lived there. They then passed a number of decrees, including that no one could be born or die on the island. This was all part of a system of ritual purgings, decreed by the Oracle at Delphi, to make the island suitable to worship the gods on.

The island, as the center and treasury of the Delian League, became quite wealthy. Over the next years, many structures were built in exaltation not only of Apollo and Artemis, but also of the other gods of the Greek pantheon. Indeed, an entire quarter was devoted to foreigners and their foreign gods, making it a very cosmopolitan site of worship.

The Romans, when they ascended to power in the region, kept the island as a free port, to continue to encourage it to grow. Everything continued without interruption until the 1st century BCE, when Mithridates of Pontos attacked the island as part of a revolt against Rome. He exterminated the entire population or sold them into slavery, and Delos began its descent. Within two decades the island had been abandoned.

Delos is literally an island of beautiful ruins, and visitors could easily spend days walking among them. Highlights of the island include the House of Dionysus and the House of the Dolphins, the Terrace of the Lions dedicated to Apollo, the Minoan Fountain, and the Sacred Lake. And, of course, temples abound, with the most popular being the Temple of Isis, the Temple of Hera, and the Temple of the Delians.

Delos can be reached by boat from Mykonos town. It is open most days during the tourist season, with a small entry fee. Guides are available on site, and a number of maps and books have been produced on the area.

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