Divine Delos

by Irma Havlicek
Powerhouse Museum Online Producer

The temple of Isis

The temple of Isis at Delos © PHM; photo by Irma Havlicek

Last weekend we had the only full weekend off – all day Saturday and all day Sunday – we will have during this six-week archaeological season (other weeks, we work at least a half-day on Saturdays).

Most team members decided to stay on Andros and explore the island further. A few of us decided to take advantage of the two full days off and journeyed to nearby islands. Three went to Tinos, and three of us went to Delos and Mykonos.

I’d been tossing up about what to do because I did fancy some rest (including sleep) after the last busy weeks. But the idea of Delos – now an archaeological site, but in the past considered a sacred island, the birthplace of twins, Apollo and Artemis (two of the twelve Olympian gods), proved compelling. I thought: well, I’m on this archaeological adventure, so, in for a penny, in for a pound, I’ll join my colleagues, Paul Donnelly and Rudy Alagich in a trip to Delos. For both of them, a visit to Delos had been a dream for many years.

As the story goes, the goddess Leto had a fling with the king of the gods, Zeus, and became pregnant. As you can imagine, Zeus’ wife, Hera, wasn’t too pleased about this, so she placed a curse upon Leto causing all lands – both mainland and island, to deny access to her to give birth.

As with most myths developed in oral tradition and only eventually written down, there are many versions of the story. However, the versions tend to agree that Delos was a floating island not connected to the Earth, which enabled Delos to to dodge Hera’s curse and allow access to Leto. Also, Poseidon, the god of the oceans, felt sorry for Leto and played his part in calming the ocean and helping her to find safe passage to Delos – which later became a fixed island.

Because Delos permitted entry to Leto, and she was able to safely give birth to the two gods, Apollo and Artemis there, Delos became a sacred island, and was considered so for many centuries.

I’m so very glad I went. I was totally unprepared for the extent of the visible archaeology on this island. No wonder Delos is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

An elevated view from the top of the hill over Delos and beyond

An elevated view from the top of the hill over Delos and beyond. The small pale specks towards the coast are building ruins – which provide just a glimpse of the amazingly extensive archaeological remains on Delos © PHM; photo by Irma Havlicek

From our very first steps onto the path on the island I was stunned by the huge number of sherds on the path at every step: just a hint of what we were to see on this island.

A sherd scatter in Delos

Sherds litter the paths at Delos, indicating how very many pottery objects there must have been here in the past. My heart was in my mouth, trying to avoid walking on the sherds. But Greece has such a rich archaeological presence, that even on the beach at Batsi, where we are staying, I have seen quite a few sherds. © PHM; photo by Irma Havlicek

We walked to the top of the hill where the Temple of Apollo once stood to admire the extensive view over the island and beyond. However our view was short and sweet as we found on our way up from two very helpful guards that the 2pm and 3pm ferries would not be running because of rough seas. So we had to hurry to visit the Museum and then walk (run!) back to the ferry – they were preparing to lift the passenger ramp as I got there, the last one on before the ferry left.

I hope the following pictures may encourage others to visit this amazing island some time. I’m only showing what is visible on the site – but the most important and impressive artefacts are in the archaeological museums at Delos, Mykonos and Athens. I’ve now seen the archaeological museums at Delos and Mykonos, and look forward to visiting the museum in Athens, particularly to see the Delos material there.

The Lions of Delos

The terrace of lions must have inspired awe in those who passed. These are replicas; the originals are in the museum to protect them © PHM; photo by Irma Havlicek

Stones linked with metal bow tie shaped join

Paul Donnelly pointed out to me that these stones were linked with a metal bow tie shaped join © PHM; photo by Irma Havlicek

Stone-walled room with mosaic patterned floor

Stone-walled room with mosaic patterned floor © PHM; photo by Irma Havlicek

Stone wall with some render remaining

Stone wall with some render remaining © PHM; photo by Irma Havlicek

Remains of a rendered and painted wall at Delos

Remains of a rendered and painted wall at Delos; seeing so many walls that have lost their render and paintwork over time, it can be easy to forget that most of these walls were rendered, and the temples and many of the houses also had colourful scenes and decorations painted on the walls © PHM; photo by Irma Havlicek

Broken pottery mixed in with render on buildings on Delos

The render on the walls of buildings at Delos often has broken pottery mixed in with the render; this is both a way of re-using and not wasting materials and also adding strength to the render. © PHM; photo by Irma Havlicek

Pedestal of the colossal statue of Apollo

Pedestal of the colossal statue of Apollo; you can see how large the statue must have been when the pedestal itself is so large. Paul Donnelly is photographing Rudy Alagich in front of the pedestal to provide scale for the photograph. Note the sherds on the ground and the ruins in the background – another glimpse of just how much there is to see on Delos. © PHM; photo by Irma Havlicek

Mosaic floor depicting the god Dionysis mounted on a tiger

Mosaic floor depicting the winged god Dionysis mounted on a tiger, there is a spilled kantharos (wine vessel) in front of the tiger © PHM; photo by Irma Havlicek

The marble top of a well

The marble top of a well. My colleague, Paul Donnelly, pointed out that the grooves around the rim would have been made by rope repeatedly pulling up a container with water from the well © PHM; photo by Irma Havlicek

A marble well

A marble well; from memory this was in situ and when you look down the drop is quite far – and there is some water below © PHM; photo by Irma Havlicek

Mosaic floor with dolphin motif

Mosaic floor with dolphin motif © PHM; photo by Irma Havlicek

The remains of the theatre at Delos

The remains of the theatre at Delos; I found this place particularly haunting – I could almost hear faint echoes of the audience responding to the drama and comedy presented here over the years. Having studied some of the works of Sophocles, Euripides, Aeschylus and Aristophanes at school helped to bring this place alive for me. © PHM; photo by Irma Havlicek

The cistern of the theatre

This cistern was filled with water from the auditorium of the theatre – a remarkable feat of planning and technology © PHM; photo by Irma Havlicek

Replica statues of Dioskourides and Kleopatra

Replica statues of Dioskourides and Kleopatra; the real ones are in the Museum on the island © PHM; photo by Irma Havlicek

2 thoughts on “Divine Delos

  1. my wife and I also visited Delos in July this year. I also, having a interest in Ancient History have dreamed about doing the ancient sites of Greece, Rome and Asia Minor. In my opinion Delos was by far the most interesting – eclipsing Athens and Rome!!!!! – partly because it was most authentic and extensive, and partly because they was hardly anybody else there.

    • Hi David – I’m so glad you found Delos so interesting. I just wish the weather conditions had been better so there were more ferries the day we visited and we could have stayed longer than the 2-3 hours we had there. (But, of course, safety must be paramount – so if the gods decreed high seas, and only one ferry could safely run – I reckon that was a wise decision.)

      As you say, it is extensive – gob-smackingly so. I really got a sense of how bustling it would have been when occupied. From the archaeological remains, I got a sense of the bustling metropolis it must have been in its heyday – of life in the streets, merchant activity, and social life in the houses, with their beautifully painted frescoes. And those breathtaking mosaics….

      I’m very glad you got to experience the wonders of Delos.

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