Mythology and Archaeology on Delos

Before our cruise on the Celestyal Crystal began, we signed on for a tour of Delos. Reaching the tiny, uninhabited island requires a circuitous route, starting with a shuttle to Chora, the main town of Mykonos, followed by a walk around the harbor to the ferryboat dock. Then, you hop on board the ferry and make the half-hour cruise to Delos. (You pass the famous Mykonos windmills in the distance.) Delos, one of Greece’s most important archaeological sites, achieved UNESCO World Heritage status in 1960.

As you approach, the island’s brown rocky landscape and sun-drenched shores foretell its arid nature. Wildflowers grow, but not much else. Ancient ruins scattered along the coastline and up into the hills beg for attention.

Famous as the mythical birthplace of twins Apollo and Artemis, an ancient city grew up as a shrine to honor them, becoming a place of pilgrimage. From the 4th to the 1st centuries BC, Delos bustled as a commercial center, centered on a profitable port.

Columned Courtyard in a mansion in ancient Delos

Today, the island lies in ruins, but its history humbles the many tourists it attracts. Our group followed a former Delos archaeologist and now superbly informed guide into what remains of the ancient city, once inhabited by 30,000 people. Walking through narrow passageways and stopping at the foundations of fallen homes echoed the footsteps of the residents, now all gone for 2,000 years. Occasional splotches of lime-based plaster over dry-stone walls offered ever so brief reminders that these stone stacks once held the beating heart of a major city. The home of a wealthy man featured a central-columned courtyard and mosaic tile floor doubling as a shallow pool to cool hot summer days. Two headless statues commemorated their 2nd century BC occupants – – named Cleopatra (not THAT one) and Dioscoundes.

We passed by a window opening that our guide said was likely a barred bank teller’s window and a maze of other shops. A communal cistern, fed by an arched water system was most necessary on such an arid isle. The remnants of a natural theater, built around 300 BC, still retained good acoustics and provided the tour group a chance to sit. It doubled as a kind of upside-down umbrella – – feeding the cistern with rainwater through a sophisticated channeling system.

Wandering back through the city, we baked along with the building stones soaking up heat from the sun. A highlight of the walk came at the Sacred Area, beside a famous but dried up lake. The guide explained how a long promenade was formerly lined with columns and bronze statues and covered with a marble portico for shade. The sanctuary of Dionysus, another for Apollo, as well as a giant statue of Apollo were the major draws. Sadly, not much remains of any of them.  

Ruins of Sacred Delos

Near the end of the street stood the Terrace of Lions, for me the most compelling feature of the island. Built in the 7th century BC, the lions acted as a symbol of wealth for the city and paid honor to the Sacred Lake. Mythology says that the lake served as the birthplace for Leto’s children – Artemis and Apollo. Not the wife of their father Zeus, who appears to have “gotten around,” Leto was banished to Delos for the births. However, Zeus wasn’t a total cad; myth also claims that Zeus appeared and sat on the hillside, looking down and smiling.

The modern Delos Archaeological Museum houses an excellent collection of pottery, mosaics, statues and the original, but wind-eroded lions. Replicas of the marble lions replaced the originals in 1991. I explored the artifacts for just half an hour; archaeological enthusiasts may take longer.

Fortunately, a little café offered cool drinks and snacks where I spent the next hour waiting for the ferry to return to Mykonos. The tour requires a lot of walking on uneven and rocky paths, and the site becomes crowded with tour groups. My only complaint, however, was the tour length. We left the cruise ship at 10:30, and by the time we got back, it was nearly six hours later.  

Delos proved fascinating, but what I saw walking through the waterside streets of Mykonos left a lesser impression. The vibrant shoreline was lined with cobbled white alleys, restaurants, and shops, but they were too touristy for my taste. I was not inclined to return for a late dinner or the nightlife, which offers its main claim to fame. I suspect Mykonos has special places; I just didn’t see them.

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