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Delos: A Taste Of Ancient Greece

As a foretaste of my upcoming trip to visit the ancient ruins on Sicily and in southern Italy, I thought I’d share my experiences in another famous site of the Classical World–the sacred island of Delos.

In May of 2006, I visited the island of Mykonos as part of a cruise through the Aegean Sea. While there, I took the opportunity to hop on a ferry and take a half-hour ride across the harbor to the uninhabited island of Delos, a close neighbor of Mykonos.

Delos was an important site of religious pilgrimage in ancient Greece and the Roman Empire, as well as being an important commercial harbor for transshipment of imported grain from Egypt and spices from the Silk Road.

Like Mykonos, it is a rocky, hilly, barren island, surrounded by clear turquoise waters. It was abandoned in antiquity
due to repeated invasions by armies from the kingdom of Pontus in Asia Minor (modern Turkey) while Pontus was engaged in a war with the Romans,. Nowadays, only a few caretakers and archaeologists live on the island, surrounded by acres of waist-high drystone walls and broken marble columns and shattered pediments wreathed in grass and wildflowers.

Despite centuries of having all sorts of people come to the deserted island to loot its marble columns, statues, and any useful building materials, the ancient city is remarkably well-preserved. After disembarking from the ferry, our tour guide led us through the ancient marketplace, our feet crunching on the remnants of thousands of ancient potsherds, and up the main street (its flat paving stones and drainage system still intact after 2000+ years), past rows of ruined
storefronts and crumbling Hellenistic villas once inhabited by wealthy merchants, and up to the remains of a large theater dug into the hillside (and the huge municipal water cistern with its arched supports).

Most of the city’s buildings and pavements are made from local gneiss, the glittering brown rock that forms the skeleton of the Cycladic Islands. Marble had to be imported from the mainland, so it was used mostly for embellishments, such as carved columns or statues, in private homes and for building temples. Everything else was made from gneiss, the walls build of stacked stones precisely fitted and stable without the use of mortar, then thickly plastered and stuccoed, just as buildings still are in Mykonos.

The surviving gneiss pavements sparkle in the sun as you walk down Delos’s remaining streets, the roofless remains of shops gaping through open doorways, and wildflowers growing everywhere in the empty rooms and courtyards: white and yellow and purple, and even a few fading remnants of last month’s scarlet poppies.

Delos, like the other islands in the Aegean, has few or no natural springs or year-round rivers, and receives rainfall only in the winter months. To ensure year-round supplies of water, a clever system of gutters and drainage channels funneled rainwater off roofs and the stone-paved streets into the private cisterns of homes and the large municipal cistern that supplied the city wells and provided fresh water to ships resupplying in the harbor. Dozens of the ancient cisterns are still water-tight today, and echo with the sound of frogs paddling around the algae-scummed waters. Our guide said that
similar systems were still in use today in Mykonos and its neighboring islands in the Cyclades archipelago.

We spent the morning touring the rest of the city, including the huge complex of temples at one end of the city (the island was reputed to be the birthplace of the twin gods Apollo and Artemis, and was a major pilgrimage destination in the ancient Mediterranean), and the small archaeological museum, crammed with thousands of priceless finds from the city–mosaic floors, wall-paintings, marble sculptures both small and monumental, pottery (including an amazing charcoal
stove made from terracotta, featuring multiple levels of burners), and jewelry.

Here are some of the photos I took during my visit to Delos, though I really wish I had owned a better digital camera back then!

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