The island of Delos (/ˈdiːlɒs/; Greek: Δήλος [ˈðilos]; Attic: Δῆλος, Doric: Δᾶλος), near Mykonos, near the centre of the Cyclades archipelago, is one of the most important mythological, historical, and archaeological sites in Greece. The excavations in the island are among the most extensive in the Mediterranean; ongoing work takes place under the direction of the French School at Athens, and many of the artifacts found are on display at the Archaeological Museum of Delos and the National Archaeological Museum of Athens.

Delos had a position as a holy sanctuary for a millennium before Olympian Greek mythology made it the birthplace of Apollo and Artemis. From its Sacred Harbour, the horizon shows the three conical mounds (image below) that have identified landscapes sacred to a goddess in other sites: one, retaining its Pre-Greek name Mount Kynthos,[1] is crowned with a sanctuary of Zeus.

Established as a cult center, Delos had an importance that its natural resources could never have offered. In this vein Leto, searching for a birthing-place for Artemis and Apollo, addressed the island:

Delos, if you would be willing to be the abode of my son Phoebus Apollo and make him a rich temple –; for no other will touch you, as you will find: and I think you will never be rich in oxen and sheep, nor bear vintage nor yet produce plants abundantly. But if you have the temple of far-shooting Apollo, all men will bring you hecatombs and gather here, and incessant savour of rich sacrifice will always arise, and you will feed those who dwell in you from the hand of strangers; for truly your own soil is not rich.

— Homeric Hymn to Delian Apollo 51–60
Native name:
Delos general
General view of Delos
Delos is located in Greece
Coordinates37°23′36″N 25°16′16″E / 37.39333°N 25.27111°ECoordinates: 37°23′36″N 25°16′16″E / 37.39333°N 25.27111°E
Area3.43 km2 (1.32 sq mi)
Highest elevation112 m (367 ft)
Highest pointMt. Kynthos
RegionSouth Aegean
Regional unitMykonos
Population14 (2001)
Pop. density4 /km2 (10 /sq mi)
UNESCO World Heritage Site
CriteriaCultural: ii, iii, iv, vi
Inscription1990 (14th Session)


Carl Anton Joseph Rottmann 001
The island of Delos, Carl Anton Joseph Rottmann, 1847
Ancient Greek theatre in Delos 01
The theatre
Column with Phallus at the Stoivadeion - Island of Delos, Greece
Column with phallus at the Stoivadeion, 2006

Investigation of ancient stone huts found on the island indicate that it has been inhabited since the 3rd millennium BCE. Thucydides identifies the original inhabitants as piratical Carians who were eventually expelled by King Minos of Crete.[2] By the time of the Odyssey the island was already famous as the birthplace of the twin gods Apollo and Artemis (although there seems to be some confusion of Artemis' birthplace being either Delos or the island of Ortygia). Indeed, between 900 BCE and 100 CE, sacred Delos was a major cult centre, where Dionysus is also in evidence as well as the Titaness Leto, mother of the above-mentioned twin deities. Eventually acquiring Panhellenic religious significance, Delos was initially a religious pilgrimage for the Ionians.

A number of "purifications" were executed by the city-state of Athens in an attempt to render the island fit for the proper worship of the gods. The first took place in the 6th century BCE, directed by the tyrant Pisistratus who ordered that all graves within sight of the temple be dug up and the bodies moved to another nearby island. In the 5th century BCE, during the 6th year of the Peloponnesian war and under instruction from the Delphic Oracle, the entire island was purged of all dead bodies. It was then ordered that no one should be allowed to either die or give birth on the island due to its sacred importance and to preserve its neutrality in commerce, since no one could then claim ownership through inheritance. Immediately after this purification, the first quinquennial festival of the Delian games were celebrated there.[3]

Four years later, all inhabitants of the island were removed to Atramyttium in Asia as a further purification.[4]

After the Persian Wars the island became the natural meeting-ground for the Delian League, founded in 478 BCE, the congresses being held in the temple (a separate quarter was reserved for foreigners and the sanctuaries of foreign deities). The League's common treasury was kept here as well until 454 BCE when Pericles removed it to Athens.[5]

The island had no productive capacity for food, fiber, or timber, with such being imported. Limited water was exploited with an extensive cistern and aqueduct system, wells, and sanitary drains. Various regions operated agoras (markets).

Strabo states that in 166 BCE the Romans converted Delos into a free port, which was partially motivated by seeking to damage the trade of Rhodes, at the time the target of Roman hostility. In 167 or 166 BCE, after the Roman victory in the Third Macedonian War, the Roman Republic ceded the island of Delos to the Athenians, who expelled most of the original inhabitants.[6] Roman traders came to purchase tens of thousands of slaves captured by the Cilician pirates or captured in the wars following the disintegration of the Seleucid Empire. It became the center of the slave trade, with the largest slave market in the larger region being maintained here.

The Roman destruction of Corinth in 146 BCE allowed Delos to at least partially assume Corinth's role as the premier trading center of Greece. However, Delos' commercial prosperity, construction activity, and population waned significantly after the island was assaulted by the forces of Mithridates VI of Pontus in 88 and 69 BCE, during the Mithridatic Wars with Rome.[7] Before the end of the 1st century BCE, trade routes had changed; Delos was replaced by Puteoli as the chief focus of Italian trade with the East, and as a cult-centre too it entered a sharp decline. Due to the inadequate natural sources of food and water, and the above history, unlike other Greek islands, Delos did not have an indigenous, self-supporting community of its own. As a result, in later times it was uninhabited.

Since 1872 the École française d'Athènes ("French School of Athens") has been excavating the island, the complex of buildings of which compares with those of Delphi and Olympia. In 1990, UNESCO inscribed Delos on the World Heritage List, citing it as the "exceptionally extensive and rich" archaeological site which "conveys the image of a great cosmopolitan Mediterranean port".[8]


Temple of the Delians, Delos; 19th century pen-and-wash restoration.
  • The small Sacred Lake in its circular bowl, now intentionally left dry by the island's caretakers to suppress disease-spreading bacteria, is a topographical feature that determined the placement of later features.
  • The Minoan Fountain was a rectangular public well hewn in the rock, with a central column; it formalized the sacred spring in its present 6th century BCE form, reconstructed in 166 BCE, according to an inscription. Tightly-laid courses of masonry form the walls; water can still be reached by a flight of steps that fill one side.
  • There are several market squares. The Hellenistic Agora of the Competaliasts by the Sacred Harbour retains the postholes for market awnings in its stone paving. Two powerful Italic merchant guilds dedicated statues and columns there.
  • The Temple of the Delians, dedicated to Apollo, is a classic example of the Doric order. Beside the temple once stood a colossal Kouros of Apollo, only parts of which remain extant. Dating to the 6th Century BCE, parts of the upper torso and pelvis remain in situ, a hand is kept at the local museum and a foot in the British Museum.[9]
Terrace of the Lions 03
The Terrace of the Lions
  • The Terrace of the Lions, also dedicated to Apollo by the people of Naxos shortly before 600 BCE. It originally had nine to twelve squatting, snarling marble guardian lions along the Sacred Way; one is inserted over the main gate to the Venetian Arsenal. The lions create a monumental avenue comparable to Egyptian avenues of sphinxes. (There is a Greek sphinx in the Delos Museum.) Today only seven of the original lions remain.
  • The Oikos of the Naxians (House of the Naxians) first quarter of 6th century BCE: a long hall with one central ionic colonnade, a west porch tristyle in antis and an east marble prostasis of the middle of the 6th century BCE.[10]
  • The meeting hall of the Poseidoniasts of Beirut housed an association of merchants, warehousemen, shipowners and innkeepers during the early years of Roman hegemony, late 2nd century BCE. To their protective triad of Baal/Poseidon, Astarte/Aphrodite and Eshmun/Asklepios, they added Roma.
  • The platform of the Stoivadeion dedicated to Dionysus bears a statue of the god of wine and the life-force. On either side of the platform, a pillar supports a colossal phallus, the symbol of Dionysus. The southern pillar, which is decorated with relief scenes from the Dionysiac circle, was erected around 300 BCE to celebrate a winning theatrical performance. The statue of Dionysus was originally flanked by those of two actors impersonating Paposilenoi (conserved in the Archaeological Museum of Delos). The marble theatre is a rebuilding of an older one, undertaken shortly after 300 BCE.
Columnes del pati de la casa de Dionís de Delos
House of Dionysos

Current population

The 2001 Greek census reported a population of 14 inhabitants on the island. The island is administratively a part of the municipality of Mýkonos.


Theatre Quarter, Delos 04

The Theatre Quarter

Sacred Way, Delos 03

Sacred Way

Establishment of the Poseidoniasts, Delos 01

Establishment of the Poseidoniasts

House of Cleopatra, Delos

House of Cleopatra

Delos House of Cleopatra

Statues at the House of Cleopatra

Temple of Isis, Delos 03

Temple of Isis

Bust of Hermes, Delos 01

Bust of Hermes

Agora of the Italians, Delos 02

Agora of the Italians

Heraion, Delos 02

Heraion (Temple of Hera)

Artemision Colossus Delos 130043

Parts of the colossal Kouros from Naxos

Kouros 102079

Hand from the Colossus

See also


  1. ^ The combination -nth- is a marker for Pre-Greek words: Corinth, menthos, labyrinth, etc. A name Artemis and even Diana retained was Cynthia.
  2. ^ Thucydides, I,8.
  3. ^ Thucydides, III,104.
  4. ^ Thucydides, V,1.
  5. ^ Thucydides, I,96.
  6. ^ Tang, Birgit (2005), Delos, Carthage, Ampurias: the Housing of Three Mediterranean Trading Centres, Rome: L'Erma di Bretschneider (Accademia di Danimarca), p. 14, ISBN 8882653056.
  7. ^ Tang, Birgit (2005), Delos, Carthage, Ampurias: the Housing of Three Mediterranean Trading Centres, Rome: L'Erma di Bretschneider (Accademia di Danimarca), pp. 14, 32, ISBN 8882653056.
  8. ^
  9. ^ British Museum Collection
  10. ^ Gruben G., Griechische Tempel und Heiligtümer, München, 2001

Further reading and viewing

  • Claude Vial, Inscriptions de Délos. Index, tome II: les Déliens (Paris: De Boccard, 2008).
  • Delos: Island at the Center of the World. Princeton, New Jersey: Films for the Humanities and Sciences, 2006.

External links


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Delian League

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In Greek mythology, Leto (; Greek: Λητώ Lētṓ; Λατώ, Lātṓ in Doric Greek) is a daughter of the Titans Coeus and Phoebe, the sister of Asteria.The island of Kos is claimed as her birthplace. In the Olympian scheme, Zeus is the father of her twins, Apollo and Artemis, which Leto conceived after her hidden beauty accidentally caught the eyes of Zeus. Classical Greek myths record little about Leto other than her pregnancy and her search for a place where she could give birth to Apollo and Artemis, since Hera in her jealousy caused all lands to shun her. Finally, she found an island that was not attached to the ocean floor so it was not considered land and she could give birth. This is her only active mythic role: once Apollo and Artemis are grown, Leto withdraws, to remain a dim and benevolent matronly figure upon Olympus, her part already played. In Roman mythology, Leto's Roman equivalent is Latona, a Latinization of her name, influenced by Etruscan Letun.In Crete, at the city of Dreros, Spyridon Marinatos uncovered an eighth-century post-Minoan hearth house temple in which there were found three unique figures of Apollo, Artemis and Leto made of brass sheeting hammered over a shaped core (sphyrelata). Walter Burkert notes that in Phaistos she appears in connection with an initiation cult.

Leto was identified from the fourth century onwards with the principal local mother goddess of Anatolian Lycia, as the region became Hellenized. In Greek inscriptions, the children of Leto are referred to as the "national gods" of the country. Her sanctuary, the Letoon near Xanthos predated Hellenic influence in the region, however, and united the Lycian confederacy of city-states. The Hellenes of Kos also claimed Leto as their own. Another sanctuary, more recently identified, was at Oenoanda in the north of Lycia. There was a further Letoon at Delos.

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Islands of the Cyclades
Aegean Islands

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