Delos, The Sacred Island
If you paid attention in your Greek mythology class, you might remember the story of Delos. This is where the almighty (and promiscuous) king of gods, Zeus, took his pregnant lover, Leto, to give birth to twins Apollo (god of light) and Artemis (the huntress).
Zeus was desperate to find a safe place for the twins to be born after his jealous wife (and sister, ew) Hera threatened anyone who dared take Leto in. It is said that after Apollo was born, the island shone with gold, and was deemed a holy place, the birthplace of gods.
After Delos became an important mythological and religious place, it started to attract a following, the cult of Apollo. Although the first recorded settlers arrived in 3000 BC, they were simple, primitive people. Ionian Greeks came later in 950 BC, after which they started building shrines and temples to honour the gods, as well as houses with courtyards and fountains, shops and theatres.
In 478 BC, the Delian League (a confederation of Greek states united against the Persian enemy) chose the Temple of Apollo on Delos for the nation’s treasury. This decision turned Delos into the most important economic and commercial centre in all of Ancient Greece. Something that the Athenians weren’t too happy about.
During the Peloponnesian War, and to regain control of the treasury, the Athenians decided that the island was so sacred that nobody should be allowed to be born or to die there, and so all the tombs and remains were removed. The treasury was then transferred to Athens and the entire population was exiled. But not for long… After the war, Delos was reestablished and declared independent from Athens in 314 BC until 166 BC when it fell under the control of the Romans.
For almost a thousand years, Delos was an affluent and lavish place. A summer home for rich visiting merchants and bankers. A thriving port and slave centre, with commerce and festivals, theatre and entertainment. It is estimated that some 30,000 people used to live on the island. Until 88 BC, when life on Delos was brought to a sudden and brutal end. The island was destroyed by the Persian King Mithridates, its people slaughtered, and what remained was looted by pirates.
Today, the island is essentially an open-air museum and a protected UNESCO World Heritage Site. Despite the harsh winds and corrosive conditions, enough remains for you to imagine what life must have been like here. With the exception of a few guards, archeologists and museum administrators, it is uninhabited and strictly forbidden to stay overnight, swim or dive around the island, in order to protect and prevent it from theft.
The only way to reach this important mythological, historical and archeological site is by boat from one of the main Cycladic islands, such as Mykonos, Paros, Naxos or Tinos. That’s why they are called the Cyclades, named after the Greek word kyklos, which means circle, because they encircle Delos, the sacred island.
- Delos is 2 km or 40 minutes from Mykonos, which is where most tourists visit from
- Get there via the ferry or charter a sailing boat – choose the ferry if you are prone to seasickness
- Delos is open 12 hours a day from 8 am during the summer season of April to October
- However, note that visitors are only allowed on the island for a maximum of 4 hours
- 2-4 hours is the right amount of time you need to see it all, anything less will feel too rushed
- Visits cost €12 upon arrival to enter the island and another €5 to enter the museum
- A guide is strongly recommended. However, there are no guides for hire on the island. Book a guided group tour in advance or bring one with you
- Wear a hat, sunscreen and walking shoes – there is no shade except for inside the museum
- You can buy water, fresh juice and snacks from the cafe, they also sell a delicious spanakopita
Journey to Delos…