As far as loyal and devoted husbands go, the Greek god Zeus was probably one of the worst. Perhaps it was the power that went to his head. Or maybe he was just truly terrible at keeping it in his pants. Whatever the reason, Greek mythology is pretty clear that Zeus was constantly cheating on his wife Hera — and constantly fathering heroic and god-like children.
One of the many women Zeus had an affair with was Leto, a daughter of Titans. Leto became pregnant with twins who would eventually be born as Apollo (the Greek god of the sun, healing, and music) and Artemis (the Greek goddess of the hunt, childbirth, and virginity).
And, as the myth goes, these twins were born in secret on the Greek island of Delos.
Delos’ history stretches back for millennia — roughly 5,000 years, in fact. It’s believed that the island was inhabited long before the Greek myth was added into the equation. But it was the birth of Apollo and Artemis that transformed Delos.
Delos is quite an intense little island. Everything from the climate to the landscape is intense. Intense wind, intense heat, intense dryness. No crops have ever grown here; very few trees, either. But, thanks to that famous myth, Delos became an important site for religious pilgrimage in Greece. So sacred, in fact, that it was decided that mere mortals should no longer be able to be born or die on Delos since it was the birthplace of gods. The dead who had already been buried on Delos were even dug up and moved.
By the 5th century, Delos became important economically, too. By this point, Athens had established the Delian League (an alliance of Greek city-states) and decided to place the league’s treasury on Delos. This attracted merchants, sailors, and bankers from all over the Mediterranean and transformed Delos into an important center of commerce as well as religion. It remained such right on into the 2nd century BC, when the Romans took over the island. Delos remained a port then, and also became an integral part of the slave trade — in fact, one of the largest slave markets in the region was located on Delos.
Attacks on the island in the 1st century BC followed by changing trade routes sent the island into major decline, however, and it eventually became mostly deserted.
In the late 1800s, the French School of Athens began doing archaeological work on Delos — work that continues today. The ruins on Delos are often compared to those at Delphi and Olympia: extensive and very historically significant. Because of this history, Delos was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1990 owing to its size and the fact that it “conveys the image of a great cosmopolitan Mediterranean port.”
What you’ll see on Delos
As mentioned above, some very wealthy people once called the island of Delos home — and remains of their lavish homes can still be seen there. Marble pillars. Intricate mosaics. Cisterns and statues. It’s worth hiring a guide to take you around the island so you can learn about all the homes, marketplaces, and temples that used to stand on Delos. Some of the most famous are the House of Dionysos, the House of the Dolphins, Cleopatra’s House, and the House of the Masks — all named for images/statues found in or on the homes.
Then of course there are all the places dedicated to Apollo. The most famous is the Terrace of the Lions — a collection of marble lions guarding the Sacred Way that leads towards Apollo’s birthplace (the Sacred Lake). There are also three temples on Delos dedicated to Apollo.
You can also see the ruins of a theater (built more than 2,000 years ago), see the leftovers of a massive cistern, and visit the Altar of Dionysos (and try not to giggle at the remains of a giant phallic sculpture there).
Also worth a visit is the Archaeological Museum of Delos, where many of the artifacts found on the island over the years are now displayed.
Delos, with its yellow earth and deep blue water; with its strong wind and intense sun; with its mythology and tie to the Greek gods made a lasting impression on me. I only regret now that I didn’t stay a bit longer to learn more about the island and its history.
VISITING DELOS — Delos is open 6 days a week (closed on Mondays) from roughly 8:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Entrance is 5 Euro per person. You can either explore the island on your own, or opt to hire a guide to take you around the island. A guided tour ticket (which includes your ferry ride and entrance to the park) usually runs around 40 Euro ($54 USD) if you book one of the island-offered group tours. Private tours can be arranged in advance, too, albeit for a much steeper price.
GETTING THERE — Delos can only be reached by boat. Most people visit from Mykonos, which is roughly 30 minutes away by ferry. Return tickets from Mykonos will cost you 17 Euro (about $23 USD). Boat times can seemingly vary a bit, but in general boats are supposed to leave Mykonos at 9, 10, and 11 a.m. and return from Delos at 12:15, 1:30, and 3 p.m. I will say, though, that these times can change during the off-season (when I went in September, for example, the return times were 12:15 and 2 p.m.). Be sure to verify the return times before you get off the ferry on Delos. During the summer months, ferry services also run from Naxos and Paros to Delos.
WHAT TO BRING — Be SURE to remember your sunscreen, sun hat, and plenty of water. There is essentially no shade on Delos, and high temperatures and strong winds can dehydrate you quite quickly. There IS a small cafe next to the archaeological museum, but unless you want to pay 4 times more than you should for a bottle of water, be sure to bring enough of your own.
Is Delos a historical site you’d like to visit someday?
*Note: I received a complimentary Greek Islands tour from Intrepid Travel through my partnership with them, which included a trip to Delos (though we did pay 10 Euro extra for a guide on the island). All opinions, as always, are entirely my own.