A Guide to Delos Island, Greece

The island of Delos is widely considered one of the most important historical, mythological, and archaeological sites in Greece. It is situated in the center of the Cyclades archipelago, right at the heart of the Aegean Sea. It is believed that Delos had a position as a holy sanctuary even a millennium before the mythology of the Olympian gods was spread in the country, even before the island was made the birthplace of the god Apollo and the goddess Artemis.

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Visiting the Archaeological Site of Delos

Mythology of Delos island

According to popular myth, Delos used to be an invisible rock floating in the Aegean Sea and was not considered to be a part of the physical reality. When the Titaness Leto was impregnated by Zeus with the twin gods Apollo and Artemis, Hera presented an immense obstacle to her. Blinded by jealousy, she banned her from every place on earth, so that she couldn’t give birth to her children.

The ancient theatre of Delos

Zeus was then forced to ask his brother Poseidon to tie down Delos (which literally means “the visible place”) for Leto’s sake. Poseidon acted thus, and the Titaness held onto the island’s only palm tree, giving birth to twins. The island was immediately filled with light and flowers. Afterward, Hera spared Leto, and her children were allowed to claim their place on Mount Olympus.

History of Delos island

Based on archaeological excavations and scientific research, it is believed that the island had been inhabited since the 3rd millennium BC, probably by the Carians. Beginning in the 9th century, the island developed into a major cult center where the god Dionysus and the Titaness Leto, mother of the Apollo and Artemis, were worshiped.

Archaeological site of Delos near Mykonos

At a later stage, Delos acquired Panhellenic religious significance, and therefore, several “purification” were held there, especially by the city-state of Athens, in order to render the island fit for the proper worship of the gods.

Thus,  it was ordered that no one should be allowed to either die or give birth there, so its sacred nature and its neutrality in commerce would be maintained (since no one could claim ownership through inheritance). After this purification, the first festival of the Delian games was celebrated in the island, subsequently taking place there every five years, and which was one of the major events of the region, on a par with the Olympic and the Pythic Games

After the Persian Wars and the defeat of the invading forces, the island’s importance grew even more. Delos became the meeting-ground for the Delian League, founded in 478, and lead by Athens.

Furthermore, The League’s common treasury was kept there as well until 454 BC, when Pericles removed it to Athens. During this time, the island functioned as an administrative center, since it had no productive capacity for food, fiber, or timber, which were all imported.

After its conquest by the Romans and the destruction of Corinth in 146 BC, the Roman Republic allowed Delos to partially assume Corinth’s role as the most important trading center in Greece. An estimated 750,000 tons of merchandise passed through the port each year during the first century BC.

However, the island’s significance waned after the war between Rome and Mithridates of Pontus, during 88-69 BC. Despite its slow decline, Delos maintained some population in the early Roman Imperial period, until it is was completely abandoned around the 8th century AD.

Things to see on Delos island

Delos is truly a heaven for the true lovers of ancient Greek culture since it is full of the remains of ancient buildings and works of art. Since the island had a major Panhellenic religious and political significance, it features an intricate Apollonian sanctuary, with many Minoan and Macedonian structures around it.

In the northern part lie the temples of Leto and the Twelve Olympians, while in the South the distinctive sanctuaries of Artemis. There are also sanctuaries of Aphrodite, Hera, and lesser deities on the island. One can also see many other sanctuaries and commercial structures, such as treasuries, markets, and other public buildings.

The remains of structures and sculptures prove the strong Athenian and Naxian influence on the area. Specifically, some of the major monuments on Delos are the Temple of Delia (Great Temple) in the Apollonian sanctuary, the Avenue of the Lions, a Naxian tribute to Apollo’s sanctuary, the Temple of Isis, in the Mt Kynthos Sanctuary of the Foreign Gods, the Residence of Dionysus, a great example of Delian private houses, and the Minoa Fountain, dedicated to the Minoan Nymphs.

Many other buildings are also situated in the area, such as gymnasiums, theaters, agoras, private houses, walls, monuments, stoas, roads, and ports.

There is also an on-site museum, the Archaeological Museum of Delos, that presents one of the finest and most significant collections of ancient Greek art in the country, as well as numerous artifacts recovered from excavations around the island, offering a valuable insight into the daily life of the ancient inhabitants of the island.

UNESCO has listed Delos in the list of World Cultural Heritage in 1990.

How to get to Delos from Mykonos

The island is under the Ministry of Culture’s guidance, which states that only with special permission may vessels dock and individuals arrive on them. Overnight stays are prohibited.

Therefore, the only way to visit the archaeological site of Delos is to get a day return ferry from a nearby island. Mykonos is the best island to take the boat and visit Delos. There are several boats departing the old port of Mykonos daily and a lot of guided tours as well. During high season you might find some tours from the nearby islands of Paros and Naxos.

Recommended guided tours from Mykonos:

 The Original Morning Delos Guided Tour 

 The Original Evening Delos Guided Tour

There is no accommodation on the island. As of 2021, the entrance fee for the Archaeological Site and Museum of Delos is €12 for an adult (if you qualify for a reduced ticket – that is €6, take your passport).

You can choose between a guided tour or you can be your own guide. However, a big plus with taking a guided tour is that you do not have to wait in a queue once you reach the island to buy an entrance ticket.

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