Greece #06 – Delos & Mykonos
Greece #6 – Delos and Mykonos Islands
This is part 6 of a trip we took in April of 2019 to Greece. Except for some days on our own in Athens and surrounding areas, the bulk of the trip was an organized Road Scholar cruise through several Greek Islands in the Aegean Sea.
This installment contains the islands of Delos and Mykonos.
Full Trip Map
Islands & locations visited during the cruise portion of this trip. This episode is for Delos and Mykonos
In this episode I’ll be covering the two side by side islands of Mykonos and Delos. Mykonos is a populated island with towns, farms, places to stay, and restaurants. But Delos is no longer inhabited. In ancient times Delos supported quite a big population but now the entire island is an historic site. We docked at the town of Mykonos but our first adventure here was to the island of Delos.
From the city of Mykonos it is about a 30 minute ferry ride over to Delos across a channel separating the two islands. On our day, the ride over to Delos was quite fine. We caught the 8:30 ferry right near where our ship was docked. The wind was starting to kick up making for some choppy water, but for the most part the wind was going our way so the ride over was not too rough. It was a bit too breezy to be out on deck though and unless you like looking at water, not all that interesting a view.
Delos is a small rocky island roughly 2.8 miles long and 3/4 of a mile wide with no potable surface water and no farmable land. Even though it is quite desolate, it has been inhabited since the 3rd millennium BC when people lived on the hill tops where they could keep a watch on the sea for pirates. Of course that made it quite inconvenient to get to their fishing boats in the morning and to carry their catch back home in the evenings. These were piratical Carians and they were eventually expelled by King Minos of Crete. The Mycenaeans who came later (end of 15th century BC) felt a bit safer so they moved on down closer to the sea – and closer to their boats.
Then along came the era of the Greek Gods. As it turned out, Delos was declared to be the birthplace of Apollo and Artemis who were twin children of Zeus. For those of you who don’t have your Greek Gods straight, Zeus was the ruler of all the Mount Olympus Gods. In turn, Apollo was one of the Twelve Olympians. In other words these were not just run of the mill Gods, they were part of the upper tier of gods. As you probably know, each Greek god was the god of something. In the case of Apollo, he was the god of light, harmony, balance, healing, medicine and archery, as well as music and poetry. Artemis – his twin sister – was the Moon Goddess. And as Delos was their birthplace it became a very important center in the Greek culture and attracted a thriving community of followers who built homes and businesses here in order to be closer to the Gods and have some of that Godliness rub off on them. And, all of this was despite it being a wind swept rocky wasteland with little in the way of mineral resources and even less use for agriculture.
But, not content to leave well enough alone, along came government interventions. The city-state of Athens decided that the conditions on Delos were not really worthy for the proper worship of the gods. So, they ordered a number of "purifications" to make things right. The first purification took place in the 6th century BC 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. Okay, we can’t have dead bodies lying around and upsetting the main gods of the time. But then things got even weirder. In the 5th century BC (during the 6th year of the Peloponnesian war and under instruction from the Delphic Oracle), the entire island was purged of all dead bodies. Well, I can understand that one of the Gods may decide to leave the temple for a stroll around town, and “god forbid” they should happen to stumble upon a grave stone.
But, it seems that was still not enough. They 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. Huh? Well, it seems that if no one is born there, and no one can die there, then no one can claim ownership of any land through inheritance. But even that wasn’t the end. Four years later, all inhabitants of the island were removed to Atramyttium in Asia as a further purification and to leave the Gods to have the entire island just to themselves. I suppose that worked out okay for the Gods - if you don’t count the thousands of tourists who now show up every day.
But things move on and Greek management was replaced by Roman management so to speak. Even though Delos is quite desolate with no productive capacity for food, fiber, or timber, and limited fresh water the Romans brought it back to life. In 166 BC the Romans converted it into a free port. This was partially motivated by seeking to damage the trade of Rhodes, at the time the target of Roman hostility. In 167 or 166 BC, after the Roman victory in the Third Macedonian War, the Roman Republic ceded the island of Delos back to the Athenians. But then the Greeks, never missing an opportunity for trade, allowed Roman traders to come and purchase tens of thousands of slaves captured by the Cilician pirates or captured in the wars following the disintegration of the Seleucid Empire. In fact, Delos became the center of the slave trade, with the largest slave market in the larger region being maintained here.
But, even with all these comings and goings, Delos was quite modern for its time. As fresh water was a scarce resource on the island, they create an extensive system of aqueducts, wells and cisterns as well as a sewage system. They also built many niceties like theaters, sports complexes, had paved streets as well as community halls and the like.
It was also around this time that Delos was declared a free port resulting in a massive influx of people as all the commercial activity in the eastern Mediterranean flocked to the island. Rich merchants, bankers, and ship owners from all over the world settled here. This in turn attracted builders, artists, and craftsmen to build and decorate luxury houses and commercial buildings. These were richly decorated with Frescoes and mosaic floors and inlaid walls not to mention statues and fine carved stone work adorning the structures. All in all, the island became the greatest commercial center of the world.
Well with all this commercial activity, booming economy, and being the birthplace of Apollo and Artemis, Delos became quite important in ancient Greece.
Map of Delos (As it was)
The excavations on the island are among the most extensive in the Mediterranean with many of the artifacts on display at the Archaeological Museum of Delos and the National Archaeological Museum of Athens.
When you arrive in Delos, you first notice how massive the ruined city laid out in front of you is. You also notice how much of it is still visible. Much like Pompeii in Italy, it is impossible to see the whole thing in one day as it is just too big. But you can get a good flavor of the place over the course of several hours. We were on the island for about 2.5 hours (9:30 am to Noon). The first half of the time we were with our guide on a guided tour of the part of town south of the ferry dock called the theater district. Then for the 2nd part of our time we were on our own and mostly wandered around the part of town north of the dock, including the museum.
Map of Delos (Present day)
Our walking route on Delos
After a bathroom break at the dock we headed to the first place you come to which is what had been the central plaza, or town square of the town called an “agora” (meeting place). As the breeze stiffened a bit, we stopped here for a talk about the history of Delos. Not much of this area is left standing except for the marble paving that formed the courtyards and streets of the area.
Central Agora near the docks
I have no idea what this is or was, but it certainly is interesting
From this main agora area near the ancient harbor, we headed to the south, toward the amphitheater and through the section of town that has the most remnants of buildings, mostly housesm of all levels from modest one room affairs to significantly larger multi room, multi level villas with courtyards in the center.
Typical “Street” through area of modest homes
The walls of all the buildings are now shorter than they had been when in use due to natural forces as well as the repurposing of stone blocks from older structures to build new ones. But, in most cases they are tall enough to give you a sense of the rooms. Over the centuries, adornments like statues as well as household items like pots and tools have been looted or moved by archeologists to museums or other safe storage locations. However, some were either recreated or re-positioned back into various dwellings to give the viewer an idea of what sort of things might have been in such houses. But, the artifacts are not typically placed where they might have been, but rather just set out on the floor somewhat haphazardly more like a garage sale.
Some houses have real or replica artifacts displayed in them
Enough wall left to show alcoves where items were stored or displayed and a bit of a fresco
In some cases of the larger and more luxurious villas, there are still remnants of marble support columns that can be seen throughout the site. During this era, Greek columns were not one long solid piece of marble, but rather they were made of shorter sections stacked on top of each other. While much more practical to build them this way, they are less stable over long periods of time due to wind and earthquakes. Most columns have completely toppled over but many have just lost some of their upper sections. In a few cases, like those on the left below the whole column is still intact including the top plate which supported cross beams holding up the roof or a second level. However, most of the columns have mostly or partially collapsed leaving various column heights. As you look out over the city, you see these columns poking up haphazardly above the rest of the ruins
Columns of various heights sprout from the ruins throughout the site
In addition to columns every now and again you find an intact window or door frame.
Most of the buildings were typical of each other but a few were of special interest from an archeological perspective. One is the House of Dionysus. The House of Dionysus is a fine example of a large and lavish private villa from the end of the 2nd-century. It’s not clear who had it built or owned it but they must have been pretty well off as it was originally built on two levels (you can still see the remains of a stone staircase to the second level). It was over 21,000 square feet which is pretty big even by today’s standards. Of that area almost 6,000 square feet of flooring was covered with mosaics. The highlight of all of this is the central courtyard. The courtyard is rimmed by elegant marble columns used to support the 2nd level which probably featured an open balcony all around the courtyard.
Marble columns surrounding the central courtyard of the House of Dionysus
The main feature of interest in this courtyard is the mosaic floor depicting Dionysus riding a tiger. The god is presented with wings, a crown of ivy, and is seated on the back of the tiger around whose neck is a wreath of vines and grapes. He (Dionysus, not the tiger) is holding a staff decorated with a ribbon as though it were a spear. On the ground is a fallen silver wine cup which relates to his god role. Some say that as the silver wine cup seems to have been discarded, meaning that Dionysus had renounced being a god to become a Daemon. But putting that aside, among other things he was the god of creative power that fertilizes nature and by granting humanity the divine gift of the vine allowing them to become equal to the gods for a short period of time. In other words, Dionysus gave them the gift of wine and drinking too much of it made them feel like god till they sober up. But, being the “wine god” made him quite popular. On Delos (and next door Mykonos) he was worshiped as Leneus – the god of the grape harvest – and as Baccheus – God of mystical drunkenness and orgiastic ecstasy – how’s that for a business card title?
But, back to the mosaic floor. The craftsmanship of this mosaic floor is remarkable. It was made with semi precious gems, glazed ceramics, terracotta, and natural stones. The mosaic pieces were all fashioned into pieces measuring roughly one millimeter square (much smaller than normal for that period), allowing for an elaborate color scheme and sharp detail. To add to the almost painting like look, the mosaic pieces were held in place by glass paste mortar mixed to match the colors of the mosaic pieces, thus disguising the space between the stones.
Over the centuries the floor has lost much of its luster and the original floor has been moved to a museum and has been replaced at the house with a replica.
Dionysus mosaic floor replica
As the wind picked up a bit more on our way on up to the theater we stopped at several other houses with special features such as the House of the Trident. But we’ll skip those and move on to the cisterns and theater (or theatre if you prefer).
Fresh water on Delos was a problem from day one. Probably not an issue for the God’s who lived there as they could just conjure up a cup of wine when desired, but for the regular folks who took up residence it was an issue. There are no rivers, lakes or ponds on Delos but it does rain. So, in order to survive, the Greek engineers came up with a very clever system of cisterns, aqueducts, and underground channels to catch, store and deliver water. In fact most all the homes had running water and some sort of sewage system. Much of this was built in the 3rd century BC such as a large cistern near the theatre which is the largest on Delos at 27 feet deep and with a capacity to hold nearly 71,000 gallons of water. Much of the water that fed this cistern was collected from the outdoor theater through an underground system of channels. This cistern was originally covered with marble slabs forming a sort of patio.
Large cistern near theatre
Speaking of the theater, Delos had quite an elaborate one. In Ancient Greece, theaters were outdoor affairs built around one side of a circular or semicircular stage or platform. The seats ascended up a hill and were divided into an upper seating section (26 rows) and a lower seating section (17 rows) for a total capacity around 6,500. All the seats were stone benches which, except for the “premium” first row, had no back rest.
This particular stone theater was built between 296 BC and 240 BC making it a 56 year construction project. The excavation of the Theatre was undertaken in 1882 and published in 2007 making for a 125 year gap between the research and the resulting paper. Well, we’ve learned a lot about how to conduct archeological digs since 1882 but back then they just sort of “went at it”. For example, any marble architectural members in their way were just moved to the orchestra or into a nearby field without being recorded or documented and leaving no information about where it came from. So, we now have hundreds of unidentified building stones scattered around the surrounding area that can’t be put back in place. The result is that this theatre is in quite poor condition with little hope of it being restored.
Theater at Delos
First row of benches had back support for honored guests
Sometimes one has to wonder about the mental state of folks who manage historical sites such as Delos. For some unknown reason they decided that it would greatly enhance the visitor experience if they randomly plopped down modern sculptures in the middle of the most popular ancient buildings on the site. I can’t imagine what they were thinking but many (perhaps most) of the most interesting buildings had some totally inappropriate modern art construct right in the middle of it. For example, below is a section of the same photo of the theater from above before I cloned out the intrusion. Except for the theatre photo, in most places I was able to find an angle that didn’t include the art work. For example position myself so the sculpture was obscured behind a column or piece of wall. Or, I just didn’t take a shot of that building.
Totally inappropriate modern art in the middle of an archeological site of historic import
After our guide led time we were left to wander the rest of the site on our own. Turns out the bathrooms are at the other end of town in the museum and as we hadn’t seen that end of town yet, we headed that way as the wind got stronger.
The north end of town hosts the famous Lions of the Naxians. These lions were given by the Naxians to the Sanctuary of Apollo around the end of the 7th century – more or less. They were situated on a natural terrace along the road leading from the north port to the Sanctuary. This was quite impressive to the pilgrims as most had never seen a lion before. They don’t currently know how many of these lions there were but they think it was between 9 and 19. We can still see replicas of 4 or 5 of them with another 3 or so empty pedestals.
During the Hellenistic era of the island’s history, the island’s sanctity gave way to an intensely commercial and cosmopolitan scene and it is very likely that the lions were moved further south during this time frame to make room for the construction of lavish villas. The original terrace was probably destroyed in the 1st century BC at which time parts of the lions were used as construction material on a wall built in 67 BC to protect against pirates. However, reports show that up through the 18th century parts of the lions were still visible. In 1716 some Venetian visitors saw one of the now headless lions and it reminded them of the lion of St. Mark. So, they had it transported to Venice where it can still be seen in front of the Arsenal with an “exceptionally ugly added head” (quote from a sign in font of the lions in Delos). Parts of lions were discovered in 1886 and 1893 although most of the pieces were found in 1906. It was then that they were placed on high bases so as to be at the original height of the old terrace. Then in 1999 they were moved to the Delos Museum and replicas erected on the pedestals in their place.
Lions of the Naxians
Many of the artifacts collected from Delos have found their way to museums all over the world, with a large number in Athens. However, there is also a museum on Delos that has many original pieces from the site. Other than the lions, the most interesting are the mosaic floors and the artwork from walls. We talked a bit about the mosaic flooring above but here are a couple of museum shots, one of a mosaic floor and one of a wall
Fresco removed from the wall of one of the houses
Mosaic floor removed from one of the houses
As it was mid April, in these latitudes that’s prime spring time. Even though Delos is a pretty barren landscape and as we were told always windy (which it was), the profusion of wild flowers was astonishing. As I wandered around I found myself taking more photos of the flowers than the ruins. As you have seen, pretty much every photo includes wildflowers growing out of every nook and cranny giving the ruins and the landscape a pop of color that folks coming in the height of tourist season won’t have. This added splash of yellow, pink, purple and red waving in the breeze like the wheat fields of Kansas did wonders to offset the drab gray/brown color of the stone buildings and general look of the natural barren landscape.
The density of the wild flowers was astounding
Mostly yellow but with a fair amount of purple and a smattering of Red
Wildflowers add some color to the ruins
Literally all over the place, here are some of those red ones I mentioned
Our return boat ride to Mykonos was quite a wild ride. As mentioned throughout this travel log, the wind had been picking up since we had arrived. But now it was time to head back to Mykonos with a whipping cross wind coming around the islands from all directions. It seems that this was not an uncommon occurrence as in each seating section of the boat was a fellow standing at the front with an arm full of barf bags keeping a keen lookout for anyone in distress. It seems the boat operators had a great plan. The guy’s in charge of cleaning the boat after each run were the ones given the opportunity to keep watch with an arm full of those bags. Talk about motivation!
I must say, many of those bags were put to good use as it was quite a ride with the nose of the boat becoming airborne 15 feet or more before slamming down into the trough of the wave. Add to this a fast paced side to side rolling motion of perhaps 30 to 40 degrees and it was all you could do to stay in your seat. Sort of like riding a cork in a washing machine. About an hour before we were to board the boat for the ride back to Mykonos, our thoughtful guide, Athena, passed out sea sick pills to the entire group and for the most part everyone took advantage. And, those that didn’t wished they had. But, although many were green, our group all made it without needing a bag. I can’t say the same for other tourists on the boat though.
The city of Mykonos on the island of the same name and where our ship was docked is pretty much a typical Greek island town. Having seen so many so far on our trip, it was not all that exciting. However, had this island been nearer the beginning of our trip rather than nearer the end we would have found it quite pretty and fascinating.
Mykonos is about 33 square miles with a permanent population of around 10,000 (2011 census). The largest town of course is Mykonos which lies on the west coast and where tourism is the major industry, especially as it is the only place you can use to get to Delos. Appropriately enough the nickname of the place is "The Island of the Winds". But, in its own right, Mykonos is known for vibrant nightlife and for being a gay-friendly destination with many establishments catering to the LGBT community.
Carians seem to have been the original inhabitants of the island with Ionians from Athens coming along next in the early 11th century BC. During this time many people lived on barren Delos as well which meant that Mykonos became an important place for supplies and transit for the Delos population. Even though it had a bit more ability to sustain itself than Delos, it was, however, a rather poor island with limited agricultural resources.
Like most islands in the area it was occupied and owned by many different empires over time including the Romans, the Byzantines the Catalans, and the Venetians in 1390. Then along came the Ottomans. In 1794 a battle was fought between British and French ships in the island's main harbor but I don’t know who won or who was on the side of the Ottoman’s. But, the Ottoman’s hung around till 1830 when Greece became an independent state.
In Greek mythology, the island was named after its first ruler - Mykonos - the son (or grandson) of Apollo and a local hero. The island is also said to have been the location of the “Gigantomachy”, the great battle between Zeus and Giants and where Hercules killed the invincible giants having lured them from the protection of Mount Olympus. According to myth, the large rocks all over the island are said to be the petrified corpses of the giants.
But we were here to see the sights. For folks staying a few days on the island, its beaches are said to be some of the best with soft white sand. But we only had the late afternoon, from about 3:30 till dinner on our Delos day to see the sights.
The north end of the town of Mykonos is built along the shore of a semicircular bay but most of old city sits on the south side of this bay.
Map of Mykonos and our walking route
Along the shore near the docks
One of the main attractions here is an area of town called either “Little Italy” or “Little Venice”. This non vehicle section has rows of fishing houses lining the waterfront with balconies hanging over the sea. The first of these was constructed in the mid-18th century. They originally belonged to rich merchants or captains and had little basement doors providing direct access to the sea. This along with underground storage areas led people to believe that the owners were secretly pirates.
Little Italy or Little Venice
The non sea side of Little Italy has the traditional narrow walkways with stone pavers where the spaces between the stones are painted white. Although some of these buildings are rental units, most have been converted into bars and cafes as well as shops and galleries.
Typical Little Italy walkway catering to the tourist industry. Post card anyone?
Little Venice is considered one of the most romantic spots on the island and many people gather here to watch the sunset. The area attracts many artists who come to paint the picturesque coastline.
Another main attraction is a row of windmills on a little hill overlooking the bay. It seems that all of these are now residences of one kind or another. It was hard to tell if they were rentals or locals live there – or some of each. Although there are windmills scattered all over the island, these six in a row, right in the middle of tourist nirvana are the most popular.
Three of the six windmills
Windmill overlooking another section of town
As you can see by the little crosses on my Mykonos map, this town, like most Greek Island towns, is chock full of churches. Some are quite small and others large, but most are old and some are quite ancient. One such ancient church is the Paraportiani Orthodox church. Its name literally means "Our Lady of the Side Gate" in Greek, as its entrance was found in the side gate of the entrance to that area if town. The construction of this church started in 1425 and was not completed until the 17th century. This whitewashed church actually consists of five separate churches which are joined: four churches (dedicated to Saint Eustathios, Saint Sozon, Saints Anargyroi and Saint Anastasia) are at ground level and constitute the base of the fifth church that has been built above them.
Paraportiani Orthodox church
As one wanders through towns and villages all over the world, especially those who owe their continued existence to tourism, you of course wander through the areas of town that cater to the tourist trade. In these sections of town, everything is pristine with freshly painted buildings, attractive shops and end to end restaurants, bars and souvenir shops. Even so, it’s also interesting to venture into sections of town that have not been groomed to perfection. Here you can find scenes more evocative of how people there actually live in real life. You find buildings that are kept up and middle class but you also find ones that have fallen from grace and need some tender loving care.
Well manicured residence in tourist section of town
More middle class complex of homes with evidence of everyday life
Seen better days
I hope you enjoyed reading about our time in Delos and Mykonos and will come back for more as I get around to publishing them.
PLEASE LEAVE COMMENTS AS I ENJOY HEARING YOUR REACTION TO WHAT I'VE WRITTEN
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Thanks for reading – Dan
(All images by Dan Hartford. Info from Wikipedia, other web sources, and pamphlets gathered at various locations along the way)
Keywords: blog, cycladic islands, cycladies, dan hartford photo, dantravelblog, dantravelbloggreece, Delos, Delos Island, greece, greek islands, greek orthodox church, Lions of Delos, Lions of the Naxians, Little Italy Mykonos Greece, Little Venice Mykonos Greece, Mykonos, Mykonos Island, wildflowers, Windmill, windmills of Mykonos
I used your descriptions of Delos Island to label my photos; a big help. Thanks.
In this time of being house bound, I truly enjoyed your trip to these Greek islands I particularly liked the Greek gods tutorial. . Hope you and Ellen are AOK as well as your son and family. Travel on hold right now.
Great job, Dan! The names of many of those places and folks are familiar, but they are all lost in the fog. Great shots, and amazing that tourists want to go to Delos. Glad I wasn't on that boat with you!
Beautiful photos and a very informative narrative!
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