History mystery: Delos The birthplace of Apollo -1
Today, the sacred island of Delos in the Cyclades is almost deserted. But in the 2nd and 3rd centuries BC it was the linchpin of a multitude of trading routes, and became one of ancient Greece’s busiest and most prosperous ports.
The first glimpse the traveller caught of the tiny island of Delos during its heyday would have been of a rugged mass of granite rising from the violet of the Aegan Sea. A long harbour stretched at the north end of the island: a vast complex of docks and piers hugging the shoreline, with warehouses lining the quays. Behind the harbour the city spread in wild confusion towards the slopes of Mount Cynthus. With more than 20,000 people crammed into such a small area, Delos must have been one of the most densely populated places in the ancient world.
Delos (now Dhilos) lies within the Cyclades, the ‘encircling islands,’ scattered across the Aegan Sea south-east mainland Greece. From about 3,000 BC a remarkable and enigmatic Bronze Age culture emerged on the islands – a culture notable for its elegant pottery and simple marble figurines. But the Cycladic culture had begun to lose its individual identity by the end of the Early Bronze Age, and was finally swamped by Minoan and Mycenaean cultures during the second millennium BC.
In Greek mythology, Delos had originally been a floating island. When Apollo’s mother, Leto, was pregnant by Zeus, the earth was forbidden to offer her shelter, for she had angered the goddess Hera, the jealous wife of the great god. But Neptune took pity on the fugitive.
He struck Delos with his trident, mooring it in place. Because the island had been floating at the time the ban was imposed on Leto, it was permitted to shelter her. In a cave nestled into the slopes of Mount Cynthus (now Cythos), Leto spent nine days and nights giving birth to the divine twins: Apollo – the symbol of youthful manly beauty – and his sister Artemis, the huntress.
These mythological connections gave the island an aura of sanctity. A geological fault in the mountain housed the oracle of Apollo, and the island boasted an altar to the god considered by some as one of the wonders of the world – a marvel to rank with the pyramids of Egypt and the Colossus of Rhodes.
According to legend, the altar had been set up by Apollo himself when he was only four years old, and was made from the horns of goats killed on Mount Cynthus by Artemis.
The temple lay in the heart of the island’s huge religious complex – the hieron, hemmed in by the Sanctuary of Artemis, the Sanctuary of the Bulls, a colossal statue of Zeus, Apollo’s father, and five small buildings used as treasuries.
Great festivals in honour of Apollo were held on the island at four-yearly intervals. The Delian games were held annually, when sacred envoys, or theoroi, were sent by the Athenians and the inhabitants of other islands in the Cyclades to offer sacrifices at the hieron. Every four years, the island was also the site of ceremonies sacrifices in preparation for holy festivals.
Religious festivals made Delos famous throughout the Greek world. Ritual ceremonies included a dance that commemorated the Greek hero Theseus and his escape from the Cretan labyrinth after he had killed the half-man, half-bull Minotaur. Delian dancers followed a complicated pattern around an altar made of goats’ or bulls’ horns, imitating the circuitous route taken by Theseus out of the maze where the monster had lurked.
The impressive temples and sanctuaries attracted tourists and pilgrims from all over the ancient world who contributed to the island’s economy. New settlers brought new gods, creating on eclectic mix of sacred buildings on the terraces of Mount Cynthus, including the Serapeion dedicated to Serapis, A Graeco-Egyptian god from Alexandria, and a temple of Isis – the Egyptian deity who, during the Hellenistic Age, became one of the leading goddesses of the Mediterranean world.
The inhabitants of Delos were originally a seafaring people and, before trade made them wealthy, fishing provided their main source of income. The island is also known to have abounded in game. Yet in the age of classical Greece, neither hunting nor agriculture was the chief means of livelihood among the common people. The inhabitants produced enough to feed only a quarter of the population. But the island’s position was to shape it a new role as a crossroads of shipping routes between Greece, Asia Minor, Thrace, Crete, and the Levant.
The Cyclades archipelago includes more than 200 islands which formed a series of stepping-stones, allowing vessels to sail almost continuously within sight of land; Delos itself offered sheltered anchorage to ships sailing between Mikonos and Rinia. In the 5th century BC, under the leadership of Athens, Delos became the centre of the Delian League – a federation of more than 200 Aegan city-states and islands formed to maintain Greece’s independence from Persia. This honour at firs brought Delos prosperity, but in 454 BC the League’s treasury was moved to Athens for greater security.