Archaeological site of Ancient Delos in Greece

The UNESCO Archaeological site of Ancient Delos in Greece is a really unique place. Here’s all the information you need to visit Delos in the Cyclades.

Where is the archaeological site of Ancient Delos

Delos is a small island in Greece, close to Mykonos. Both islands belong to the Cyclades group, right in the middle of the Aegean Sea.

Delos and Rhenia island in Greece

Delos can only be accessed by sea. The easiest way to get there is from Mykonos, but there are connections with other islands.

Apart from a few archaeologists who live and work in Delos, the island is uninhabited. Staying there overnight is prohibited.

Why is Ancient Delos so important?

Many millennia ago, a few distinct civilizations appeared around the area that we know as Greece today. You may be familiar with terms such as Mycenaean civilization, Minoan civilization, or Cycladic civilization. These all flourished during the Bronze Age, from around 3,200 to 1,100 BC.

Walls in Delos Greece

Certain Cyclades islands, like Milos, Syros, Naxos and Andros, have been inhabited for several millennia. There is evidence that the first settlements appeared in Delos at around 2,500 BC.

Delos became significant as the twin Olympian gods, Apollo and Artemis, were born there. The sanctuary of Apollo became an important place of worship during the ancient times. There were many more sanctuaries of Apollo around Greece, the most famous one being in Delphi.

The birthplace of Apollo and Artemis

According to Greek mythology, Delos was the birthplace of Artemis and Apollo. The two popular deities were the children of the almighty Zeus and the goddess Leto, who was a daughter of Titans.

Hera was very jealous of Zeus

Unfortunately for Leto, Zeus’ wife Hera found out about her illegitimate pregnancy. She then forbade her to give birth on land, or “anywhere under the sun”. Leto wandered for a long time around several areas in the Mediterranean, including Crete, Athens, Skopelos, Thessaloniki, Asia Minor and Karpathos.

Exhausted, Leto finally reached Ortygia, a floating island drifting around the Aegean. After nine long days of labour, she managed to give birth to the two Olympians.

Since then, the island of Ortygia remained grounded and was renamed to “Delos”, meaning “bright” or “lucent”. This is a word connected with Apollo, the God of Light, for whom a sanctuary was built on the island. The nearby islands around Deloss were named “Cyclades”, as they formed a cycle (circle) around it.

Statue of Apollo

There are several legends around the birth of Leto’s children. According to a popular version, Zeus asked Poseidon to help build a tholos over Ortygia / Delos, in order to create a sunless space.

Another narrative explains that Hera was keeping the goddess of childbirth, Eileithyia, in Olympus. The goddess was summoned to help with Leto’s delivery, but Hera refused to let her go. She eventually changed her mind when she was offered a magnificent necklace made of gold and amber, moulded by Hephaestus.

The importance of Ancient Delos

The Sanctuary of Apollo gained significance after the 8th century BC. Delos became a popular place of pilgrimage. People travelled from all around the Ancient Greek world to pay their respects to the twin deities.

Ancient Greek columns in Delos

In 478 BC, after the Persian Wars, an alliance of over 300 Greek city-states was formed. Its purpose was to help liberate or defend various Greek cities from the Persian rule.

While this alliance was led by the city of Athens, its treasury was initially kept on the sacred island of Delos. As a result, the alliance was named the Delian League. In 454 BC, the treasury was transported to Athens, which reinforced its position as the dominant power in the League.

The Athenians were now the rulers of Delos. They commanded that no births or deaths take place on the island, in order for Apollo’s sanctuary to remain pure. All the existing graves were moved to nearby Rhenia island.

The archaeological site of Ancient Delos

Delos, however, maintained its importance, not least because of the Delian Games. This was a festival happening every 4 years, similar to the Olympic Games. The Delia were dedicated to Apollo, and they consisted of cultural and sports events.

Ancient Delos reaches its peak

From the 3rd century BC, Delos became an independent city-state. The Romans conquered Delos in 166 BC, and they declared the island a tax-free port. Gradually, Delos became a massive commerce hub.

The favourable tax system attracted people from all around the Roman Empire. There is evidence that people travelled here from areas as far as Syria, Cappadocia or Egypt.

Inside the museum in Ancient Delos

Bankers, merchants, shipowners and other rich people of the times came to live here. Designers, builders and other craftsmen followed suit. They built lavish, multi-storey mansions with impressive mosaic floors among the extended markets, temples and public buildings.

It is estimated that, at some point, over 30,000 people from different areas of the world lived harmoniously on the island. Delos became a multicultural city-state, maybe the first of its kind in Europe.

A goat walking around Ancient Delos

By comparison, the current population of Mykonos is no more than 20,000 people.  I found it very difficult to imagine where all these people lived, even with the tall houses!

Nothing lasts forever though. In 88 BC, Delos underwent an attack by Mithridates VI of Pontus. This was followed by a pirate raid in 69 BC. Later attacks by Slavs and Saracens heavily affected the island, which never went back to its former glory. Delos declined over the next centuries, until it was completely abandoned.

Excavations in Delos island

Several travellers visited Delos during the Ottoman Rule. According to their accounts, the island was in complete ruins, inhabited only by rabbits and snakes. In addition, there was no evidence of running water, which was abundant in the ancient times.

An impressive Roman aqueduct in Ancient Delos Greece

For more information and some fascinating photos and sketches, check out this excellent book.

In 1873, archaeologists from the French Archaeological School came to Delos to begin excavations on the island. Many of the significant buildings in Ancient Delos were excavated in the early 20th century. Works have been ongoing ever since, with a few breaks now and then.

As often happens in Greece, many of the materials originally used for the ancient mansions were looted in later centuries. A lot of the marble has been used for other constructions around other Cycladic islands. Statues and other artefacts have been moved to museums in Greece and the rest of the world.

A mosaic in the Museum of Ancient Delos

In 1990, Delos was added to the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The excavations are still ongoing, and you will notice the temporary houses where the archaeologists live.

{Incidentally, those first archaeologists back in the 1870s had to stay somewhere close to Delos. This is pretty much how tourism started in Mykonos!}

What does the archaeological site of Delos look like today?

Imagine a small, sun-drenched, isolated island right in the middle of the Aegean, a half-hour’s ferry ride from the cosmopolitan Mykonos.

How to get to Ancient Delos

Delos island is around 5 km long and 1,3 km wide, and is fairly flat. Kynthos, the highest mountain, is only 113 metres tall. {Remember that 30,000 people were living there at some point. I still can’t get my head around this number!}

The landscape in Delos is wild, rocky and arid, perhaps even uninviting. There are very few trees, but there are many low bushes that are so typical of the Cyclades.

A sheep on Delos island Greece

Between the bushes and rocky patches, you will discover a lot of the ancient civilization which has been restored. You will see stones, walls and mosaic floors, along with statues and ancient Greek columns. You may also spot the occasional sheep, goat or cat.

What to see in Ancient Delos Greece

There are many important landmarks on the island. These include the Agora of the Competaliasts, the Sacred Way, the Propylaia, the House of The Naxians, the Agora of the Italians and the famous Delos Lions.

Not far from the port, you can see a large piece of marble. This is a 32-ton base where a gigantic statue of Apollo once stood. Τhe statue, known as the Colossus of Naxos, was around 9,5 metres tall.

The base of a statue in Ancient Delos

As the phrase suggests, both the base and the statue were made of the same material. Over the centuries, the massive statue was broken into pieces and partly destroyed.

Dionysus House and the House with the Dolphins are two of the most luxurious residences . The amazing mosaic floors will definitely catch your attention.

A restored mosaic floor in Ancient Delos Greece

The Archaeological Museum of Delos hosts many interesting exhibits, including statues, utensils and jewellery from the ancient times.

You will also notice the various phallic symbols, that were used to keep evil away. They were also a symbol of prosperity and fertility. In fact, if you look closely, you will see them on many walls, all around the island.

A phallic symbol in the museum of Ancient Delos

How to visit Ancient Delos in Greece

Delos archaeological site can easily be visited on a half-day trip from Mykonos island. Small ferries carry passengers from Mykonos Old Port to Delos and back. Upon arrival to Delos island, you can get your ticket for the archaeological site and the museum.

Boat trip to Delos

On the day we visited Delos, we were the only tourists there! We were in fact transferred in a much smaller boat, which was really cool.

On board the ferry to Delos

It was easy to get all of our tickets on the spot. However, if you are visiting in peak season, it’s probably best to reserve them in advance.

Delos tour from Mykonos

Understanding what you are seeing while walking around the Delos ruins will take a lot of imagination. In my opinion, certain ancient sites in Greece can be visited without a guide, but Delos really deserves a guided tour. This is what we did ourselves.

Private Ancient Delos tour

We were lucky to have a private tour with Antonis Pothitos. He is a friendly, knowledgeable tourist guide born in Naxos. We walked around Delos together, and Antonis pointed out several details that we would have never guessed ourselves.

Meeting him was a great introduction not only to Delos, but also Mykonos and Naxos. I’m not surprised that Rick Steves recommends him!

Antonis has written an article explaining why Delos had fresh water during the ancient times. At the time, the Aegean islands were attached to today’s mainland Greece. Underground rivers brought rain water from the mountains to wells all around the area. These rivers remained intact even after the islands were formed. This is how many of the Cyclades islands have fresh water wells, even today!

It is also possible to visit Delos on sailing trips departing from other islands, such as Tinos, Paros or Naxos. In addition, there are Delos tours including a swim near the deserted Rhenia island, just opposite Delos.

Tips for visiting Delos island Greece

The first thing you should know is that Delos archaeological site is only open to the public between April and October. This is the hottest time of the year in Greece. The site is open from 8.00 to 20.00.

The stunning Delos archaeological site

Apparently, Delos is in a unique position in the Aegean, which makes it even sunnier than most of the other Cycladic islands. When we visited in June, the sun was already scorching at 11 am! Antonis suggested that an evening visit is generally better. Not only will it be relatively cooler, but there will also be fewer visitors.

Wear comfortable shoes and a hat, and make sure you bring some sunscreen. I had to reapply it twice while walking around Delos! Also, take plenty of water with you, and perhaps a snack, as it’s not always possible to buy any on the island.

Apart from the museum itself, there is very little shade in the ancient site. Here are some ideas on how to stay cool on a hot day.

Last thing – once you arrive in Delos, there are only a couple of toilets next to the ticket office, and a couple more in the museum. Since most Delos tours take at least three hours, my suggestion is to try and use the toilet on the ferry if you can. Otherwise, just be prepared to queue!

The archaeological site of ancient Delos

I hope you have enjoyed reading this article about Ancient Delos in Greece. If you have any more questions, feel free to ask in the comments section below!

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