Tuesday, 18 August 2015

Ancient Delos (Part 1)

Delos island is tiny, only about 5km long by 1.3km wide, but for the ancient Greeks it was the most sacred place as Apollo and Artemis, 2 of the most important ancient Greek gods, were reputed to have been born on the island. The island was continuously inhabited from about 2500BC up until a little after 69BC, when it was razed by pirates. In that time it grew from being a place with a small cult sanctuary to the religious and commercial centre of the central Aegean (and maybe the ancient world in toto at the time), with a city housing approximately 30,000 people.

The earliest inhabitants of Delos built their homes on the top of Mount Kythos, the highest peak on Delos though only 112m high, from where they could easily see any approaching vessels (read pirates/enemies) but by the 15th century BC the Mycenaeans had moved down into the valley, next to the sea. The religious sanctuary to Apollo and Artemis was established in the 9th century BC and reached its peak about 500 years later.
Artist’s impression of Ancient Delos at its height showing the Sacred Harbour (foreground) with Sanctuary just above. Also shown are: the Sacred Lake close alongside the Agora of the Italians; the Hippodrome (above the Sacred Lake) and beyond that the Stadium; Sanctuary of the Syrian and Sanctuary of the Egyptian Gods(top right); and the Stadium (middle right). The city’s extensive residential areas are also depicted
Though some houses had been built around the sanctuary from the 5th century BC onwards, it was the declaration of Delos as a free port in 167BC and the subsequent influx of traders, merchants, ship-owners and bankers that saw the rapid growth in the city. By 1BC it is estimated that the city housed 30,000 people and that 750,000 tons of goods were moved through its commercial harbour each year. The wealth of the city can be seen in the richly decorated, luxurious houses, with frescoes, marble-cladding, statues and beautifully detailed mosaic floors.
View across part of the Sanctuary (including the Artemesion) towards the modern harbour/quay and, to the right of that, the area of the ancient Sacred Harbour
The island’s wealth and its good relations with the Romans were its undoing. In 88BC it was attacked and looted by Mithridates, the King of Pontus, and enemy of the Romans and in 69BC the pirates of Athenodorus, an ally of Mithridates, followed suit. Following the second attack, during which a huge fire spread through the city, Delos was gradually abandoned and fell into decline. The archaeological ruins that remain today are impressive in showing a picture classical cult/religious life but also a very complete picture of everyday life in an ancient city too.
BV (4th from left) anchored just off the fairway between Delos and Nísos Megalo Remmatia. Nísos Rínía is in the background
Having anchored just off the fairway to the south of the ancient (and the modern) harbour, in the lee of Nísos Megalo Remmatia, we inflated the dinghy and went ashore, passing the ruins of the ancient commercial harbour as we made our way to the quay near the site’s ticket office. The Sacred Harbour was originally to the north of the small modern harbour quay/peninsula but it was destroyed during the early excavation work of the late 1800s. We made sure that we moored the dinghy well in towards the shallows of this quay/peninsula as with numerous tripper boats ploughing back and forth towards between Mikinos and Delos we didn’t want our ‘wheels’ to become a car park casualty!
Agora of the Competaliasts
Once into the site we found ourselves first in the Agora of the Competaliasts, a marketplace of the ancient city with 2 small temples dedicated to Hermes, the god of commerce.
The Sacred Way
From the Agora the tourist route took us onto the Sacred Way which presumably used to link the Sacred Harbour with the Sanctuary.

Model of the Sanctuary with the great bronze
 palm shown with the Colossus of the Naxians
 tucked in beside the temple by the palm tree
Over the years the Sanctuary itself became filled with Temples, treasuries for offerings and statues of dedication. Much like at Delphi, city states would provide funds for a building or a statue to be raised in the hope that the gods would look favourably upon them and also to demonstrate their power and wealth to other states. The also housed a surprising number of the city’s administrative buildings, particularly those used for assemblies.
The Sacred Harbour from the Sanctuary
Remains of the Colossus of the Naxians including a drawing of it from 1673 (top right).  Plinth (top left), torso and pelvis moved from the statue’s original site and abandoned in the Artemesion (bottom left and right)

In the 7th and 6th centuries BC, the dominant power in the region was the nearby island of Naxons. The Naxians built a large columned building, which was probably a temple to Apollo or a treasury for votive offerings, but which might just have been a large dining hall. Outside this was a huge marble statue of Apollo, the Colossus of the Naxians. It was approximately 9m tall, in kouros form (nude, long hair, braod shoulders, left foot just in front of right) and in his hands he held a bow and arrows or the Three Graces. The statue was so tall that even when the Sanctuary was covered in buildings, it was possible to see the statue’s head and bronze hair from the sea. The broad Avenue of the Lions ended at its base. Apparently, at some point, the huge bronze palm tree dedicated by Nicias fell over and knocked down the Colossus but the Naxians re-erected it. In 1416 an attempt was made to re-erect the statue again, but it failed and then, about 300 years later, an attempt was made to haul away the parts of the statue that remained, but that too failed as they were too heavy. Now the statue’s torso and pelvis remain abandonned near what was the Sacred Port, in front of the Artemesion; the British Museum has a section of the left leg; and the Delos Museum has the left hand.
Temple of the Athenians 
The Sanctuary also housed 3 temples to Apollo one dedicated by each of: the Delians (the only peripteral temple on Delos, in which was found centuries’ worth of precious offerings); the Athenians (made of valuable white Pentelic marble with beautifully carved acroterion at the corners and the apexes of the roof); and the people of Póros. Opposite them, near the Artemesion (the Temple to Artemis), was the Keraton, the most ancient and venerated altar, apparently built by Apollo himself.
The Italian Agora
Just to the north of the Sanctuary is the Italian Agora, the largest building in the city of Delos. It was built by Italian businessmen as the city reached the height of its commercial power in about 100BC and was used by them as a meeting place and trading point as well as clearly demonstrating their wealth and influence in the city.
The Lions of the Naxians
The Lions of the Naxians (well, now copies of the Lions of the Naxians) sit on the site of an ancient natural terrace just to the north of the Sanctuary. It is thought that there were between nine and nineteen of them when the Naxians first presented them in in approx 700BC, part of the Naxians’ grand building plans to demonstrate their supremacy to all Hellenic pilgrims visiting the Sanctuary. Several hundred years later, when the city had become more commercialised and was much less of a religious/cult centre, the statues were moved further south and their terrace destroyed to make way for luxury housing. Later still, some of the lions were destroyed and incorporated into the city’s defensive structures but not all of them. Evn up until the 18th century travellers record having seen parts of the lions and a headless one was removed to the Arsenal in Venice (and a new head put on it). Those parts that remain of the original lions are now housed in the Delos Museum (see Ancient Delos Part 2).

Temple near the Association of the merchants,
 ship owners and bankers from Beruit
At its commercial height Delos housed tens of thousands of people of many different nationalities. They frequently lived and traded in different areas of the city (eg the Italian Agora) and those from Beirut were no different having association buildings and temples in the northwest of the city.

The Beruit Quarter

Lake House
Slightly further east, in lower ground near the Sacred Lake is an excavated house known as ‘Lake House’. Its columned atrium and mosaiced floors still give a real sense of the style of housing preferred by the wealthy inhabitants of Delos. The houses were inward-looking: rooms with no exterior windows surrounded a central open atrium, which usually contained a shallow pool. This design meant that the houses were somewhat insulated from the noise and bustle of the city streets (good for secuity, cleanliness and peace and quiet) whilst allowing air, somewhat cooled by evaporation from the pool, to circulate the living spaces.
Granite Palaestra
Close to Lake House are the remains of 2 palaestra, which were buildings where men congregated to exercise, bathe and discuss current affairs. The cisterns around which the palaestra were built are still clear to see as are some of the colonaded walkways and various rooms. Close to these also was the remains of Lake Market. During the second attack on Delos much of the city was destroyed by fire with much of the population fleeing in panic. In Lake Market storage amphorae still remain where they had been abandoned by the shopowners and during the excavations one shopowners savings were found hidden in a box under his shop’s doorsill.
Gymnasium and Stadium Quarter    
We climbed the low hill to the north east of the ancient city, up towards the Hippodrome, the Public Gymnasium and the Stadium. There was relatively little to see of the public buildings but the residential quarter near the Stadium is remarkably well preserved.
Sacred Lake (filled in in 1925 following a malaria epidemic)    
As we returned down the hill, towards the centre of ancient city we had a good view of the Sacred Lake (Sacred Copse?) and beyond it the Naxian Lions and (to the right of the picture above) the temple in the Establishment of Poseidoniasts/Beirut Quarter. Next on the tour, before the sun got too hot, would be climbing Mount Kythnos.......
Ancient Delos, Greece

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