A journey in time courtesy of the head of the Ephorate of Antiquities of Cyclades, Dr. Dimitris Athanasoulis.
Delos is the only island in the world whose ancient city is not beside or part of a modern settlement. Today, Delos is a World Heritage Site, and like a siren, it enchants everyone who hears its stories.
WORDS Rania Georgiadou
PHOTOGRAPHY Christos Drazos
“In the first century B.C., there were approximately 30,000 inhabitants on this small island in the Cyclades. Most of them were Athenians, but there were also people from other parts of the Mediterranean. They lived peacefully, they wrote and spoke Greek and they worshipped their Gods,” Dimitris Athanasoulis begins his narration. Firmly grounded in today’s world, with a scientific foundation and a vision for modern archeological sites and museums, Dimitris Athanasoulis uses simple words to impart his knowledge and share his love of narratives of the past. “This era is characteristic of Delos, as it is only here, and nowhere else in Greece, that visitors can grasp the meaning of the first impulse of globalization which materialised in the Hellenistic Kingdoms after the death of Alexander the Great. That part of the city, which is still in the process of being excavated, is in excellent condition. So, we could say that during that period, Delos was a huge multicultural centre, in the same way that Mykonos is today.”
The advantage to Delos is that you experience the journey back in time even as you travel there, reaching the island by a small boat much like the inhabitants of old.
“The visitors to Delos are basically tourists who choose Mykonos for its attractions, and take the trip to Delos because of its proximity,” Athanasoulis makes clear from the beginning. “So, this is a very interesting “odd couple” of paradoxical attractions for visitors. What is Mykonos today? A world-renowned cosmopolitan island, one big party! To use one of Foucault’s favourite terms, it is a heterotopia. Visitors to Mykonos escape their daily life and find themselves in an environment where “non-time” prevails; a time for absolute entertainment. During their stay, there is no sense of time, as they find themselves in a timeless place. Delos however, is the exact opposite. As with every museum or archaeological site, it is a time warp – for example, when you climb up the Acropolis, you travel back to the 5th century B.C. The advantage to Delos is that you experience the journey back in time even as you travel there, reaching the island by a small boat much like the inhabitants of old. The boat trip is a prelude. So, this is the first reason why it is worthwhile for revelers of “non-time” Mykonos to visit Delos and experience these extreme contrasts. It is a ‘trip’ of a different kind, something worth getting your head around – and whatever your state of mind, you cannot avoid a sense of altered states during a visit to Delos!
Delos remains a unique archaeological site preserved exclusively on an island.
Although Delos has its challenges, (as a huge site which needs to be restored, excavated and requires a new infrastructure, among other things), it remains a unique archaeological site preserved exclusively on an island. The fact that the antiquities are in good condition and that so many of them remain, allows visitors to visualise the ancient city in a comparable way to Pompeii. This is not possible in any other ancient city in Greece. There are many Roman cities in the Middle East, Syria or Africa which are in good condition, but in Delos you experience a scenery unchanged since antiquity and which presences time itself! Even people who believe themselves to be indifferent to the past leave Delos having gained something from their visit.”
Stages in History
“It is worth making a first stop to the Sanctuary of Apollo, as it is the reason the city was called into existence as one of the largest Hellenic sanctuaries in the Mediterranean. This sacred place, imbued with the meaning of ‘sanctity’, already existed in the Homeric Age, and reached its peak during the Archaic Period (7th-6th century B.C.) and the Classical Period (5th -4th century B.C.). Citizens from the outer reaches of the Greek World traveled to the island to worship the God of Light. From the mid 6th century B.C. up to the 4th century B.C., Athens imposed itself politically and culturally on the sacred island. During that period, the Sanctuary was the center of the Athenian Republic, a symbol for the birth of western civilization and headquarters of the Athenian Empire (or Delian League). When the League ceased to exist, this great Hellenistic “model” city developed, encompassing all aspects of the Greek World.” The Hellenistic city, remains of which visitors see today, developed after 167 B.C., when the Romans gave Delos back to the Athenians and declared it a free port; a fact which contributed to its rapid economic ascent. Merchants, bankers and shipowners from all of the known world settled there, attracting a large number of masons, craftsmen and sculptors. It was a large city with public buildings such as the Bouleuterion (Assembly House), the Prytaneion and the Ekklesiasterion, with religious and merchant guilds housed in buildings such as the Poseidoniasts of Beirut, squares with votive offerings from Italian guilds such as the Agora of the Competaliasts and unique houses decorated with murals, mosaic floors and statues.
Visitors to Mykonos escape their daily life and find themselves in an environment where “non-time” prevails, time for absolute entertainment. Delos is the exact opposite – it’ s a time warp.
“It was a transport hub for the Eastern Mediterranean due to the privileges granted by the Romans and encouraged an unprecedented cosmopolitanism, where all the races of Israel met, accumulating enormous amounts of wealth which was invested in constructing an elaborate city with winding streets, unique buildings such as the Theatre, the only marble theatre in the Aegean as well as three-storey houses (The House of the Lake, The House of Dolphins, The House of Masks, The House of the Trident, The House of Dionysus and The House of Kleopatra) with colonnades and unique mosaics. And if the squares and narrow streets of this 2nd century B.C. city have the same ambience as those of Chora of Mykonos, let us remind ourselves that in antiquity, Mykonos was a satellite of Delos. When the ancient Greeks built Delos, it is from Mykonos that they took the materials. And conversely, when Delos collapsed, the Myconians took these materials back again to build and fortify their own houses! What is of particular interest for the contemporary visitor is the phenomenon of universality. The fact that “foreigners” from all over the world lived in Delos, that there was open trade with the East and West and a vast Syncretism – an amalgamation of different religions, cultures, or schools of thought – with Greek temples but also places of worship from other Eastern religions such as the Temple of Isis and the Synagogue.”
The French Connection
The first excavations at Delos were conducted by the French Archaeological School of Athens in 1873. Later, thanks to significant funding (1904-1920) by Joseph Florimont, duc de Loubat, the most important sections of ancient Delos were uncovered. Alexandre Farnoux, now Director of the French Archaeological School, made his first excavation in Greece at the Temple of Apollo in 1987-1988. ‘The archaeologist’s work is different now,’ he explains.
At Delos, the priority is to promote the wonderful existing monuments, which are exposed to extreme weather.
‘At Delos, the priority is not to make additional excavations, but to promote the wonderful existing monuments, which are exposed to extreme weather. For the last three years, we have been cooperating with the Ephorate of Antiquities of Cyclades, on a committee of which Massimo Ossana, Pompeii’s archaeological superintendent, is also a member, in order to find ways to conserve and promote the site in an appropriate manner. Furthermore, findings are no longer solely the product of excavations, but also of new technologies and studies. For example, a recent analysis of a plaster sample from the Delos sewerage system showed that residents of the time suffered from parasites.’
“A visit to the museum is a must, as it has one of the most significant collections of ancient Greek sculpture. Visitors can see veritable treasures, from the Archaic Period which first emerged in the Cyclades, such as kouros, kore, and lions, to statues of the Hellenistic era. They will also see items of everyday use, found intact inside excavated sites where once houses, markets, shops and workshops thrived!” Is there any chance that the site’s magic and scale will disappear once Delos further develops as an archaeological site? “Its magnitude will not change”, Dimitris Athanasoulis say confidently. “The infrastructure has to be improved so that the Museum is “worthy” of its exhibits and we have to carry out restorations. One of the main issues is the temple of Apollo, which, for all its architectural elements, visitors cannot experience in the third dimension – space – because it has not yet been restored. It is a huge challenge that the Ephorate wants to meet.
At night, when there are no lights on Delos, it is magnificent and extraordinary.
The pillars can be raised and we can have a clear idea of what the temple used to be like. Our aim however is to use other ideas as well, to reinvigorate the site. For example, we can make copies of the authentic statues which are in the museum and place them in their original positions so that the archaeological site itself comes to life. At night, when there are no lights on Delos, it is magnificent and extraordinary. We try to organise selected events during the full moon, in order for the public to be able to experience the enchantment of such a unique event. Delos will always be magical!”
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