Around the sacred Lake

The avenue leading north from the Letoon begins to open out and is bordered to the west by the celebrated * Terrace of the Lions, which constitutes a ceremonial entry of a kind clearly influenced by similar avenues in Egyptian sanctuaries. (The original sculptures are now in the museum; good copies have been placed on site.) This line of magnificent creatures—more panthers than lions—laid out and executed by the Naxians in their native stone some time at the end of the 7th century bc, faces the rising sun across the Sacred Lake where Apollo and Artemis were born. Their elongated backs, lean flanks and crouch haunches are charged with attentive energy. They were once the ceremonial guardians of the entry to the Sanctuary—that is, in earliest times when boats landed not in the Sacred Harbour (which had not yet been con structed), but in the Bay of Skardana instead, which lies over the rise to the north of here. The logic of this older entry, which first passed by the Sacred Lake with its palms and swans, and then proceeded south under the gaze of the lions towards the Temple of Leto and thence to the Sanctuaries of Apollo and Artemis, was impeccable. The effect of later re-orienting the Sacred Precinct for arrival from a harbour to the south side was to render the Terrace of the Lions somewhat irrelevant.

    Although five lions are visible in situ, their original number was at least nine, and could even have been as many as 16. One, removed by the Venetians in 1716, now stands by the entrance to the Arsenal in Venice, completed with an 18th century head.
   The lion was traditionally more closely associated with Artemis than with Apollo for whom it had no particular significance, and it is noteworthy that the positioning of the lions here is more in alignment with the Temple of Artemis than with that of Apollo. At the time the terrace was created in the 7th century bc, the prominence of Artemis at Delos may have been much greater than it was in later times.

The lions look onto the Sacred Lake, now dry since 1925 when it was drained for reasons of salubrity. Its form is indicated by a modern wall, which represents its extent in Hellenistic times. This is the lake referred to as ‘round like a wheel’ (τριχοειδής), of which Herodotus was reminded when describing the Sacred Lake of Sais in Egypt (Hist. II, 170). In it were kept the sacred swans and geese of Apollo. The lake was formed by an overflow of the Inopos torrent which originally debouched to the north, into the Bay of Skardana. A palm-tree has been planted in the centre in memory of the grove which grew here in Antiquity and of the sacred palm to which Leto clung when giving birth to the twins.
   The Sacred Lake was once the first element of the Sanctuary of Apollo encountered by visitors; today it is one of the last, and it marks the northern limit of the sacred area in early Antiquity. The extensive remains that lie beyond it, on the hill of Skardana to the north, all date from Hellenistic times and after. Beyond them, the land drops steeply to the Bay of Skardana, which was the island’s harbour and entrance up until the building and organisation of the Sacred Harbour during the course of the 6th century bc.

Delos Island is part of the Cyclades Island Group, Greece.

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