Apollo and Artemis, twin siblings, were born under a palm-tree on Delos . One of the peculiarities of the Greek pantheon of gods is an unexpected specificity about their origin or place of birth: Hera born beside the Imbrasos River on Samos , Aphrodite in the waters off Kythera, Hermes on Mount Kyllene in Arcadia, and Zeus whose infancy was passed on Mt. Dikte in Crete. It is part of their innate humanity that they should have a life-story thus rooted in particularity. Much of this information is due to the creative richness of the collection of 6th century bc anonymous poems known as the ‘Homeric’ Hymns. Although Homer himself had earlier referred in passing to the altar of Apollo on Delos in the Odyssey (VI. 162), the story of the god’s birth on the insignificant islet of Delos is first told in detail in the Hymn to Apollo: in it the poet stresses—and the island itself apologises for— its barren rocks and utter poverty, seemingly so inappropriate to the home of the most resplendent of the Greek deities. But the divine association which followed had the effect of supercharging this tiny granitic, outcrop in the sea into the most sacred place in the ancient Aegean—the sea’s political centre in the aftermath of the Persian wars,its commercial hub for many centuries, and consequently one of the most important archaeological areas in the Greek Islands today.
Why minuscule Delos , of all places, for such a momentous birth? Perhaps it was because of its being ‘unclaimed’ territory, in the very middle of things. Delos was close ly surrounded by grand and powerful islands—Naxos , Paros, Kea, Tenos, Euboea—and from the beginning Delos may have appealed as a kind of neutral territory in the midst of these powers, midway between the east and west coasts of the Aegean, in which the Ionian peoples could meet for their communal festival in a place that was specifically not one of those larger islands—rather as the valley of the Forum in Rome served as neutral space for meetings of the early, hill-top tribes surrounding it. Thucydides (III. 104) comments that Pan-Ionian athletic gatherings and poetic contests were from earliest times held on Delos .
Though minute and now treeless, Delos was once well-endowed with fresh water which remained trapped above the lower layers of granite and was accessible through shallow wells. For the sacred palms mentioned by Odysseus to have grown freely on the island there must undoubtedly once have been much more surface water and vegetation. The island’s harbours were also protected from the winds by the neighbouring islet of Rheneia and by the configuration of reefs in the channel between Rheneia and Delos . Most of all, though, the island’s central position at the crossing of east–west and north–south routes through the Aegean destined it early on to a considerable degree of relevance. The establishing of a cult of Apollo, as early as the 9th century bc, subsequently reinforced by the attentions of two powerful leaders of the 6th century bc, Peisistratus, tyrant of Athens, and Polycrates of Samos , soon brought Delos preeminent fame and wealth. It also brought it grief. As the Aegean powers throughout later history sought to dominate the island and its cult for their own political ends, the people of Delos were repeatedly moved, exiled, repopulated or captured like pawns in a wider strategic power-game. The island knew immense wealth at times—latterly as a Hellenic-wide centre of commerce in slaves—and at other times, destitution and destruction at the hands of political expediency. That so much remains today after repeated sackings is somewhat of a miracle. The site is immense. Not many of the public and sacred buildings stand above their lowest courses, especially in and around the heart of the sanctuary; but on the slopes of Mount Kynthos are some of the best preserved houses from the ancient Greek world, decorated with fine mosaics and painting; there is a museum containing finds of astonishing quality; and, from the island’s happiest age, are the magnificent Archaic remains—sacred buildings, the Terrace of the Lions, and the fragments of the colossal Kouros statue of Apollo, dedicated by the people of Naxos .
Nowhere else in the Greek world have the remains of a whole city and a sanctuary of such wide-ranging importance been preserved undisturbed by modern building. Delos is a grand and instructive site, though ultimately melancholy because of the extent of its ruination and despoliation. Early morning in spring is the best moment to visit: the air is cool and full of larks, and the whole island is a meadow of wild and colourful flowers.
Delos Island is part of the Cyclades Island Group, Greece.