Delos - in and around the sanctuary of Apollo - The sacred Precinct

The Sacred Precint

In its ruined state, it is hard at first to pick out the overall form of the -Sacred Precinct which lies ahead of you at this point. It is a large area of temples, altars, votive offerings, and remains from a thousand years of worship. It has grown up in piecemeal fashion, without overall design, around the earliest focus of cult: its development tells something of the story of the political vicissitudes of the sanctuary. The two oldest buildings are immediately to your right on entering: the Oikos of the Naxians, a 6th century bc building with a central axis of columns; and, about 6m to its east, the smaller and even older structure, known as Building ‘Ξ“’ (now little more than a small rectangular depression in the ground), dating from the 8th century bc. (Some scholars have suggested an earlier, Mycenaean date for the building.) Together these represent the earliest, constructed places of the cult of Apollo on Delos .

The Oikos (‘House’) of the Naxians which we see today, oriented on an east/west axis, replaced, in the early 6th century bc, a building on the same spot completed some 50 years be fore, which had been constructed from granite blocks with a flat, tiled roof supported on two rows of wooden columns. This first building appears to have been a temple—perhaps the earliest on Delos —to Apollo. Around 575 bc this first temple was modified: a single axial row of very slender marble columns, almost 4.50m high, now supported long marble cross-beams, which were in turn the base for a pitched roof also tiled in marble. This was groundbreaking in as much as a roof of marble had not been attempted before, and was a bold piece of engineering— especially in an area of the world so prone to seismic movement. At the same time a tetrastyle porch was added to the east. This structure was eventually superseded by other temples to the god on the site and was latterly ‘redefined’, or downgraded, as an oikos or ‘house’— implying a functional use for storing sacred offerings and gifts, or as a ritual meeting place for the Naxians who had originally dedicated it—rather than specifically a place of cult. It may take its orientation from the angle of the axis of the Geometric age structure, Building ‘Ξ“’—possibly also a temple—whose position and importance was respected throughout antiquity.

Against the north wall of the Oikos, stood the colossal Statue of Apollo, approximately four times life-size, carved from Naxian marble around the turn of the 7th century bc. The massive base though broken is still in situ, measuring 515 x 347 x 82cm. In its upper surface was lodged the plinth of the monolithic statue, whose principal remaining parts are now scattered a short distance to the northwest—abandoned during a failed at tempt by the Venetians in the 17th century to carry them down to the port for loading onto boats. The statue must have been the largest piece of monumental sculpture in Greece at the time: it was half as big again as the giant Kouros of Samos , which in turn was already more than twice the size of the majority of the other known marble kouroi from this period. The upper surface of the plinth is covered in 18th and 19th century graffiti; the Archaic dedicatory inscription is on the east face (see below).
Detour to see the remains of the Colossal Statue of Apollo. At a distance of c. 50m northwest, in the precinct of the Artemision (see below), you come first upon the trunk and the top of the thighs, with the row of fixture points visible for the metal belt which the (otherwise nude) figure wore; some 3m beyond, visible standing up above the mass of foundations, is the torso, with the pectorals barely defined on the front and the tips of locks of hair on the back. (One hand possibly belonging to the statue is in the Delos Museum; and part of a foot in the British Museum, London.) The giant figure, whose details would have been picked out in brilliant colour, probably carried a metal bow and arrow: the holes in the left pectoral would have been attachment points for this. Several graffiti of Venetian and 17th century travellers cover the surfaces. The two original ancient inscriptions, however, are on the base which sits beside the Oikos of the Naxians, and are as follows:
1.   the eastern side of the base bears the inscribed epigram, written in archaic (6th century bc) letters: ‘I am of the same stone, both figure and base’—a statement at first appearance untrue, if the inscription is understood to mean ‘of the same block of stone’, since the two pieces always were clearly not a single block. If, on the other hand, it means, ‘of the same type of stone’ (i.e. Naxian) the words could seem a statement of the obvious. Since the stone’s provenance would have been clear to the ancients, however, this may simply have been a way of indicating the origin of the impressive work, without actually signing it with the words ‘made by Naxians’.

2.   this latter interpretation may in turn explain why the western face bears a much later, 4th century bc inscription in classical lettering (only partially visible) stating what was not written earlier: ‘The Naxians, to Apollo’. These words were probably added when the statue had to be repaired and re-erected after a gust of wind had blown the massive bronze palm-tree, dedicated by Nikias on behalf of the Athenians in 417 bc, onto the statue of Apollo and felled it. This incident is related by Plutarch (Nikias, 3). The base of Nikias’s bronze palm has been found at a distance of 27m to the west of here. Perhaps it was later moved further away for safety’s sake.


To the right of the Sacred Way are the remains of three important temples, close together in a line, facing west. First (south) the ‘Great’ Temple of Apollo; in the middle, the ‘Temple of the Athenians’ (sometimes called the ‘House of the Seven Statues’); to the north, the ‘Poros Temple’. None, however, is particularly large in relation to the importance of the place: and none curiously appears to have an altar in front.

*   The 'Great' Temple of Apollo—the only peripteral, or fully colonnaded, temple in the sanctuary—was begun at the time of the foundation of the Delian Confederacy in 477 bc. It appears that it was never actually completed: construction stopped temporarily after the transfer to Athens of the treasury in 454 bc, and was not resumed until the 3rd century bc. Erected on a high base of granite blocks, and approached by steps of local marble, it was a Doric hexastyle edifice (29.8 x 13.5m) with 13 columns at the side. The metopes were plain and the architrave was decorated with palm leaves and lion-mask spouts placed above each triglyph. The naos had both a pronaos and an opisthodomos.

*   The middle structure—small, perfectly formed and made of finest (Athenian) Pentelic marble—was the Temple of the Athenians, the last of the three to be erected. It was built between 425–417 bc and probably inaugurated by Nikias. Fragments of the temple’s exquisite corner acroteria are now in the museum, and give a tiny glimpse of the elegance with which the building had been conceived. It was a Doric amphi-prostyle structure (17.5m by 11.3m) with six columns in front, just inside of which was a pro dromos, or entrance hall, with four columns in antis. Inside the naos were the seven chryselephantine statues with Apollo in the centre, which gave the temple its alternative name of the ‘House of the Seven’. These were displayed on a semi-circular pedestal of Eleusinian marble. The roof was pitched so as to accommodate the Archaic statue of Apollo made by the Naxian sculptors Tektaios and Angelion, which had previously been in the older, ‘Poros Temple’ beside it.

*   The northernmost temple, dating from the 6th century bc, was the ‘Poros Temple’, or ‘Porinos Naos’ as it is referred to in inscriptions. Only the foundations (15.9 x 10m) in ‘poros’ stone remain. Perhaps built in the age of Peisistratus and of a material similar to that used in Athens, the building may be the first visible expression of Athenian dominance at Delos . It was here that the treasure of the Delian Confederacy was originally lodged until its removal to Athens in 454 bc.


At a curiously oblique angle to the fronts of these last two temples is the base, in blue marble, of an honorific dedication to Philetairos, founder of the dynasty of Pergamon in the 3rd century bc, bearing a long, praising inscription. An adjacent base in white marble has a Doric frieze with rosettes and bulls-heads alternating with me topes. Opposite is another large dedication in yet another colour of marble—this time, pink.


The three temples of Apollo pose unsolved questions. It is customary for Greek temples to face east; these three faced west. Temples nearly always are accompanied by an altar before the entrance; these have none. A plausible explanation is that they may have looked on to some important, pre-existing focus of cult which stood just to their west—an ancient altar, an image, a relic, or sacred spot—possibly the Keraton (see p. 72). Neither literature nor archaeology can point to anything certain here, however: but it is worth also noting that the temple of Artemis looks east across this same area from the other side; and that the temple of Leto looks south towards the same point from the rise just to the north. In other words, the temples of the three protagonists of the Delian myth—the twin deities and their mother, Leto—al though oriented on three different axes, all face in towards roughly the same area. Although visible on a plan, this configuration is difficult to follow on the ground, principally because the Hellenistic stoa which later enclosed the sanctuary of Artemis was erected across the area in the 2nd century bc.

The series of buildings arranged in a reverential arc which curves round the north side of the three temples to Apollo have generally been seen as treasuries on the analogy of similar structures at Olympia and Delphi. The earliest is the Treasury of Karystos (S. Euboea), built in the 6th century bc with four columns in antis to the south, and an axial row of columns supporting the roof in the interior. The four remaining treasuries (to the east) were built a century later on an analogous plan; the fourth in line may be the Hestiatorion, or ritual dining-hall, of the island of Kea, mentioned by Herodotus (IV, 34–5). Underneath this group of buildings have been found the remains of a Mycenaean structure which is thought to have been part of a noble residence.

The density of fallen remains in this area of the site means that it is easy to lose sight of the overall layout when following a linear itinerary. A general survey of the whole area is therefore outlined below. The viewing-point which has been chosen is the low wall on the west side of the north end of the Sacred Way, beside a large (roundabout-like) circular pit. From here there is a good all round panorama, first east (towards the museum), then north in the direction of the Sacred Lake, and lastly west towards the water:

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


Delos Island, Greece.

Access to Delos is only via Mykonos. A selection of boats leave every morning (weather permitting), except Mon, from 9am onwards from the old harbour of Mykonos (south mole) and make the 30 minute crossing to Delos, returning regularly up until 3pm when the site closes. Average cost: €12 r/t. Rhenia, which is also a restricted archaeological area, can only be visited by making private arrangements with a caïque service in Mykonos.
Delos Travel Guide


Delos Island, Greece.

Commercial lodging is not available on either island since they are both archaeological sites in their entirety. See ‘Mykonos:Lodging’ for suggestions.
Delos Travel Guide

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