The sanctuaries of Serapis and of the Syrian gods

To the north and west opens a large area known as the Terrace of the Foreign Deities —testimony to the cosmopolitan nature of the population of Delos in the last period of its mercantile prosperity during Late Hellenistic and Roman times. The Heraion now became surrounded by the sanctuaries of new, imported divinities—Egyptian Serapis to the south and west, and Syrian divinities to the north. The popularity of Serapis—a curious, composite or syncretic divinity, typical of the multi-cultural world of the Hellenistic age—derived from the fact that he was believed to have the powers of healing and of prophecy.

The Serapeion is an extensive complex which must have grown rapidly during the course of the 2nd century bc. Numerous inscriptions here testify to Athenian patronage in its construction. It comprised two colonnaded courts, several temples to Serapis, Isis and Anubis, altars, inscriptions and ex votos—its haphazard growth indicated by the fact that the complex has few right-angle corners, no over-riding align ment and little axial organisation. The long trapezoid court below the polygonal retaining wall of the Heraion is divided length-ways by a sacred avenue, in Egyptian style, which was lined with altars and crouching sphinxes (a couple at the south end of the western line survive), leading to a small temple set at an angle to the axis. The narrow, north end of this court abuts another paved area bounded on the south and partly on the west by an Ionic portico and surrounded by small temples and sacred rooms. The two most conspicuous temples are: to the north, a Temple of Serapis from the first half of the 2nd century bc built partly in a bluish marble with a poros-stone wall coated with stucco at the rear; and to the east, on a higher level above a ledge of natural rock, a Temple of Isis whose marble pedimented façade has been pleasingly reassembled. Against its back wall is a statue of the goddess, probably dedicated by Athenians as an ex voto: a low fence closed off the naos, over which the head of the statue (now missing) would have been visible from outside. Lower down, directly in front of the temple, is an incense altar the upper part of which is decorated with four pieces of marble in the form of horns.
   To the north—grander still in dimensions and conception than the Serapeion—lies the Sanctuary of the Syrian gods, Hadad and Atargatis, whose cult was also introduced here in the early 2nd century bc. Its beginnings would have been small and private, but by the end of the century it was made ‘official’ under the aegis of an Athenian high priest. In the process, Atargatis became identified with Aphrodite.

   The original entrance to the Syrian sanctuary was by means of the stepped street which is visible rising steeply up to the terrace from the west: the path today does not respect the original enclosures and passes directly north from the Serapeion into the back of what was only a lateral courtyard of the Syrian sanctuary: after 25m it descends to the main terrace. Running north/south, on the left, was a long colonnade which would have been plastered and painted originally: in an exedra just left of its centre is an area of pavement with a mosaic inscription commemorating the benefaction of an Athenian named Phormion. To the right (east) is the sanctuary’s small theatre (with 12 rows of seats accommodating 400–500 spectators) in which sacred rites were per formed, protected from view by walls and an internal portico on three sides which surrounded the space. Sacred fish were kept in a tank in the sanctuary.

The grandeur of these two sanctuaries gives a sense of the wealth of the island’s immigrant merchants; while their enclosed, inward-looking architecture speaks of a different cultic world from the open sanctuaries of the older Greek gods.

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

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