Island, Greece. One of the smallest of the Cyclades, it was an ancient centre of religious, political, and commercial life in the Aegean. It was the legendary birthplace of Apollo and Artemis. The Delian League was established there in 478 BC, following the Persian Wars. Made a free port by Rome in 166 BC, Delos was a flourishing commercial post and slave market. Sacked in 88 BC during the Mithradatic Wars, it gradually declined and was abandoned. Its impressive ruins have been extensively excavated.
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The island of Delos (Greek: Δήλος, Dhilos), isolated in the centre of the roughly circular ring of islands called the Cyclades, near Mykonos, is one of the most important mythological, historical and archaeological sites in Greece. The excavations in the island are among the most extensive in the Mediterranean; ongoing work takes place under the direction of the French School at Athens.
Delos had a position as a holy sanctuary for a millennium before Olympian Greek mythology made it the birthplace of Apollo and Artemis. From its Sacred Harbour, the horizon shows the two conical mounds (image below) that have identified landscapes sacred to a goddess in other sites: one, retaining its archaic name Mount Kynthos, is crowned with a sanctuary of Dionysus.
Established as a cult centre, Delos had an importance that its natural resources could never have offered. In this vein Leto, searching for a birthing-place for Apollo, addressed the island:
Investigation of ancient stone huts found on the island indicate that it has been inhabited since the 3rd millennium BC. Thucydides identifies the original inhabitants as piratical Carians who were eventually expelled by King Minos of Crete By the time of the Odyssey the island was already famous as the birthplace of the twin gods Apollo and Artemis. (Although there seems to be some confusion of Artemis' birthplace being either Delos or the island of Ortygia.) Indeed between 900 BC and AD 100, sacred Delos was a major cult centre, where Dionysus is also in evidence as well as the Titaness Leto, mother of the above mentioned twin deities.
A number of "purifications" were executed by the city-state of Athens in an attempt to render the island fit for the proper worship of the Gods. The first took place in the 6th century BC, directed by the tyrant Pisistratus who ordered that all graves within sight of the temple be dug up and the bodies moved to another nearby island. In the 5th century, during the 6th year of the Peloponnesian war and under instruction from the Delphic Oracle, the entire island was purged of all dead bodies. It was then ordered that no one should be allowed to either die or give birth on the island due to its sacred importance and to preserve its neutrality in commerce, since no one could then claim ownership through inheritance. Immediately after this purification, the first quinquennial festival of the Delian games were celebrated there.
After the Persian wars the island became the natural meeting-ground for the Delian League, founded in 478 BC, the congresses being held in the temple (a separate quarter was reserved for foreigners and the sanctuaries of foreign deities.) The League's common treasury was kept here as well until 454 BC when Pericles removed it to Athens.
Since 1873 the École Française d'Athènes ("French School of Athens") has been excavating the island, the complex of buildings of which compares with those of Delphi and Olympia.
The island had no productive capacity for food, fiber, or timber, with such being imported. Limited water was exploited with an extensive cistern and aqueduct system, wells, and sanitary drains. Various regions operated agoras (markets). The largest slave market in the larger region was also maintained here.
In 1990, UNESCO inscribed Delos on the World Heritage List, citing it as the "exceptionally extensive and rich" archaeological site which "conveys the image of a great cosmopolitan Mediterranean port".
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