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William Hamblin and Daniel Peterson: Delos, the holy island

The Aegean Sea, between Greece and Turkey, is filled with hundreds of islands. While several of the larger islands have served as major ports through the centuries, most are small, essentially waterless and uninhabited — used only by free-roaming goats and seabirds. Among the smallest of these — only 1.3 square miles — is Delos.

Tiny, rocky and barren, Delos was the unexpected location of one of antiquity’s most important religious archaeological sites. The island had no timber, very little agricultural land and limited water — it could never have sustained even a small city with its own resources alone. So how did this tiny island become so famous and important in antiquity?

It was the mythic birthplace of Apollo — god of the sun, prophecy, music and reason — and his twin sister Artemis — goddess of the moon and hunt. Faith alone transformed Delos from a barren rock in the midst of Homer’s “wine-dark sea” into one of the ancient world’s most sacred places.

The ruins of the Temple of Serapis at Delos, a Greek island and archaeological site.
The ruins of the Temple of Serapis at Delos, a Greek island and archaeological site.
William Hamblin

The seventh-century B.C. Homeric hymn to Apollo has the goddess Leto — soon-to-be mother of Apollo — promise the inhabitants of Delos that “if you build the temple (to my son) the far-shooting Apollo, all men will bring you hundreds of bulls to sacrifice, and will gather here (at Delos to worship Apollo).” And so it was. As Apollo’s birthplace, Delos became the site of his most important temple, attracting pilgrims to religious festivals and games from throughout the Greek world and beyond. Artemis, on the other hand, became more closely associated with her grand temple at Ephesus. Artemis, the Roman Diana, is known to most Christians through the story of the citizens of Ephesus shouting “Diana of the Ephesians” as they rioted against Paul’s perceived blasphemy against the Greek gods (Acts 19).

By the fifth century B.C., Delos was covered with temples and sanctuaries. The most important was the temple of Apollo, and the sanctuary of Zeus on Mount Kynthos. Large market plazas (Greek “agora”) were created, in part to accommodate the thousands of annual pilgrims. These brought gifts for the gods, filling chambers known as “treasuries” with their generous offerings. And thus the holy city flourished for the next half-millennium.

The temple of Zeus on Delos, a Greek island and archaeological site.
The temple of Zeus on Delos, a Greek island and archaeological site.
William Hamblin

Delos was chosen as the center of a political confederation of Aegean islands, the “Delian League” (which led Greek naval resistance to Persian invasions in the early fifth century B.C.); the treasury of these allied city-states was kept in a temple on Delos. Athens, the leader of the anti-Persian Greek city-states, soon became effective master of both the Delian League and the island itself. In 454 B.C., Pericles, ruler of Athens, decided to move the treasury of the Delian league from Delos to Athens to “protect” it from possible plundering by the Persian fleet. The Athenians quickly confiscated the treasure, which helped fund the Athenian “Golden Age.”

While Delos initially became fabulously wealthy through the pilgrim trade, by the second century B.C. it was making even more money through slave trade. Ten thousand slaves were said to have been sold there in a single day, making it, for a while, the largest slave market in the world. Many other products were sold as well, and Delos soon rivaled Rhodes as a great merchant port. The influx of foreign merchants resulted in the establishment of a number of temples to foreign gods, such as Serapis and Isis of Egypt, and the biblical Baal of the Canaanites and Phoenicians.

Many of the slaves at the Delian slave markets had been purchased from pirates, who terrorized shipping in the eastern Mediterranean. Ironically, Delos itself became a victim of its own prosperity. During a war with Rome, Mithradates VI of Pontus (Turkey) sacked Rome’s ally Delos in 88 B.C., plundering the temple treasures, burning the city and enslaving the inhabitants. The slavers thus became the slaves.

Delos never recovered. Slowly declining, its former pilgrimage and trade dispersed to other cities. And Christianity’s emergence as the official state religion of Rome in the early fourth century A.D. sealed its doom; Christians did not make pilgrimages to worship Apollo. Delos eventually became an uninhabited island with but faint memory of its former glory.

In the past few decades, however, pilgrims have returned to Delos. Extensive archaeological excavations on the island have revealed a landscape untouched by modern construction. Frozen in time like Pompeii, Delos provides visitors with a combination of the stark natural beauty of the Greek islands and the lost glory of Apollo’s ancient holy city.

Daniel Peterson founded the Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, chairs The Interpreter Foundation and blogs on Patheos. William Hamblin is the author of several books on premodern history. They speak only for themselves.