Although Delos is one of the smallest islands in the Aegean, it was the most famous and the most sacred of all the islands in antiquity, since according to the myth Apollo-Sun was born there, the god of daylight and Artemis-Moon, the goddess of the night light, that is to say that light was born there, which was the supreme good for the ancient Greeks.
The oldest inhabitants of Delos built their dwellings around 2500 BC. on the top of Mount Cinto (113 m) and from there they could easily monitor and control all the small valley and the sea around during those agitated and insecure times. The Mycenaeans who arrived towards the end of the 15th century in the Aegean; having already consolidated their domination over the entire sea, they felt safe enough to attack the valley by sea anyway.
The sanctuary of Apollo, consolidated since the Homeric times, reached its maximum splendour in the Archaic times (7th-8th century BC) and classical (5th-4th century BC). Greeks from all over the Hellenic world gathered on the island to worship the god of Light Apollo and his twin sister Artemis, goddess of the Moon. First the island of Nassos and after that of Paros tried to impose themselves on Delos, longing for the fame of the Sanctuary. However, the city that eventually dominated was the distant Athens, justifying its presence with different stories. During the period of the tyranny (540-528 BC) of Pisistrato and his sons,the Temple in Poros of Apollo was built, inside was placed a statue of colossal dimensions of the god.
In 478 BC, after the end of the Persian wars, the Delos League was founded among the Greek cities in order to face the future mines. The headquarters of the League was on the island of Delos where the enormous sum of the contributions of the city-states was kept and where the representatives were gathered. Very soon the League of Delos passed under the Athenian hegemony, and the Allies became subjects of the Athenians. Treasure money was transferred to the Acropolis of Athens in 454 BC, for security reasons; infact to finance the ambitious Pericles building program. In 476 B.C. began the construction of the second Temple of Apollo, the Grand Temple or the Temple of Deli. Its construction was interrupted following the transfer of the treasure to Athens and was resumed in the period of the Deliaca Independence (314-166 BC) but the temple was never completed. In the period of independence, the rulers of the Hellenistic states, pushed by the competition, ostentatiously built magnificent buildings on the island. The entire site of the Sanctuary was filled with hundreds of marble and bronze statues, very expensive votive offerings from cities and wealthy citizens; of which unfortunately only the pedestals with their inscriptions are preserved.
The commercial center and the cosmopolitan town
With the defeat suffered by the Macedonians at the hands of the Romans (Pidna 168 a.C.) it meant the end of the period of independence of Delos. In 166 BC the Romans gave it back to the Athenians once more, who sent the inhabitants into exile and settled their settlers on the island. On the other hand the Romans are those who dominate the fate of the Mediterranean and proclaim Delos a free port in order to destroy the economy of the rival island of Rhodes. The tax exemption (ateleia), the exceptional geographical position of the island and the destruction of Corinth (146 BC), an important commercial center until then, resulted in the concentration of all the transit traffic between the East and the West and between the North and the South.
The powerful Rhodes was economically destroyed, while the small island of Delos became very early,the largest commercial center in the world (maximum emporium totius orbis terrarum (Festus). On the noisy piers, ships from all over the Mediterranean Sea loaded and unloaded tons of goods and thousands of slaves. The rapid increase in population and the intense building activity were the normal consequence. In a few decades the city was extended on the slopes of six hills that surrounded the valley of the Sanctuary. The consequence of that rapid development was the irregular construction without urban plan and without a regular system of the road layout. This is particularly evident in the theater district, the oldest and richest district in the city. Compared to modern cities, Delos was nothing but a small, poorly built and dirty commercial city. The only thing that differentiated it was the presence of the ancient Sanctuary and the myths about the island.
Destruction and abandonment
The wealth accumulated on the island and the relations of friendship between the inhabitants and Rome were the main reasons for the destruction of Delos. The island was destroyed and sacked twice: in 88 B.C. from Mithridates, king of Pontos, who was at war with the Romans, and in 69 BC from the pirates of Athenodoros, an ally of Mithridates.
After Delos was devastated for the second time, the city narrowed and was gradually abandoned and finally forgotten. In the early Christian centuries there is still an important Christian community, as seen by the ruins of seven early Christian basilicas and the fact that Delos is mentioned as the seat of the diocese. However it seems that after the 7th century A.D. the island was completely destroyed and ended up being a haven for pirates for many centuries.
The excavations begun in 1872 are still ongoing. The Sanctuary and a large part of the Hellenistic cosmopolitan city were discovered. The findings are kept in the Museum of Delos and include objects found (whole or in pieces): about 30,000 vases, statuettes, small objects, 8,000 sculptures and 3,000 inscriptions. A large part of the sculptures and another small vase are exhibited in the eleven rooms of the Delos Museum. Since 1990, the entire island has become part of the heritage of UNESCO. In the last few years a wide program of restoration and consolidation of the monuments is being carried out, financed by E.E.C and the Hellenic Republic.
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