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The sacred island of Delos

The Sacred Lion statues overlook the lake

The sacred island of Delos is a vast open-air archaeological treasure

The Delos temple to Isis
The House of Cleopatra on Delos
Delos mosaic of Dionysus riding a panther

Many holiday visitors to Mykonos will take time out to visit the neighbouring tiny islet of Delos, a major sacred site for the ancient Greeks and second only to the religious site at Delphi.

Thought to be the birthplace of Apollo and Artemis, the sacred island Delos, just a few kilometres across the sea from Mykonos, was once covered in temples and sanctuaries dedicated to various Greek gods.

Today Delos is a vast open-air archaeological site that attracts thousands of visitors each year, most arriving by boat from Mykonos. Visitors can only stay four hours barely time to see more than a fraction of the island's treasures.

Archaeological excavations have been underway on Delos since 1873 and the whole of the islet has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1990.

Remains of a settlement show that Delos was inhabited in the 3rd millennium BC and was a religious capital by BC. Delos was considered so sacred that inhabitants were not allowed to be born or to die there.

In Roman times Delos became very prosperous and a major financial and trading centre with a population of 30,000. But during an uprising against Rome the entire population was killed or enslaved, the treasures looted and the temples razed to the ground.

The Romans partially rebuilt the city and erected defensive walls but the island was eventually abandoned, looted by successive raiders including pirates, the Knights of St. John, Venetians and Turks.

The island is of Delos is tiny, only five square kilometres of barren hills with the ruins spread north and south along the coast. There are four main areas on the site; the Maritime Quarter near the harbour; the Theatre Area to the south-east; the Sanctuary of Apollo in the centre and the Lion District to the north.

Left of the Agora is the Sacred Way that leads to the Sanctuary of Apollo. The 45-foot wide paved way is lined with the marble bases that once supported scores of statues and monuments.

The Sanctuary of Apollo was the ancient heart of Delos and once contained three great temples. Sadly, little remains of them today but a site museum displays a variety of artefacts that have been unearthed in excavations.

Most visitors head to the famous Terrace of the Lions where nine elegant lions carved from Naxian marble once guarded the sanctuary, looking out over the former Sacred Lake.

The Maritime Quarter was the main residential area and the ruins of mansions can be seen, many paved with fine mosaics including the House of the Masks which has a mosaic of Dionysus riding a panther.

The entire island is strewn with the ruins of buildings, fragments of statue fragments and pillars with shrines to Egyptian and Syrian deities among those built to honour the Greek gods.