The findings of the archaeological research indicate that the oldest human settlement in Delos is located at the acropolis of Kythnos, where an early Cycladic fortified settlement of the 3rd millennium BC was found. Furthermore, it seems that a Minoan settlement was developed in the 13th – 14th century BC at the area of the sanctuary, according to the plaques made of ivory which were discovered there. The Mycenaeans’ arrival on the island around the late 15th millennium BC is connected to the consolidation of their domination in the Aegean. The myth of Delos’s Mycenaean king, Anios, who was considered to be the son of Apollo and the great grandchild of Dionysus, is reflected in that era. The narrations about the hospitality of Anchises of Troy who was saved by Aeneas’s son as well as the arrival of the Achaeans’ fleet on the island indicate the efforts of the mythical king to keep the island neutral to the conflicts of that time.
Regarding the initial foundation and organization of Apollo’s cult in Delos, which was established since the 9th century BC, the ancients say that Olen, a mysterious and prophetic person, descended from Lycia or from the mythical country of the Hyperboreans and composed the hymns. All these conceal the transfer of Apollo’s cult from Ionian Asia Minor. The sanctuary of Artemis and Apollo at the Archaic times included a complex of temples, buildings and statues, among which there was an altar in honor of Leto. Additionally, at a large distance, at the foothills of Kythnos the temple of Hera, who was the other protagonist of the myth, dominated.
The decadence of Delos is connected to the enslavement of the Ionian towns of Asia Minor in the 6th century BC. The dedication of the neighboring island of Rineia to Apollo from Samos’s tyrant Polycrates (530 BC) is considered to be the last sample of the Ionians’ offering to the god of light. Then, in mainland Greece and in most of the islands Athens became the leader and became the new metropolis of the Ionians. From early on, the Athenians were connected to the island as, according to the local myth, Leto on her way to Delos untied her belt on Attica’s cape Zoster, on current Laimos of Vouliagmeni. The Athenians proudly claimed that Erysichthonas erected the sanctuary of Apollo and brought the figurehead of Eileithyia to Athens, while the “cleansing” of Delos from the tombs located around the sanctuary took place during the time of the tyrant Peisistratus (540-528 BC). The cult of light on the island was incompatible to the existence of the dead who resembled the darkness of death.
Every year during the antiquity a crowd of pilgrims used to flock in Delos, while later this would happen every four years on the 7th day of Thargelion (May), on the day of Apollo and Artemis’s birthday. Through the Homeric hymns to Apollo Delios (700 BC) we can represent the magnificence of the celebrations that were held on the island. Numerous ships, the renowned “Theories”, would arrive in a sacred procession and they transferred the neighboring Ionian islanders in festive attire in order to participate in sacrifices and singing, orchestral and wrestling races. The “Delian virgins”, who were the handmaidens of Apollo, sang in honor of the god, Artemis and Leto and they inspired joy and religious thrill to the cheerful Ionians who loved the celebrations. The mood of these celebrants on the island is reflected by the ancient proverb which said that “you sing like the one who travels to Delos” and it refers to those who spent their life having fun.
Due to the belief prevailing during the Classical times that Delos and its residents were sacred, the island remained intact by the campaigns of Datis and Artaphernes in 490 BC during the Persian wars. With the foundation of the Athenian Alliance in 478 BC, which became known as Delian, the island became the base of both the alliance and the common fund where there was the money of the allied Greek towns. The “Greek cashiers” were the treasurers in charge of the money that was used for lending the towns. The fund was transferred to the Acropolis of Athens in 454 BC, while in Delos the management of the sanctuary was exercised by the Athenian Amphictyons.
Due to a deadly plague epidemic during the first years of the bloody Peloponnesian war, the Athenians executed a new “cleansing” of the island in 427-6 BC. The desperation of death made them attribute the disease to the wrath of Apollo. Thus, according to Thucydides, “without any fear against the gods and the laws of men” they unearthed all the tombs and they transferred them to neighboring Rineia along with their offerings. Obeying the oracle, it was forbidden for anyone to be born or die in Delos. The heavily pregnant women and the seriously ill were obliged to move to Rineia. The residents of Delos asked for the protection of the Spartans since they could no longer live untroubled in their country. The Athenians exiled them to Adramyttion (Edremit) of Asia Minor in 422 BC under the guise of disrespect towards Apollo. However, they returned to their homeland, since according to the Apollonian oracle of Delphi, the Delians were not allowed to stay away from their island for a very long time.
Under the impact of Athens in 425 BC the “Pentetiris” was created, another celebration in honor of Apollo. The inauguration of a new temple of Pentelicus marble was connected to the sacred pilgrimage on the island every five years. The magnificent celebrations brought it back to life, while “Delia” of 417 BC, with Nicias as the leader, became widely famous. And as “Theoris”, the sacred ship, was sailing to Delos, there were no death executions in Athens. Sparta abstracted Delos from the Athenians in 403 BC, but after the naval combat of Knidos in 394 BC, the dominance of Athens over the island was restored.
During the time of Alexander the Great’s successors, the Aegean suffered amid warfare for 40 years. In 314 BC, at the time of Antigonus I Monophthalmus and the son of Demetrius Poliorcetes, the “League of Islands” was formed. Delos became the religious centre and gained its independence for about 198 years (324-166). At those years a revival of Apollo’s cult on the island began, while the construction activity was renewed upon the completion of the Delians’ temple and the erection of a new temple in honor of Artemis. The island’s port gained commercial traffic since geographically it is located in the centre of the Aegean.
In 166 BC the Athenian settlers returned to Delos under the intervention of the Romans and expelled the residents. Following a decision of the Roman senate in 167 BC, the port of Delos gained tax exemption and became the most important commercial centre for goods on the four cardinal points of the then ancient world. The island benefited from the destruction of Corinth in 146 BC and the financial collapse of Rhodes, resulting in sharp increase of its population and great wealth concentration that lead to an unrestrained and unregulated construction activity. The powerful people of the time coveted the riches of Delos and in 88 BC it was sacked by Mithridates who massacred 20,000 (!) Delians according to sources, while the fund money was seized by Aristion. It had the same fate in 69 BC as well, when it was deserted by the pirates of Athenodorus.
During the first two centuries AD many traders from around the Mediterranean settled in Delos introducing foreign cults alongside the Greek one. This is evidenced by the existence of three temples of the Egyptian gods Isis and Serapis, sanctuaries dedicated to Syrian deities, the presence of the religious fraternity of the Posidionians of Beirut, as well as the construction of a synagogue which is considered to be the oldest one of the Jewish Diaspora. The two-storey luxury residences of that era with the colonnades that were decorated with murals and fine mosaics were found in the theatre area dating back to circa 250 BC. All these testify to the artistic development on the island at the Hellenistic period.
In the 4th century AD Delos is counted among the Orthodox dioceses. A single-aisled basilica of the mid-6th century, which was dedicated to Saint Kirykos, was excavated at the southeastern side of the market. In addition, a single-aisled basilica was built near Asklipieio in the 7th century. Since the 7th century the island was abandoned by its residents and for many centuries it was the lair of numerous pirates infesting the Greek seas and the neighboring islands. Its name was forgotten, or distorted, and renowned Delos (meaning marked) became “unmarked” (adelos) once again.
From the late 18th century until today Delos is a site of constant archaeological excavations by Greek and foreign archaeologists who revealed the great wealth and diversity of the holy town’s monuments. It constitutes one of the largest archaeological sites in the world and it attracts thousands of visitors who enjoy a tangible epitome of the ancient civilization under the bright and clear Greek light.