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Delos: Greek Isle Deserted by All but Grandeur : There's no lodging, but the island is home to magnificent ruins.

April 26, 1992|ANNE WHITEHOUSE | Whitehouse is a poet and fiction writer based in New York. and

DELOS, Greece — Sun-struck, wind-swept, barren and rocky, this small island lies in the heart of the deep-blue Aegean, in the center of the Cyclades Islands. Along with Olympia and Delphi, Delos is one of the principal sacred sites of classical Greece. Yet it is the least well-known among them, perhaps because it is the least accessible.

Chartered tour buses arrive frequently at Delphi and Olympia, disgorging large numbers of tourists, but Delos must be approached as the ancients did, from the sea.

Most visitors arrive, as my husband, Stephen, and I did last October, from the popular Greek resort island of Mykonos. We made the 1 1/2-hour crossing on one of the large wooden boats that accommodate about 75 passengers, although rough winds (called meltemmi in summer and vorias --or boreal--in fall and winter) sometimes halt the ferries.

Our voyage to Delos had the feeling of a pilgrimage. We left behind the bustling port of Mykonos--with its narrow streets and buildings of softly contoured, white-washed stucco, its shops and restaurants and cafes--and set off on a sparkling sea to a barren island drenched in Greek mythology.

Here, according to myth, the sun-god Apollo was born. The "Hymn to Apollo of Delos," the poem describing Apollo's birth and dating from the 7th Century BC, describes how Leto, impregnated by Zeus and fleeing the wrath of Hera, Zeus' wife, sought refuge on the humble island. Enduring a painful labor of nine days and nights, she at last bore her son "to be the joy of men, as she rested against Mount Cynthus in that rocky isle, in sea-girt Delos, while on either hand a dark wave rolled on landwards driven by shrill winds." In some versions of the myth, she then gave birth to Apollo's twin, Artemis; in others, Artemis was born on nearby Rhenia, separated from Delos by a narrow strait.

The passenger boat docks at the ancient harbor of Delos once used by triremes , the ships of classical times. Before us was the panorama of the ruins of a once-splendid sanctuary and ancient city.

The entire island, three miles long and less than a mile wide, is an archeological site. There are no overnight accommodations for visitors. The only tourist bathroom is in the small museum. Geographically, the island is dominated by the rocky 377-foot cone of Mt. Cynthus. To the north are the marshy remains of the sacred lake, where Leto is said to have crouched in childbirth, as she leaned her back against the mountain.

The sun beats down on Delos unrelentingly much of the year. The arid landscape is rugged, with scarcely any trees for shade. The air is brilliantly clear. We felt at the same time a sense of past grandeur and overwhelming silence, of serenity and strife. The forbidding landscape somehow made us understand why Delos had become a holy place for many centuries, even long before the arrival of the cult of Apollo.

Among the ruins are traces of settlements built by pre-Hellenic tribes, the Cares, dating from 3,000 BC. The Minoans settled on Delos about 1,500 BC. Neolithic sculptures of enigmatic female figures with folded arms have been found throughout the Cyclades and suggest the worship of a Great Mother goddess associated with the Earth and fertility. Just as at Delphi, which we had visited on another trip, the worship of Apollo was established on Delos on the sacred site of an earlier Earth goddess.

After establishing its importance as a classical religious sanctuary, Delos in the 5th Century BC became the center of political alliances under the Athenians, and under the Ptolemies of Egypt and the Macedonians in the subsequent two centuries. Protected by Rome after 166 BC, the island prospered as a free port, competing with Rhodes to the east. Delos became wealthy, with much of its profits coming from the slave trade, and its population grew to 25,000, including not only Greeks but Italians, Syrians, Egyptians, Phoenicians, Jews and Palestinians. A synagogue was established, as well as sanctuaries to Egyptian and Syrian gods.

Delos flourished for 700 years until it was destroyed by the Syrian king of Pontus, Mithridates VI, in 88 BC, and later sacked by pirates. For the next two millennia, the island was repeatedly looted by invaders, pirates and smugglers of antiquities. The pillaged marbles of the ancient buildings were used for buildings on nearby islands.

Despite the plundering, there is still much to see on Delos. The ruins are so vast and complex that it is advisable to purchase one of the guidebooks on sale at the admissions area, or to arrange to join a guided tour, for which reservations can be made on Mykonos. Archeological excavations began in 1837 under the aegis of the French Archeological School of Athens and continue today. The Ministry of Greek Culture controls the archeological site, while politically, Delos and Rhenia are under the jurisdiction of the municipality of Mykonos.

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