Surprisingly few visitors to Mykonos make it across the choppy straits to the island of Delos. The mythical birthplace of Apollo, god of sunlight, and his twin sister Artemis, goddess of moonlight, Delos is the mystical talisman around which the Cyclades islands revolve. The political epicenter of the ancient Greek world, it was a religious sanctuary but also a major trading post, a tax haven but also a cosmopolitan melting pot. In its heyday, this little island (just 5 kilometers long and 1.3 kilometers wide) harbored around 30,000 settlers from Athens, Rome, Cyprus, Syria, Egypt, Phoenicia and beyond. Each group of settlers had their own Agora (part market, part gathering place, part forum for civic engagement) and worshipped their own deities. “There is hardly a god who did not plant himself here, introduced by the traders and mariners of the whole Middle Orient,” as Lawrence Durrell wrote.
Over five thousand spectators once thronged the marble amphitheater to attend festivals, plays, and athletic contests on Delos. Jewelers polished precious stones in their workshops and artists fashioned the giant statues and dazzling mosaics that adorned the temples and villas. The erotic art unearthed on this sacred island — Aphrodite suggestively untying her sandals, giant penises on pedestals, a pair of winged phalluses with the inscription ‘one for you, one for me’ — suggests that Delos was also a place of sexual liberation and experimentation. “Once, there was no place richer, more famous, more hallowed. The oldest myths in Greece revolved around this island, whose origins are as dazzling as its name: Delos means the manifest, the brilliant, the luminous, just like the god [Apollo] who was born there,” the French historian Charles Diehl wrote in 1897, not long after the first excavations of this vast archaeological site began.