Day 8 – Mykonos (and Delos)

From Athens, the ship went east into the Aegean Sea. The next day we stopped in Mykonos, a Greek island that is part of the island group called the Cyclades. You may be getting a bit confused about locations at this point, so here is a map of our itinerary that I got from the Princess Web site:

It’s not the greatest map, but you can see generally where all the ports are.

On our day in Mykonos, we signed up for our second shore excursion of the cruise. This excursion left at 8:15 a.m. and took us to the island of Delos, about a 30-minute boat ride away from Mykonos. Delos is uninhabited now, but it was well-known in the ancient world for being the birthplace of Apollo and Artemis. Because of its prominence, it was the home of several temples and other fine buildings. It is mentioned several times in Herodotus’ Histories, which you may remember I was trying to read on this trip (but was not succeeding). Now it is the home of a lot of ruins, mostly unearthed by the “French School of Athens.” And in case you’re counting, it is the sixth UNESCO World Heritage Site we visited on this trip.

Our tour guide, Katerina, made some bold claims about Delos: it was the first place in the world to have a currency exchange, and the Delian League was the first defense league and the only one until NATO. I’m not sure how much of what she said was true, but the boldness of her claims was at least interesting. She told us about the history of the island and many interesting facts. For example, at one point in its history, there were no births or deaths allowed on the island (you could still be born and die; you just had to do it somewhere else), and no one was allowed to be buried there. Also, she told us that shops used to keep their perishable goods cool by digging holes to use as refrigerators. Here she is, singing the praises of Delos to us:

It was warm and dry on the island the morning that we were there. The island was barren except for some scrub brush. Here are a few pictures:

One of the more famous things about Delos, and something you’ll see in most pictures of the island, is the avenue of the lions. It had statues of at least nine lions made of Naxian marble lining the road. The statues you see here are copies made of the originals, which are in the museum on the island:

One of the original lions was taken away and put in Venice outside the armory. Its old head was taken off and a “hideous modern” head (according to the information placard in the museum) was put on it.

The only animals we saw on the island were these geckos scurrying around everywhere:

We returned to the ship just after noon, ate lunch, and took the shuttle into town on Mykonos. We spent the afternoon walking around and taking pictures of typical Greek Isle scenes – white buildings with blue trim, and the sea or mountains in the background. Both Mary and dad bought small canvas paintings at one of the shops.

Mary had to exchange some money, but when we got to an exchange office, there was a large pelican (whose name, we gathered, was Pedro. Or maybe Petros) blocking the way:

Mary decided to go ahead and change money anyway. While she was at the window, the pelican gave her a peck on the leg. She said it didn’t hurt, but it was certainly a surprise:

In the afternoon, I was feeling tired so I went back to the ship and read on deck. Mary and dad stayed in town another hour or so to get a drink and some baklava at one of the many cafes.

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One thought on “Day 8 – Mykonos (and Delos)

  1. Grandpa Bob July 1, 2008 / 6:08 pm

    I found the story of the rise and fall of Delos to be fascinating. Elliot alluded to some elements. The island was believed to be the birthplace of Apollo and Artemis, twin children of Zeus, and this gave it considerable religious significance. There are ruins of four temples to Apollo there. Starting about the 7th century B.C., about one such temple was constructed per century. The prohibition against giving birth or dying on the island had religious roots; it was part of the catharsis, or purification, of the island.

    Delos was more than just a sacred site, though. It is a relatively small island, but had more than 20,000 residents at one time. It became very wealthy. At a time when most places feared aliens, Delos welcomed them–but only if their checkbook balances were high enough. Our guide said that at one point only the rich could move there. When people arrived, they had to reveal the assets they brought, and, if these were insufficient, they were sent away. As Elliot noted, our guide also said that this was the first place that money was exchanged into other currencies, another evidence of the growing importance of financial matters. The commercial aspects of the town eventually overshadowed the religious function. The center of commerce was the ancient agora, the ruins of which are near the dock where our boat landed. Historians estimate that as many as 10,000 slaves a day were traded there at one point.

    The town is divided into sacred and secular districts. To the left of the agora as we entered it was the older sacred way and the various temples. To the right were shops, houses, and the theatre district. We saw walls of the shops; these lined the streets, with each shop sharing back and side walls with other shops. We also saw the ruins of several houses, including some that still have beautiful mosaics on the floor. The theatre is quite large and well-preserved.

    The avenue of the lions is in the other direction, past the temples and on the way to the free port. After 166 B.C., this free port was a place where anyone could come to live and do business regardless of religion or ethnic background. The sense we got of the city during the last few centuries of its existence was of a community still ostensibly devoted to Apollo and Artemis but in practice given over to commerce. The town became fabulously wealthy, but still the accumulation of even more wealth remained the sole preoccupation of public policy. What role did the gods then serve? I imagine them serving a similar role to civic religion in our day. That is, the religious became subservient to the civic, with the gods who once were served now limited to the narrow function of sanctioning a system that gave only lip service to them. It seems that the ancient gods were replaced by the idols of commerce. I know that at the time slavery was prevalent everywhere, and the slave market on Delos was nothing exceptional. Still, when I was in the agora I couldn’t help but think of all the humans deprived of freedom who were paraded there, to be sold and sent away to whatever mistreatment their new owners might decide to inflict on them.

    The gods served another purpose for ancient Delos. Because the island was considered sacred, no one dared to attack it, despite the fabulous wealth in the city’s coffers. This immunity from conquest eventually came to an end, though. The city was sacked and most residents killed by Mithridates of Pontus, a king from Asia Minor, in 88 B.C. According to our guide, Mithridates had set up a competing free port and wanted merchants to establish their businesses at his port rather than on Delos. Talk about cutthroat competition! The lesson that I drew was that those who abandon all devotion to what is sacred but still expect divine protection eventually face a day of reckoning.

    After the morning at Delos, it was nice to come back to the ship for lunch and then spend the afternoon in Mykonos. The village there is every bit as picturesque as Elliot’s photos suggest. There is a nice little harbor, lots of narrow, winding streets to explore, plenty of shops, and windmills lined up like coffee cans on a shelf. Sitting outdoors at a little restaurant eating baklava was my favorite part of the afternoon.

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