The island of Delos (Greek: Δήλος, Dhilos), isolated in the centre of the roughly circular ring of islands called the Cyclades, near Mykonos, had a position as a holy sanctuary for a millennium before Olympian Greek mythology made it the birthplace of Apollo and Artemis. From its Sacred Harbour, the horizon shows the two conical mounds that have identified landscapes sacred to a goddess in other sites: one, retaining its pre-Greek name Mount Kynthos, is crowned with a sanctuary of Dionysus.
As a cult centre Delos had an importance that its natural resources could never have offered. As Leto, searching for a birthing-place for Apollo, addressed the island:
- Delos, if you would be willing to be the abode of my son Phoebus Apollo and make him a rich temple --; for no other will touch you, as you will find: and I think you will never be rich in oxen and sheep, nor bear vintage nor yet produce plants abundantly. But if you have the temple of far-shooting Apollo, all men will bring you hecatombs and gather here, and incessant savour of rich sacrifice will always arise, and you will feed those who dwell in you from the hand of strangers; for truly your own soil is not rich.
- —Homeric Hymn to Delian Apollo
Inhabited since the 3rd millennium BC, between 900 BC and AD 100, sacred Delos was a major cult centre, where Dionysus is as much in evidence as Leto, Apollo and Artemis. The island was a natural meeting-ground for the Delian League, which was first founded in 478 BC, and a separate quarter was reserved for foreigners and the sanctuaries of foreign deities. During the 3rd century BC, Hellenistic monarchs competed to honor Delos with civic monuments, both with stoas and with statues whose countless pedestals still line the Sacred Way. In 166 BC Delos was given by the Romans to the Athenian city-state, but in modern times it has become uninhabited. It is currently only used for archeology and tourism— "you will feed those who dwell in you from the hand of strangers".
In 1990, UNESCO inscribed Delos on the World Heritage List, citing it as the "exceptionally extensive and rich" archaeological site which "conveys the image of a great cosmopolitan Mediterranean port". .
Landmarks on the island
- The small Sacred Lake in its circular bowl, now dry, is a topographical feature that determined the placement of later features.
- The Minoan Fountain was a rectangular public well hewn in the rock, with a central column; it formalized the sacred spring in its present 6th century BC form, reconstructed in 166 BC, according to an inscription. Tightly-laid courses of masonry form the walls; water can still be reached by a flight of steps that fill one side.
- There are several market squares. The Hellenistic Agora of the Competaliasts by the Sacred Harbour retains the postholes for market awnings in its stone paving. Two powerful Italic merchant guilds dedicated statues and columns there.
- The Temple of the Delians is a classic example of the Doric order; a pen-and-wash reconstruction of the temple is illustrated at Doric order
- The Terrace of the Lions dedicated to Apollo by the people of Naxos shortly before 600 BC, had originally nine to twelve squatting, snarling marble guardian lions along the Sacred Way; one is inserted over the main gate to the Venetian Arsenal. The lions create a monumental avenue comparable to Egyptian avenues of sphinxes. (There is a Greek sphinx in the Delos Museum.)
- The meeting hall of the Poseidoniasts of Beirut housed an association of merchant, warehousemen, shipowners and innkeepers during the early years of Roman hegemony, late 2nd century BC. To their protective triad of Baal/[[Poseidon, Astarte/Aphrodite and Echmoun/Asklepios, they added Roma.
- The platform of the Stoibadeion dedicated to Dionysus bears a statue of the god of wine and the life-force. On either side of the platform, a pillar supports a colossal phallus, the symbol of Dionysos. The southern pillar, which is decorated with relief scenes from the Dionysiac circle, was erected ca. 300 BC to celebrate a winning theatrical performance. The statue of Dionysus was originally flanked by those of two actors impersonating Paposilenoi (conserved in the Delos Museum). The marble amphitheatre is a rebuilding of an older one, undertaken shortly after 300 BC.
- The Doric Temple of Isis was built at the beginning of the Roman period to venerate the familiar trinity of Isis, the Alexandrian Serapis and Anubis.
- The Temple of Hera, ca 500 BC, is a rebuilding of an earlier Heraion on the site.
- The "House of Dionysus" is a luxurious 2nd century private house named for the floor mosaic of Dionysus riding a panther. The "House of the Dolphins" is similarly named from its atrium mosaic, where erotes ride dolphins; its Phoenician owner commissioned a floor mosaic of Tanit in his vestibule.