Is once-revered Delos set for a cul­tural come­back?

A sa­cred site in an­cient times, largely de­serted former pil­grim­age is­land could start re­ceiv­ing much needed at­ten­tion thanks to new projects

Kathimerini English - - Focus - BY YIOULI EPTAKILI

It is an mid-Oc­to­ber week­end at the port of My­conos. The sky is cloud­less and a pleas­ant breeze is blow­ing as I have a cof­fee with a friend in the tourism ac­com­mo­da­tion rental busi­ness.

I watch hun­dreds of tourists dis­em­bark for the day from three huge cruise ships and won­der how many of them will visit the small nearby islet of Delos in­stead of the tourist mecca’s fa­mous beaches or the pic­turesque al­leys of the main town, Hora, flanked with in­ter­na­tional de­signer cloth­ing stores, bars and res­tau­rants.

“The Saudis and Le­banese who have been com­ing here in large num­bers over the past few years send us e-mails ask­ing whether the ho­tel or villa they’re in­ter­ested in rent­ing is close to [the up­scale beach re­sort of] Nam­mos rather than Hora,” my friend said.

“The hu­man ge­og­ra­phy and the pro­file of vis­i­tors to My­conos has changed a lot and this ex­plains why there is so lit­tle in­ter­est in Delos. We beg them to go and they still don’t.”

Ac­cord­ing to the Ephor­ate of Clas­si­cal An­tiq­ui­ties for the Cy­cladic Is­lands, an av­er­age of just 120,000 tourists visit the stun­ning ar­chae­o­log­i­cal site of Delos each year – less than the 130,000 a month re­ceived by My­conos and ex­tremely low com­pared with the 600,000 vis­i­tors ev­ery year at Akrotiri and the other ar­chae­o­log­i­cal sites on San­torini.

Myth & his­tory

Leto was des­per­ately seek­ing a place to give birth to Apollo and Artemis af­ter Hera, en­raged by Zeus’ in­fi­deli­ties, or­dered that she be for­bid­den en­try every­where she ap­peared.

Leto trav­eled from Thrace to Kos, un­til she spot­ted a small, in­con­spic­u­ous float­ing rock in the mid­dle of the Aegean, Delos. Po­sei­don an­chored his newly formed is­land to the seabed with di­a­mond pil­lars and Leto gave birth to Apollo and Artemis on it.

The two young deities filled this tiny dot in the Mediter­ranean with life and light, al­low­ing it to grow into one of the most sa­cred sites of the Aegean.

The first per­ma­nent res­i­dents of Delos have been traced to around 2,500 BC, though many cen­turies elapsed be­fore the is­land ex­pe­ri­enced a golden age, which be­gan in 166 BC and lasted about a hun­dred years. The Ro­mans, the dom­i­nant force in the Aegean, de­cided not to charge levies at the port, mak­ing it a tax haven for wealthy mer­chants and bankers from all around the known world. The new-found wealth and the set­tle­ment of rich en­trepreneurs soon led to a blos­som­ing of the arts, let­ters and phi­los­o­phy.

It is es­ti­mated that in its hey­day, this is­land of just 5 kilo­me­ters in length and 1.3 in width was home to around 30,000 peo­ple, settlers from Athens, Rome, Cyprus, Syria, Egypt, Thrace, Medea and many other places. Their gods also resided on the is­land in har­mony.

The is­land’s at­tach­ment to Rome came at a heavy price, how­ever, and in 88 BC, Delos was sacked by Mithri­dates VI of Pon­tus, who was at war with the Ro­mans, and looted in 69 BC by the pi­rates of Athen­odoros. While it never man­aged to make a come­back, there are few ex­am­ples in the his­tory of mankind of such eth­nic di­ver­sity, har­mo­nious co­ex­is­tence and mod­er­a­tion as ex­isted on Delos dur­ing its golden age.

In situ

The boat ride from My­conos to Delos takes about 25 min­utes. The ma­jor­ity of vis­i­tors in Oc­to­ber are from Asia, mainly China, who opt for the cooler months to visit and who have a great love for an­cient Greek cul­ture. Delos is a unique site, an en­chant­ing place where even the nat­u­ral light feels dif­fer­ent, oth­er­worldly and mys­ti­cal, with an in­de­scrib­able en­ergy that seems to en­velop you. How­ever, it is as en­thralling in its beauty as it is in its aban­don­ment, es­pe­cially given that it lies so close to one of Greece’s rich­est and most glam­orous is­lands.

Among the many prob­lems that dog Delos to­day is the poor state of its mu­seum. Built in the early 20th cen­tury, it is not only small and ex­tremely old-fash­ioned but also suf­fers from poor main­te­nance so vis­i­tors are greeted by peel­ing ceil­ings and walls and the sight of the glo­ri­ous Nax­ian Lions sit­ting in a small, dimly lit room as though they’re be­ing pun­ished.

A rudi­men­tary gift shop lo­cated at the mu­seum’s en­trance was closed dur­ing my Sun­day visit and there was not a trash can in sight, mean­ing that the small bot­tle of wa­ter I paid 2 eu­ros for at the snack bar had to be dis­carded either on the boat back or on My­conos.

Chronic prob­lems

The big­gest prob­lem that has re­mained un­solved for years, how­ever, con­cerns the peo­ple who work there. There are not enough guards and staff, they do not have an on-site doc­tor and their ac­com­mo­da­tion and fa­cil­i­ties are se­ri­ously shoddy, mean­ing they have to deal with every­thing from leaky plumb­ing to be­ing cut off en­tirely from My­conos dur­ing the win­ter months for days at a time.

Be­fore the start of this year’s tourism sea­son, it took the pri­vate ini­tia­tive of a con­trac­tor on My­conos to get the site cleaned up and ready for the spring/sum­mer ar­rivals. He loaded two trucks, a crane and a crew onto a ferry boat and got Delos spruced up in just one day.

Given the mag­ni­tude of the coun­try’s grow­ing prob­lems and the state’s empty cof­fers, it is very likely that Delos will again be closed from Novem­ber this year as the emer­gency staff sent to the site this sea­son are due to leave at the end of Oc­to­ber and it will be left with just two guards.

Such is­sues of day-to-day man­age­ment have brought the site’s fu­ture into ques­tion and one of the peo­ple try­ing to find so­lu­tions is Dim­itris Athana­sopou­los, head of the ephor­ate for the past yearand-a-half. He re­cently or­ga­nized an event on My­conos to raise aware­ness about the state of the site among the is­land’s busi­ness com­mu­nity and has also reached out to mu­nic­i­pal author­i­ties and res­i­dents who have shown an in­ter­est in con­tribut­ing to the ef­fort.

Delos and the mu­se­ums on My­conos have been un­for­tu­nate in sev­eral ways. One of th­ese is that cul­tural pol­icy over the past few years has been al­most en­tirely fo­cused on pro­mot­ing ar­eas off the usual tourist map.

“On a re­gional level we are see­ing se­ri­ous in­equal­i­ties in the dis­tri­bu­tion of funds for cul­tural in­fras­truc­ture,” ex­plains Athana­sopou­los. “For ex­am­ple, the dis­tri­bu­tion of funds from the Third Com­mu­nity Sup­port Frame­work and the ESPA [Na­tional Strate­gic Ref­er­ence Frame­work] pro­grams from the Re­gional Author­ity of the South­ern Aegean be- tween the is­lands of the Dode­canese and those of the Cy­clades for ar­chae­o­log­i­cal sites was clearly weighted in fa­vor of the former.”

Things will be­gin to change with the real­iza­tion that what will ben­e­fit My­conos even more in the long term is im­prov­ing its qual­ity pro­file, some­thing that can be achieved in part by lend­ing a hand to its small neigh­bor, which needs all the help it can get.

Good news

At the event or­ga­nized by Athana­sopou­los ear­lier this month, French ar­chae­ol­o­gist Jean-Charles Moretti, di­rec­tor of French excavations at Delos, pre­sented “L’At­las de Delos,” that was 11 years in the mak­ing and which presents a de­tailed rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the site. This is not only sig­nif­i­cant for its con­tri­bu­tion to sci­ence but is also a valu­able dig­i­tal tool that can be used by archaeologists in stud­ies for the site’s restoration.

Athana­sopou­los also spoke about an am­bi­tious pro­gram called “Archipelago Plus,” which will in­clude ma­jor in­ter­ven­tions at six mu­se­ums in the Cy­clades as well as the restoration of the Stoa of Philip V on Delos. What makes this stoa spe­cial is that archaeologists have al­ready found around 80 per­cent of the orig­i­nal build­ing ma­te­rial, which is quite im­pres­sive con­sid­er­ing that the Stoa of At­ta­los in Athens was re­stored with just 40 per­cent of the orig­i­nal ma­te­rial. The pro­gram was first pushed for­ward by former min­is­ter of cul­ture Nikos Xy­dakis, who launched the drive for pri­vate fund­ing, and it is now wait­ing for ap­proval from the spon­sor of the project.

An­other pos­i­tive de­vel­op­ment is the cre­ation of a fes­ti­val ti­tled “A-Delos/Delos,” which took place for the first time ear­lier this month. Pri­vately funded, the plan is for the fes­ti­val to be held an­nu­ally and to draw an in­ter­na­tional au­di­ence. One of the high­lights of the first fes­ti­val was the screen­ing of a 25-minute doc­u­men­tary-ode ti­tled “Delos 2015,” di­rected by An­do­nis Theocharis Kioukas and fea­tur­ing ac­tor Ge­orges Cor­raface. The score is by Pla­ton An­drit­sakis, with Con­stanti­nos Ar­van­i­takis be­hind the lens and Thaleia Kalafata as pro­duc­tion di­rec­tor.

Ac­cord­ing to of­fi­cial fig­ures, an av­er­age of 120,000 tourists visit the is­land of Delos each year – less than the 130,000 a month re­ceived by its larger neigh­bor My­conos.

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