A few years ago I took a small boat tour of Greece and the Greek Isles. A number of friends and acquaintances took the same tour and it was an enjoyable and memorable excursion. When I hear Greece mentioned in the news and hear of their financial woes, I think back on some of my memories of this trip. Yes, Athens is crowded and dirty in places. And some of the ruins are not as well kept and preserved as might be ideal; the Parthenon is crawling with tourists who aren’t very considerate. And likewise with Delphi. It is a shame, considering the influence of that ancient civilization on so many modern endeavors. In many ways, Athens is like a lot of many large sprawling metropolises that have undergone many iterations. A McDonalds is across the street from ruins with crumbling columns and plinths and toppled statues. Just like the Alamo is now situated almost in the middle of a modern shopping mall in San Antonio, the La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles is a block away from a Marie Callenders restaurant, and old Mission San Juan Capistrano is just a block away from a Taco Bell and a Jack-in-the Box.
So it was a delightful surprise to arrive on the small island of Delos and find that the island is uninhabited. We went on a small boat from our larger ship docked in Naxos harbor. There are no hotels, no shops or souvenir shacks on Delos, no tourist convenience stand at which to buy sodas, candy, postcards or film. We were advised to bring our own water. There is only one very small, modest museum staffed by two or three souls. It is like the island that time forgot. According to Greek mythology, this was the birthplace of Artemis and Apollo. Delos was very important to the ancient Greeks as a major sacred site, perhaps second in importance only to Delphi (where the oracle once predicted all manner of good and ominous happenings). It was so sacred that, at one point, no one was allowed to be born or to die there. Those about to do either were rushed off to a nearby island.
At its height, the sacred island was covered in a variety of temples and sanctuaries dedicated to a variety of gods. Today, it is a fascinating archaeological site. The statues are crumbling, the temples are toppling, some of the stones are eroding, and a few shepherds graze sheep on the island. I am not a serious student of ancient civilizations, so some of the significance and grandeur were lost on me. In spite of my naiveté, I still had a sense that something wondrous had once existed and prospered there.
It is a magical and mystical experience to just stroll through the ruins and take photos. Wild flowers of all types have deposited their seeds among the weeds and as you walk you can hear the gentle rustle and susurration of the wind as it blows across the grasses and other flora. I was there in April and the wild flowers were blooming in abundance. The sun was shining brightly. It is a sanctuary for the mind and soul. It is also an ideal laboratory for shutterbugs. If you have a new camera, it is a great venue for trying out your zoom settings and those other features that modern technology has gifted us with. You can pretend you are an explorer from another time or just be a modern visitor on hiatus from the cacophony of traffic, the blight of smog, the jangle of television ads and the eternal rhetoric of politicians. It is even more amazing considering it is just two miles from Mykonos, one of the most commercial of the islands, which is a marvel of jewelry shops and souvenir kiosks, destination for partiers, drinkers and modern rabble rousers. Yet most tourists who visit Mykonos never visit Delos. In fact many are unaware it is there.
There is an area on Delos named The Lion District at the north end of the ruins. Here are a number of elegant sculpted lions made of Naxian marble (from the isle of Naxos). They once guarded the sanctuary that looked out onto the Sacred Lake. The lions on the site are replicas; several weathered originals are on display in the small museum. Some artifacts have been removed from Delos and taken to Athens where they are housed in various museums. You see the majestic lions lined up atop their large display blocks in a long row, and they evoke a sense of majesty.
It is a similar feeling to what I experienced seeing the Sistine Chapel in Rome, the sculptures of Gustav Vigeland in Oslo at Frogner Park, and the Terra Cotta Warriors. Long before modern technology and advanced methods of architecture, painting or sculpture, something wondrous emerged. It is humbling to realize that we in the twenty first century don’t have a corner on creating something magnificent. But then, you just have to look at a chair made by Sam Maloof and you realize that no, artistic magnificence is not completely gone in our age.
Just like the sonnet “Ozymandias,” Delos reminds the traveler that civilizations rise and fall, they cycle and recycle and all great rulers, artisans and wonders have their brief interlude in the sun:
by Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822)
I met a traveler from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
An acquaintance of mine once shared his “guiding principles” for how he lives his life. There were four of them and I don’t remember them all right now, but one was “the universe is indifferent.” Seeing the ruins at Delos is a reminder that it is ever true. The indifferent universe and the ravages of time and weather, those ultimate levelers, will visit both the lowly and the mighty in equal measure.