We are Barbarians


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Europe » Greece » South Aegean » Mykonos
August 29th 2016
Published: June 12th 2017
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We walk around the harbour and get our tickets for our trip to Delos. We are given yellow stickers to put on our shirts, so that the people on Delos will know that we have paid for a tour. The yellow identifies which tour group we are in. Issy loses her sticker before the boat has left the port. I am now regretting sending the nasty email to the tour company. I wonder if they will throw Issy overboard. I put my arm around her to cover the spot where the sticker should be. I hope that I don't get arrested for indecency. Although it's still very windy the boat is big enough and goes slowly enough so that we don't get tossed around too much.

We meet our guide who introduces herself as Effie. Lots of girls here seem to be called Effie. The first thing Effie tells us is that it is windy. I'm not sure she needed to tell us this. She says that it is however not too windy by Mykonos standards. She says that the alternative name for Mykonos is the Island of the Wind and that on average there are only ten windless days per year on Mykonos. I am pleased to hear that it really is windy, and that I haven't developed a sudden intolerance to wind. I wonder what she means by a windless day. I think that this still might be a hurricane by anything other than Mykonos standards.

Effie gives us a short history of Delos. It was first inhabited in the third millennium BC, so about five thousand years ago. The Ionians then came here from Athens in about 900 BC and somehow decided that this was the birthplace of the twin gods Apollo and Artemis who were the illegitimate children of Zeus and Leto. Zeus' wife Hera was not too happy about Zeus' infidelity, so she wouldn't allow Hera to give birth on any land. It was apparently alright for her to give birth on Delos, because this was floating around in the sea, so wasn't attached to any land. Apollo was a very significant god, and amongst other things was the god of music, truth, prophecy, healing, the sun and light, plague and music. I wonder what the god of plague was supposed to do. I think that he might have been a good god to stay on the right side of. Because Delos was such a significant religious site, the Greek rulers decided it needed purifying, so they dug up any graves on the island, and made a decree that no one was allowed to be born or to die here. Apparently if you needed to give birth, you had to go to the very nearby island of Reinia. I wonder what they did to you if you broke the law and died here.

Effie tells us that the Greeks were a bit elitist. They invented the word barbarian. A barbarian was anyone who didn't speak Greek, so Issy and I are apparently barbarians. This is good to know. The Greeks thought that everything that people who didn't speak Greek said sounded like 'bar, bar, bar', hence the derivation of the word.

The Romans came to Delos in the second century BC, and turned it into a free port. This had the same meaning as it does today - you didn't have to pay any tax. The population then skyrocketed. Effie tells us that at one stage there were 30,000 people from Europe, Africa and Asia Minor living here. There was even a synagogue here. Religious and racial tolerance was seen to be a real virtue so everyone lived in harmony. Delos is about the tenth the size of Mykonos, and 30,000 people is roughly double the number of people on Mykonos in the peak tourist season. Mykonos feels a bit crowded to me. I think that Delos must have been extremely crowded. Apparently some of the houses had basements and three upper storeys so they could fit everyone in. It became a big trade centre, and lots of very wealthy people lived here. It also had a very active slave trade market.

Things all changed in 88 BC, when Delos was attacked by Mithridates VI of Pontus. It was an easy target. Because it was a significant religious site, and everyone lived in harmony, it hadn't bothered to build any defences. Mithridates was an arch enemy of Rome from northern Turkey. He killed 20,000 of the inhabitants, and took the rest of them as slaves. He destroyed a lot of the buildings, and looted most of the marble and bronze. Delos then became virtually uninhabited, and only drew interest as an archaeological site in the late nineteenth century.

Effie tells us that Delos is the largest archaeological site in the Aegean Sea and one of the largest in the Mediterranean. The island is more or less completely barren and there is only one tree here which is a date palm, and it is kept alive artificially because it has historical significance. She assures us that it is not the original 2,000 year old palm tree. The whole of Delos is a UNESCO world heritage site. The only people who are allowed to live on the island are archaeologists, guards and workers, and swimming in the sea around the island is not allowed because of all the underwater ruins.

The site is massive and does indeed look like it could once have been a city of 30,000 people. Whilst most of the marble and bronze has gone, a lot of the stone walls of the buildings are still standing as they were a couple of thousand years ago. Effie points out arrow symbols that are on a lot of the walls. She tells us that these are not arrows, but phallic symbols. She says that the people here were very superstitious, and the phallic symbol was supposed to bring good luck. She says that she is sure that we would have seen a lot of phallic symbols for sale in Mykonos. She says that the Greek people of today aren't kinky, they just like selling replicas of ancient good luck symbols. This explains the bottle openers. Well partly explains them. I'm not sure that they had bottle openers in Ancient Greece. I think that the modern day Greeks are still at least just a little bit kinky and the ancient good luck symbols thing is just a convenient excuse for them to make phallic symbols. We go into the remains of the most intact house on Delos. It still has most of its walls, some of its marble columns, and an intact mosaic floor. We move on to the outdoor theatre. There hasn't been a performance here for two thousand years, but this is about to change. The first two rows of seats are being restored sufficiently to put on a Greek tragedy for a couple of hundred people in a few days time, so we can't get very close to the theatre because of this restoration work. This is another good example of Murphy's law. We could have seen the theatre close up on any day for the past two thousand years, except today. We walk down along the main street of Delos, and out the main gate to a row of statues of lions. These are apparently very famous, and guard a low lying area with the palm tree and about the only green looking shrubs that we have seen on the island. Issy says that the lions look more like seals. The low lying area was originally a small lake to help with the scarce water supply situation. I suspect that supplying water to 30,000 people on this barren rocky island would have been quite a challenge. The lake isn't there any more. It was drained when the archaeologists moved in because a lot of them were getting malaria. Effie's tour ends outside the museum. She tells us that we should go in to it as it houses a large array of marble statues and other artefacts. She tells us that there are more artefacts from Delos on display in museums in Mykonos and Athens, and in the British Museum in London. The collection of statues and artefacts in the museum is very impressive.

Effie told us before the tour ended that we would have just enough time to climb up to the top of the hill, Mount Kynthos, before the boat leaves. We have now used up some of this time looking at the museum. She said that we should be sure to get back to the boat before it leaves, because it is the last one for the day. She told us that if we miss it, the only other way to get back to Mykonos is to swim. Issy says she will meet me on the boat. The climb is along a steep path with rocks jammed together to form rudimentary steps. I need to run if I am to get to the top and back again and not miss the boat. I am again wearing thongs. This has again been a poor decision. I am finding it quite hard to to run up the steep steps in thongs without tripping over the rocks. The view from the top is spectacular, but I only stay for a minute, because I am now in danger of missing the boat. I'm not allowed to stay on the island overnight because I'm not an archaeologist or a guard or a worker. I wonder what they will do to me. Maybe I can pretend that I am an archaeologist. I have a camera. I'm sure that lots of archaeologists have cameras. Running down the rocks in thongs is even harder than running up them, but I somehow manage to stay upright. I get back to the boat just in time. Disaster averted.

We arrive back in Mykonos and have lunch on the waterfront. I am very tired and have a very long siesta.

We go to a restaurant for dinner and get a table right next to the water. We talk about serious topics. We have heard some interesting names on this trip. In Spain we heard about Joanna the Mad and Philip the Handsome. Joanna's parents probably didn't know that she would be mad when she was born, so we decide that they probably didn't give her this name. We wonder when she got her new name. Did she suddenly become Joanna the Mad the first time she did something a bit silly? Did she then have to go somewhere to get her name changed? Did she record her middle name as 'The' on her census form?

Our waiter is from Canada. He says that the restaurant is only open for six months of the year and that Mykonos is a ghost town during the off season. He tells us that all the people from the restaurant move back to Athens for the off-season and twiddle their thumbs, and that most of the people who work on the island are only here for six months of the year.


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