The light and sea in which Delos is bathed must have particularly fired the imagination of the ancient Greeks for them to create the myth of the Birth of Αpοllοn, god of light, symmetry and harmony, on this sun-drenched isle. Delos, according to Greek Mythology, rose up out of the Aegean Sea (from Adelos - invisible - it became Delos - visible) and served as a cradle for Αpοllοn, who was thus connected with the sea element. Men of the sea were the first worshippers there, and that was the beginning of the glory Delos acquired in the centuries to follow. It should also be mentioned here that Delos, strangely, possessed fresh drinking water, which attracted ships to call there, since water was needed for the rowers.
At first men gathered οn Delos for purely religious purposes. Slowly, however, religious devotion became associated and involved with trade and human interests. At the same time its soil had been proclaimed sacred and inrιviolable, and this also made it an ideal place for trade to prosper and develop undisturbed. And so this small rocky isle grew to become a revered religious place as well as one of the most important centres of shipping and commerce. The Acropolis, Olympia, Delphi and Delos were the four most important sanctuaries of the ancient world. Yet the history of Delos had special links with the Aegean sailors, which is why it is one of the most important sources of information about the ships and maritime activities of the seafarers of the Aegean. The written records, incised representations, gravestones, inscriptions, ruins of houses and other buildings that have survived, and the Neorion where the flagship dedicated to Αροllο by Antigorius Gonatas in the 3rd century BC was kept, are all eloquent evidence and give us valuable information about the sea trade of those times and men's pursuits in connection with it. Legends and facts about the shipping of the Aegean are preserved within the ruins of Delos.
The incised representations of ships on the walls of the ancient houses of the sacred island are of unique importance; they show the shapes and details of the ships, which indicates that they were the work of sailors and not of artists. Also important are the grave stelae of Delos. They carry relief ships and inscriptions referring to shipwrecks and sailors who were lost.
Another interesting piece of information from Delos concerns the weather conditions in the area and is a meteorological observation (weather forecast): Archilochos, a 7th c. Parian poet, says to his friend and fellow-traveller, Glaukos, as they are about to continue their journey: Γλανχ' δρα βαθνς yάρ ίδη κνμασιν ταράσσεται ποντος, άμφί δ' ακρα Γυρέων ορθον ϊσταται νέφος, σήμα χειμώνος κιχάνει δ' έξ άελπτίης φοβος, which means: "Look, Glaukos, the sea is already agitated by high waves and a cloud is raised over the top of the Gyrean Mountain (Tinos), a sign of storm; and sudden fear comes over us:' At a later date Cicero made the same observation (lst c. BC): Itaque erat in animo nihil festinari, nec me Delo movere, nisi omnia άκρα Γυρέων pura vidissem, which means: "Ι decided to be in a hurry and not to move from Delos while the peaks of Gyrea are not completely clear". This "weather forecast" has continued into the present time. The local fishermen predict a worsening of the weather when they see clouds over the top of the high mountain on Tinos. "Tinos has her hat οn", they say.
In the course of its long history Delos knew periods of prosperity from the l6th c. BC until the time of its first great destruction by Mithridates in 88 BC. During that same time, however, it also suffered periods of misfortune at the hands of conquerors, pirates and others. One can get a picture of the glory of Delos in antiquity from the Homeric "Hymn to Αροllο", in which the beauty of the island with the fast ships in the harbour, laden with riches, is wonderfully described.
The geographic position of Delos in the centre of the Cyclades and almost equidistant from the shores of mainland Greece and Asia Minor, helped it to become a great maritime trade centre, and large numbers of ships from every part of the then-known world were continually arriving at the port. Each year the Athenians sent the magnificent "sacred theoria" οη the sacred ship Paralos whose crew were all free men. Νο condemned person was allowed to be executed until the sacred ship had returned from Delos (Socrates's execution was postponed for thirty days just because the Paralos was late in returning from Delos).
After the Persian Wars Aristeides organized a pan Hellenic alliance based on Delos and called the Delian League, which was under the control of Athens. The alliance made provision for a contribution of ships or money from each of its members in order to meet the Persίan threat and deal with piracy. By that time the port of Delos was already large and developed, since it is mentioned that Leotychides (joint commander with Xanthippus of the Greek fleet when the naval battle took place at Cape Mycale) put in there in 479 BC with α fleet of 110 ships.
Delos continued to be a centre of great maritime activity for the whole time until its devastation in the lst c. BC, but there was an especially great increase in seafaring and trade during the time of Alexander the Grate’s successors and the subsequent period of Roman domination. People from different regions of the Mediterranean - Athenians, Italians, Egyptians, Syrians, Phoenicians, Palestinians and Jews - came to Delos to settle and trade.
The ship owners of the time had great influence in Delian society, became very wealthy, built themselves fine houses and established their own stoas. There was a guild of Tyrian merchants under the protection of Hercules, a guild of the merchants of Beyrouth under the protection of Poseidon (poseidoniatai), one under the protection of Αροllο (apolloniatai) and guilds of Egyptians, Jews and others.
The foreigners also brought their own gods to Delos, and there were temples of Isis, Serapίs, Anubis, Harpocrates and other foreign deities. Delos thus became an international city in which complete religious toleration prevailed. At the same time the result of all these foreign races coming together on the sacred isle was of benefit not only to the Aegean islanders, but to all Greeks, because they acquired a wealth of new experience in the fields of both art and shipping. The ship was the only means of communication with the islands roundabout and with the rest of the world; consequently it played a leading part in the life and pursuits of the inhabitants. Particularly after the decline of Rhodes and Corinth, Delos became the number one commercial and maritime centre in the Mediterranean. The merchandise that passed through its markets included cereals, fabrics, perfumes, luxury goods; works of art, native copper and slaves. Strabon mentions that 10,000 slaves were sold on Delos in one day! The Hypostyle Ηall seems to have served as a commercial exchange.
With the sanctuary of Αpοllοn as the centripetal force, the commercial, economic and nautical development of Delos reached its peak. The city grew in beauty and around the sacred lake (Trochoeides) imposing stoas, marble temples and other buildings were erected. Wealthy homes and innumerable works of art adorned every corner of the island. At the same time the harbour underwent a great phase of development; installations, warehouses, lighthouses, breakwaters and many other harbour works were constructed.
The island's prosperity lasted until 88 BC, when Mithridates; the king of Pontus, first sacked the island. Another destruction followed, by his general Menophanes, and the sacred xenon (wooden statue) of Αpοllοn was thrown into the sea. At some point the victorious Sulla came and attempted to restore the damage. In 69 BC, however, the pirate Athenodorus (an ally of Mithridates) wreaked the final and total devastation on Delos and left it a formless mass of ruins. That was the end of Αροllο's sacred isle and of its commercial and maritime existence.