Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Dallying on Sacred Delos

Friday, November 7, 2006
Delos, Greece

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The day we spent in Delos was easily for me one of the highlights of our trip to Greece. In the morning, we ran into my student Vince Libasci again--a feat not improbable considering how few tourists were on the island. We had invited Vince to join us on the day trip to Delos and to share our breakfast--a rather good one based on delicious packaged chocolate croissants from the local 'supermarket', really not much more than a corner shop.

To our great good fortune, the local boat had decided to ply that day, but only at 11 am. This left us a good hour to explore Mykonnos some more--an island whose magic spell quite enchanted me. Llew, Vince and I rambled in the Chora (pronounced 'hora'), the main village with its maze of narrow streets and vividly painted balconies--red, blue, green--that were filled with late season geraniums and giant cactii in pots. Bougainvillea climbed walls in lush profusion and the entire effect was just lovely. It was hard to stop taking pictures as I wanted to capture it all on celluloid.

At 11 am, we were back on the jetty looking for the "Delos Express" , a boat with a rather grandiose name, which we boarded with a handful of other visitors. The sea rocked somewhat disturbingly for me, but I closed my eyes and was grateful for the fact that Delos was only a half hour away. Soon, we were rounding its contours and taking in the stones and columns that were strewn all over its shores.

It is entirely thanks to my Oxford classmate and close friend Dr. Firdaus Gandavia, that we landed on Delos. When he had visited me in London from Bombay, about a month ago, he had recommended a trip to Delos which, he told me, "is archaeologically deeply significant". And now I cannot thank him enough for making me aware of this island's magic. Delos is the most sacred of the islands in the Cyclades and is surrounded by the other larger islands--Mykonnos, Tinos, Argos, Siros, Naxos, Paros. It is believed to be the birthpace of the Gods Apollo and Artemis and every attempt was made to preserve this island as a tribute to their powers. Hence, by decree, no one was allowed to be born or to die on Delos. The bones of those once buried on the island were dug up and transported to another site and from then on, no one was ever allowed to spend a night on the island. To date, the Greek government honors the ancient conventions and the island remains uninhabited. Every single passenger that disembarks from the ferry boats are carefully counted and the exact same number is returned at night fall to Mykonnos. It is somewhat eerie to imagine what the island of Delos must be like at night--what ghosts walk around its ruined homes and fallen columns, I wondered?

Once ashore, we purchased tickets (five euros each) to take a self-guided archeological tour of the island. By following the clearly-marked arrows, one could see the most important monuments--a perfectly semi-circular seat here, Naxian marble columns, there. A Temple to Apollo, another to Dionysus. All signs were in Greek and, for some inexplicable reason, in French. It was only later in the museum that I discovered that the excavations on Delos, at the turn of the 20th century (1901-1911 to be exact), were led by a French archoeologist belonging to the University of Athens. His findings led to the unearthing of an entire city that, like Pompeii, lay buried beneath the rubble. Hence, what the visitor really does on Delos, is walk in a former settlement that thrived and was once the most important port in Greece. In fact, it was only more recently that Pireaus in Athens upstaged Delos' importance. Bankers, seamen, financiers, made their homes on one side of Delos and their ruined mansions can still be visited, complete with their mosaic flooring and frescoed walls.

Many of the treasures found in these homes have been moved to the National Archeological Museum in Athens, but a small museum can be visited on Delos itself. In it, one can see a vast number of archeological artifacts such as jewelery, statues, tables, urns, etc. It is a mind-blowing experience, especially since I had visited Pompeii only in March and been completely fascinated by this buried city that dates from 69 BC. Well, here I was on Delos, walking on the remains of a history that dates back over the last 3,000 years!

This is cearly evident at the Terrace of the Lions where about six life sized lions made of Naxian marble and presented to Delos by the islanders of Naxos give the area its name. These are large, fierce, commanding, their presence giving the island its own peculiar character. These lions were placed outside for a century after being excavated and the elements took their toll on their features so that their faces and manes are stripped of all detail. Today, they are placed inside the museum with plaster replicas adorning the terrace. I was so stunned by all these sights that I was often speechless, unable quite fully to take in the mysteries of the classical world that were being revealed to us as I trod those ruined pathways. Further down the hill, the amphitheater was in rather bad shape and will require a lot of reconstruction before it is restored to its former glory...but we were impressed by the underground cistern that ran below the amphitheater and supplied the island with water. Even as I tried to take it all in, I watched as workers strove to put together, stone upon stone, those crumbled walls. It was especially wonderful for me to be able to see the connection between Delos and Pompeii and it was especially moving for Llew to make the connection between Delos and Mohenjo-Daro and Harrappa in modern-day Pakistan, remnants of the cities of the Indus Valley Civilization that he had the good fortune of visiting many years ago.

At 2 pm, when I was quite tired from all our exploration and seeing our boat puff quietly in the port, I was reminded of Tennyson's poem "Ulysses" in which the restless hero of the Odyssey decides to set sail once again after a short visit to his wife and son Telemachus, as he cannot rest from travel and must drink life to the lees. This has always been one of my favorite of poems from English Literatrue and to see the boat lying in the harbor against the background of the bright blue Aegean Sea was deeply evocative for me. Llew had resovled that we should return to the British Museum to see the Parthenon Marbles, having visited the monument while in Athens. I decided to review the poem once again having spent so much time on the inky waters of the Aegean.

By 3 pm, we were back in our hotel room for a long siesta. I spent time reading while Llew snoozed. At 7 pm, we stirred having made plans to join Vince for dinner. We chose a wayside restaurant called Madoupas on the waterfront which was filled with locals--always a good sign when one is traveling. In this place, we ate one of the most memorable of our Greek meals--The Mykonnian Salad was huge and consisted of rocket (mesclun greens), red louza sausage that is a speciality of Mykonnos, black eyed beans, tomatoes, olives and a Mykonnian cheese that was far more flavorful than feta cheese. The light dressing of olive oil and vinegar made for a totally filling meal with the Greek bread served alongside and it was with difficulty that Llew and I shared our second course--Mykonnian Sausage with Fries. The sausage was spicey and went well with the blandness of the fries. Portions were enormous and we had enough for our next day's meal in the doggy bag we carried back with us.

By the time we returned to the beach, the few folk in the town had disappeared altogether and a ghostliness descended down upon the island. We wondered why the shops closed down, only to discover that Friday evenings are when business comes to a standstill for the weekend. Since the thick of the tourist season was over, Mykonnos was in farewell mode and the stores and hotels were preparing themselves for the long and quiet winter months ahead when no cruise loads of tourists would hurry along its shores.

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