Delos, a barren, rocky island five kilometers long and only 1300 meters wide, lies 10 kilometers southwest of Mykonos. Although it is one of the smallest of the islands in this chain, Delos, as the birthplace of Apollo (the god of light, harmony, and balance) was a place of such importance in ancient times that the surrounding islands were known as the Cyclades, since they lay in a circle (kyklos) around the sacred island.
From the ninth century BC onwards, Hellenes from all over the Greek world would make pilgrimages to Delos to pay tribute to Apollo. Then, when Delos was declared a free port in 167 BC, it became one of the main trading centers on the Eastern Mediterranean. A town developed around the sanctuary, with wealthy merchants, bankers, and shipowners from afar building luxurious houses decorated with statues, frescoes, and mosaic floors. By 90 BC, an estimated 30,000 inhabitants lived on Delos. The extensive area of remains (still under excavation) is one of the most important archaeological sites in Greece. Today, it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Overlooking the Sacred Lake, the Terrace of the Lions (also known as the Avenue of the Lions) is probably the most-photographed tourist attraction in Delos. It is home to a row of magnificent white marble lions – originally there were nine, but only five remain (in fact even these are replicas, the originals being on show in the Delos Museum). One of the missing lions now overlooks the Arsenal in Venice, Italy, having been removed from Delos in the 17th century. The lions, which are in a crouching position and seem to be guarding the lake, date from the seventh century BC and were a gift to Apollo from the people of the island of Naxos.
The Sacred Precinct was approached from the south by a broad paved path, running between two Doric stoas, to arrive at the second-century-BC Propylaia, the main gateway into the sanctuary. From here, you reach three parallel temples of Apollo, and opposite them, in the center of the precinct, the Keraton, an Ionic temple surrounded by columns built on granite foundations.
The Keraton, which was dedicated to Apollo and contained a famous altar with rams’ horns set round it, was probably built on the site of an earlier temple from the seventh century BC.