Saturday, November 7, 2015

Delos and Disaster.


This week I read an article in Ekathimerini (Greece’s newspaper akin to The New York Times) by Youli Eptakili in which she reflected in a lamenting sort of way on a mid-October conversation she’d had with a friend while sitting along the Mykonos harbor. 

Mykonos Harbor

The subject of her concern was the state of the nearby holy island of Delos, only about a mile away on any of the boats that make the journey from the southern end of that same harbor.

Basically flat except for two hills, and only one twentieth the size of Mykonos, Delos in the ancient world was considered the center of Cycladic life. The now virtually uninhabited island is different from modern day Mykonos in every way—though in antiquity Delos clearly was the better place to party.  Mykonos wasn’t even on the maps of those times, and its name meant nothing more than “mound of rocks.” 

But Delos’ influence ended abruptly in the last century before the Common Era, when Delos backed the wrong protector and twenty thousand inhabitants were slaughtered, its physical and cultural landscape destroyed.  It took nearly 2000 years and archeological digs begun by the French in 1873 for Delos to emerge as the treasured archeological gem it is today.

What troubled the writer was the lack of interest modern day tourists seemed to show in visiting Delos. According to her article, only 120,000 tourists visit Delos each year, while more than that number visit Mykonos every month, and Santorini’s Akrotiri—an awesome spot but not nearly as stunning as Delos’ entire island setting (I can see the letters coming)­—draws 600,000 visitors annually.

The question is why?

The article suggests it is a change in tourism, that Saudis and Lebanese coming to Mykonos now only want to stay by the wildest, chicest places and have no interest in historical sites. Those they leave to the Chinese.

There may be something to that, but frankly, in my more than thirty years on Mykonos, that’s how it’s always been, regardless of the homelands of the visitors. Partiers regularly promise themselves at night to get to Delos “in the morning,” but it takes until the fifth or sixth trip to Mykonos before some actually make it.

She also cites the poor state of the museum, the absence of trashcans, labor shortages, a “rudimentary” gift shop, and a horrid—my word­—snack bar as discouraging of tourism. She’s right, but the sad truth is it’s always been that way, too. 

Delos snack bar and museum

As I see it, the “why” answer is that those responsible for Delos are not taking proper care of their charge. Professional management, a tourist driven focus, and a willingness to accept the donated help of a community that wants to help would go a long way toward remedying much of what plagues Delos.  After all, Delos is a true wonder of the ancient world second only to Delphi in its spiritual and archeological power.

For reasons I don’t understand, long term assistance from those considered “outsiders” (who may even be Mykonians) is discouraged, though a one-shot effort to remedy a specific problem—such as a day long cleanup at the beginning of the season—might be acceptable depending on who offers.

Another thing I don’t understand is why all visitors must be off the island by 3 PM. That guarantees that only early risers (a rare breed on Mykonos) will ever make the trip.  Frankly, I’ve never heard a sensible explanation for that schedule, though I’ve heard a lot of joking about how the guards like to take their afternoon swims.

This is not a subject I’ve just come around to addressing.  Reproduced below in italics is a letter I wrote five years ago to Greece’s Minister of Culture and Tourism bringing to his attention an embarrassing but readily curable problem on Delos (and the Acropolis). I also sent a copy to Ekathimerini. By the way, the object in the foreground of the photos at the top and bottom of this post is the subject of my letter.

The mails in Greece are very slow, because I’ve yet to hear back from either.  Here’s hoping for Delos’ sake that Ms. Eptakili’s article gets the serious attention and action it deserves.

Dear Minister [He’s since out of power, so I’ve left him mercifully anonymous],

I am a guest in your country who faces a dilemma.  I do not wish to seem disrespectful to my host, but I also feel it is my duty as one who loves Greece to alert you to a situation within your power to resolve (at no expense) that each day provides insidious support to those who would unfairly malign Greece as having no true regard for its historic sites and treasures.

Every year millions of foreign tourists visit Greece’s historic places, and the impressions they form are carried back to their homelands.  It is an example of world opinion built one tourist at a time.  I have no doubt each is awed by the ancients, who could not be?  What I fear is their view of the moderns. 

The problem is simple to observe.  Pick any day and travel to the Holy Island of Delos.  Leave the sacred harbor, climb toward the heights of Mount Kynthos along the path heading in the direction of the Temple of Isis, stop along the way at the map stand overlooking the ancient plain below and the timeless Aegean.  It is a view from antiquity.  Over there is the majestic terrace of the lions and across is the ancient sacred lake, and—

Tourist stops and says, “What is that over there?  No problem, I’ll just take a look at this map stand and learn what it is.”  Tourist pauses and possibly gives a startled look.  “My God, when was this map replaced last? 1990?  It’s so old it’s baked onto the metal.  I can’t make out a thing.  What’s wrong with this country?  It can’t even afford a map at one of its most prestigious historical sites?”  Tourist leaves, shaking head, laughing, or, possibly, cursing.

Fast forward to that same tourist sitting at home watching television when some story comes on about Greece’s claim for the return of the Parthenon Marbles.  “Oh, yes, that seems fair.  But wait a minute, wasn’t that the country that couldn’t afford to replace a map?  How could it be trusted to take care of the Marbles?”  Tourist changes channel.

Does that scenario seem outrageous or unlikely?  Why risk it for the cost of replacing a map?  And there are Mykonians who have been offering for almost a decade to replace the one on Delos at no charge to the government.  I’m sure other Greeks who care about other sites have made similar offers.  I’ll even pay for the one on Delos.  Please, let me.  The issue is so simple to resolve and so threatening to the country’s national image to ignore. 

By the way, the metal sign at the east side of the Parthenon could use some work too.  It’s dirty and the black is wearing away from the engraved letters describing what hails as Ancient Greece’s most stunning achievement and the modern symbol of a country I love dearly.

Respectfully yours,

Jeffrey Siger


  1. Was that way thirty five years ago. One carries one's own maps and guidebooks. The only reason I went to Mykonos was to visit Delos, and, believe me, the curtailed time was more than annoying. (I confess I did take time to sit and enjoy the sea view from on high for about a half hour.) The museum was closed. Snack bar? What snack bar? Although what I'd *really* have appreciated was a WC.--Mario R.

    1. You are preaching to the choir, Mario. :) It's a national shame the way Delos has been handled. But then again, it's sadly but only one example of how the tourist seems to be the last consideration in the operation of far too many historic sites.

  2. Completely baffling. Fees charged to tourists for the visit should easily pay for vast improvements. Are there fees? Into whose pockets do they go? Am I too cynical?

    These are all questions in need of answering...

    1. And the current government is preparing to double the fees for admission to many historic sites. The justification being, "the tourists won't mind." Which I think aptly describes the misdirected philosophy of much government and private planning, i.e., "there is an inexhaustible supply of tourists wanting to come to Greece."

  3. Jeff, is there any chance that the guardians of Delos don't want more tourists? They can be quite destructive, as you undoubtedly know. Some African countries have opted to charge high prices to keep up tourist revenues while holding off the environmental impact that hordes of tourists can have.

  4. I'd say not. In Greece the problem is not with the tourists. In fact, it is foreigners who often show greater respect for the sites and the land than the locals. It's a subject that deserves a far more detailed analysis than is available in a comment, but let's just say that with respect to Delos, discouraging tourism to protect the island is the last thing on their minds.

  5. It would be interesting to take a look at the touring public sometime and observe what and how much they want to learn when they travel. We were talking with friends one day and discussing the research we do before a trip, their comment was, "We figure Rick Steves [tour] will tell us what we need to know." And that was a scary thought!

    1. If you think that's scary J&J, just think of who the American electorate relies upon for what it "needs to know" before hitting the voting booth!

    2. EVERYTHING about Rick Steves is scary, the scariest being how he ever got his job. Here is what he wrote about Florence: "In a three week trip to Italy, Florence deserves one well-planned day." This advice is followed by a walking tour where you pass by all the great buildings of the greatest art treasury on earth, BUT you never go inside. WHAT???? EEEEEKKK!!!

    3. I think, Sis, that you and Jackie have it wrong...his name is actually Rick Skeevie.

  6. That's just plain sad -and infuriating. Is it a matter of beware of tourists bearing gifts? Or officials thinking money is happier in their pockets than preserving the land?

    1. It's more an example of how the system in general deals with far too many serious issues affecting citizens and tourists alike: Indifference cloaked in nationalistic rhetoric.