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.
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.