Delos is a small island, only four and a half miles long and one and a half miles wide, located in the Adriatic sea and is considered the most secret of all the adjacent islands, as it is known to be the mythological birthplace of the Sun god Apollo and goddess Artemis, his twin sister. The famous Terrace of the Lions on Delos that dates to 3,000 BC and one of the most noticeable landmarks of the island was erected north of the sanctuary of Apollo, looking past the Sacred Lake and dedicated to the Sun god by the people of Naxos just before 600 BC.
Made of coarse-grained Naxian marble, these fascinating lion sculptures, considered as one of the earliest examples of beautiful monumental Naxian sculpture, were a gift to that island of Delos from Naxos, which dominated commerce in the Cyclades, during the 8th and 7th centuries BC. During 500 BC, Naxos was described by the famous Greek historian Herodotus, as the most prosperous Greek island, equipped with a busy port with the thriving slave market.
It is estimated that originally the sculptures stood on the terrace with their pedestals directly on the ground. However, they were later shifted and stored in the museum and were replaced by exact copies of the original marble lions, standing on rectangular pedestals on the terrace in Delos and guarding the sanctuary, as before.
The series of lions are faced east, towards the Sacred Lake of Delos, which is widely known as the birthplace of Apollo and are arranged parallel to each other, with a distance of 3.20 to 3.50 m in between.
Terrace of the Lions, a signature image of Delos, is a part of the sprawling archaeological site of Ancient Delos, on the northwest coast of the island. It is located in front of the rectangular Agora or gathering place of the ancient Italians and south of the Sacred Lake where, it is believed by many, Leto gave birth to Apollo. The temple of Poseidon stands in between the terrace and the sea.
The terrace consisted of a row of nine to twelve marble carved lions, the eternal symbol of power and royalty. It is estimated that, originally the number of the proud marble lions was sixteen, out of which only seven remained. Sacred Delos was a major cult centre between 900 BC and AD 100 and today, it is one of the most important archaeological sites in Greece, where the French archaeologists have conducted excavation in Delos for more than 100 years.
Except for the French archaeologists and the site guardians, Delos is completely uninhabited. However, despite being windswept and almost barren of vegetation, its habitation, probably reached 25000 by the early 1st century BC. Apart from the invasions of the Naxos and Paros, who attempted to establish control of Delos early in the Archaic period, the Athenians dominated the island on and off for almost five hundred years and initiated two ‘purifications’ of the island. In 540 BC, all burials within sight of the temple of Apollo were ordered to be removed and in 426 or 425 BC, births and deaths were forbidden on the island on the plea of its sacred importance.
After the Roman conquest of Greece, the Athenians removed all the indigenous of the island, replacing them with poor Athenians who received pastures on the island by lot, which led its population to increase. In 88 BC, the island was razed by Mithridates, the king of Pontus and Armenia Minor in northern Anatolia, when he orchestrated a massacre of the Roman and Italian settlers in several Anatolian areas. Delos could never recover from the calamity. Its population dwindled and by the 3rd century AD, it was inhabited only by a small Christian community. Subsequently, Delos was plundered several times in the 8th and 9th centuries and during Ottoman occupation the nearly deserted island became a stronghold of the pirates.