The Island Known as the Birthplace of Apollo Is Sinking

Researchers say climate change is to blame for the Greek island of Delos’ slow demise

Delos is a small, rocky island just west of Mykonos in Greece. Romain Delanoë / Wikimedia Commons under CC BY 2.0

The Greek isle of Delosonce called “the most sacred of all islands”—is sinking. According to researchers, the tiny, rocky land will be underwater in mere decades.

“Delos is condemned to disappear in around 50 years,” Veronique Chankowski, head of the French Archaeological School of Athens (EFA), tells Agence France-Presse (AFP).

Situated near Mykonos in the Aegean Sea, the 1.3-square-mile island has been inhabited by humans since the third millennium B.C.E. It later became known as an important site in Greek mythology: the birthplace of Apollo, the sun god, and his twin sister Artemis, the goddess of the moon. By the ninth century B.C.E., Delos had been established as an Apollonian sanctuary.

Pilgrims traveled from across Greece to visit the sacred island, which doubled as a hub of sea trade, per UNESCO. As an archaeological site, Delos is “exceptionally extensive and rich,” marked by multiple Aegean civilizations between the third millennium B.C.E. and early Christianity.

The Terrace of the Lions is one of the island's main archaeological attractions. Bernard Gagnon / Wikimedia Commons under CC BY-SA 3.0

Today, rising sea levels caused by climate change are putting the ancient site at risk. As Newsweek’s Aristos Georgiou reports, researchers from EFA have been studying Delos for 150 years, and recent surveys have revealed damage that’s already been done.

According to AFP, the sea level has risen nearly 70 feet in some parts of Delos in just the past decade. At the same time, the island is “​​progressively sinking” because of “the movements of tectonic plates in the region,” writes Newsweek.

Researchers have found the most damage in an area that houses storage buildings dating to the first and second centuries B.C.E.

“Water enters the stores in winter,” says Jean-Charles Moretti, the French mission’s director on Delos, to the news agency. “It eats away at the base of the walls. … Every year in the spring, I notice that new walls have collapsed.”

Those vulnerable structures are off-limits to travelers. Still, Delos is a popular tourist destination, and the heavy foot traffic is exacerbating the problem. As AFP reports, visitors often tramp through restricted areas, hastening the island’s decay.

The island’s other significant structures include its Sanctuary of Apollo, the remains of a Hellenistic settlement and “the iconic Terrace of the Lions statues,” per Newsweek. At its peak, Delos boasted a population of some 30,000. But after being attacked and looted in both 88 and 69 B.C.E., the island was “gradually abandoned,” according to UNESCO.

To stave off sea damage, experts are installing wooden beams to support some of the ancient walls, as Chankowski tells AFP. Still, she adds, more serious interventions will be needed to preserve the structures.

“All coastal cities will lose significant areas currently located at sea level,” archaeologist Athena-Christiana Loupou, a tour guide at the site, tells the news agency. “We replaced plastic straws with paper straws, but we lost the war.”

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