The Tiny Greek Island That Might Be the First Multicultural Town in the World

The sun is setting over the Temple of Isis, creating spectacular shadows on the ground in front of it. A cat strolls through the dry grass making a rustling noise, breaking the silence. The warm summer sun is followed by a light breeze on Greece’s most fascinating island in the Aegean Sea. As you explore you are surrounded by monuments and ruins of glory days of the past. The little ferry waits on the port to take the last few visitors before the island locks its doors for the night.

About half an hour away by ferry from Greece’s infamous party island, Mykonos, is the island of Delos. Far from the buzzing streets of Athens and the always crowded alleys of most Greek islands, Delos today is an open-air museum and the only island dedicated exclusively to Greek gods. It is a place so mystical that you can feel it in the air the moment you step foot on it.

In 1944, French essayist and social and literary critic Roland Barthes wrote in his journal En Gréce about the island’s unique, almost supernatural power:

“This orderly succession of light and more solid horizons symbolizes, for me, the marriage of earth and water, which is nowhere more sumptuous than here; the island is the center of a solar conflagration; the sun insists, it thickens the blood; it enters through the eyes, the ears, it is heard, it is an oppressive silence; then it is diluted, lightened, drawn up; it attaches to each wave a sword of flames.” 

1. Kandukuru Nagarjun/flickr; 2. Andres Alvarado/flickr

This tiny island—only 1.3 square miles in size—one of the smallest in the Cyclades island group, had been for the ancient Greeks, the most significant and sacred island of them all.  According to the myth, Apollo (the god of the daylight and the sun) and Artemis (the goddess of the night light and the moon) were born on the island, making Delos the birthplace of light itself.

Although today only a few archaeologists and guards live here, according to archaeologist Panayiotis Chatzidakis, who studied the island for years, around 90 BC this little “dot” in the eastern Mediterranean was inhabited by approximately 30,000 people.

At the time, pilgrims from all over the known world, gathered to worship the gods and many of them decided to reside here, making it a trade center and a cosmopolitan town, bringing even more people to the island.

In addition to the Athenians and the Romans, who were the majority of the residents, there were people living on Delos who came from all the Mediterranean. People from Greece, Cyprus, Troy, Pontus, Cappadocia, Egypt, Syria, Arabia, and many more places were living next to one another. All of them lived together in peace, built their own temples, and worshiped their own gods.

“Greeks are the exact opposite of the fanatic followers of other monotheistic religions,” says Chatzidakis. “They were always willing to accept that their neighbor’s god was a god as well, often one of their own gods just with a different name.” This might be the first time in human history that people from all over the known world lived together in such a small place. It’s thought that Delos might be the first multicultural town in the world, giving the example of how people can coexist despite all their apparent differences.

Among the Greek temples on the island, there are ruins from temples where people worshiped the Egyptian gods Horus, Isis, Anubis, and Serapis, as well as the Phoenician goddess Atargatis and her husband Hadad, among others. People who moved there adopted the Greek way of living, learned how to speak and write in Greek, worked and had fun together, their kids went to the same school and the boys trained at the same palestra (wrestling school). In Delos, the East and the West coexisted harmoniously.

Delos might be the first multicultural town in the world, giving the example of how people can coexist despite all their apparent differences.

The first to attempt an archeological excavation on Delos was Pasch van Krienen, an officer in the Russian army during the reign of Empress Catherine the Great in 1772 when the Cyclades were under Russian occupation. Many of the findings were sent to Saint Petersburg and they are now on display at the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg. Many more archaeologists and research groups from around the world followed in the years since.

In 1990, Delos was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The island cannot be individually visited without permission and fishing isn’t allowed in the surrounding waters. There are ferries that cost 20 euros a ticket leaving every day from the port of Mykonos. You are free to stay on the island and explore it for as long as you like, but you have to leave with the last ferry, around the sunset.

The view from the top of the rocky Mount Cynthus, the highest point on the island, is spectacular. The whole Aegean Sea opens in front of your eyes. Where the sea and the sky meet, the sun is mirroring on the crystal clear water. As you leave the island you feel as though you’ve been emersed in history, taking with you important lessons about society and coexistence. Because here, on a small, widely unknown Greek island, some kind of a utopia once existed.

See more at Fodor's Travel