(Telegraph) – Clambering across slabs of marble, stepping over tumbled columns, wading through banks of wild flowers, finally I found Apollo. There he was – or, at least, part of him. A massive chest rose out of the poppies and daisies and, a few feet away, his thighs and waist. These were the remnants of one of the greatest statues of antiquity – four times life-size, and more than a century older than the Parthenon – lying in the spring sunshine on the Greek island of Delos.
Two and a half thousand years ago, this was a sacred spot, drawing pilgrims from Athens, Rome and all around the Mediterranean. It’s still unique today: a Greek Pompeii, but hundreds of years older than the Roman version. The difference is that this ruined city – filled with temples, public squares, private houses and winding streets – is on an uninhabited Aegean island. An added attraction there this summer will be an array of sculptures created by the contemporary British artist Antony Gormley.
To get to Delos, you have to come by boat. Like most visitors, I’d arrived from Mykonos, a little over half an hour’s voyage across the shining sea (at least, it was sparkling in the sunlight on that May morning). This is the easiest way to get to Delos, unless you disembark from a cruise ship or a billionaire’s yacht (and the good news is that, though Delos is a little awkward to get to, Mykonos is easy, with a choice of direct flights from Britain).
I caught the 10 o’clock departure from the jetty in the old harbour at Mykonos (€20/£18 for the round trip) and came back five hours later, which allowed just enough time to see most of the key sights. There is a surprising quantity of those. Famously, Pompeii was preserved by a cataclysmic volcanic eruption; Delos suffered a slower fate, which was perhaps not much more fun for the people living there.
At its peak, Delos was a thriving religious and commercial centre with a population of more than 10,000. But in the later Roman period, it was repeatedly sacked by pirates and enemy armies. Slowly, the inhabitants disappeared. A visitor at the time of the Emperor Hadrian complained that there was no one there except the temple guards. Soon they too departed.
The result was that no newer buildings were put on top of the old ones, as happened in more successful cities such as Rome and Athens. Delos was just left there.
True, the neighbouring islands used it as a quarry for a couple of millennia. As you wander around the old town of Mykonos, you find classical pillars and lintels repurposed as parts of houses or churches. But there’s still a lot left.
After I got off the boat and bought my entrance ticket, I saw to my left the Sacred Precinct: hundreds of square yards of porticoes and processional ways, and – hidden away among the tumbled stones – that torso of Apollo.
He was the reason why this became an important place. According to myth, the god and his twin sister, Artemis, were born here following a difficult delivery for their mother, Leto. Their father was Zeus, chief of the gods, but his wife Hera was angry about his infidelity, and unkindly delayed the arrival of the divine midwife, so poor Leto spent nine days in labour. Apollo was one of greatest gods, and his birthplace one of the most important shrines of the Greek world. The Cyclades – the archipelago in the Aegean, south-east of Athens, which includes Mykonos and Santorini – gets its name from the Greek for “circling around” because it seems to revolve around Delos.
Ancient Greeks competed to offer Apollo bigger and better gifts. The inhabitants of Naxos – a large and delightful island to the south – gave not only the giant statue but also a magnificent sentinel row of huge, snarling lions. Originally there were 16 of these; now only five remain (the Venetians stole one, which is now outside the gate of the Arsenale).
The original lions are now in the museum on Delos, but have been replaced by perfect facsimiles. A spacious, cool, blue-walled sanctuary from the heat, the museum is one of the attractions of the island. It is full of battered but still beautiful sculptures – plus, for the next few months, one by Antony Gormley.
Gormley, famous as the creator of the Angel of the North and the iron men striding into the water off Crosby Beach on Merseyside, has an unorthodox exhibition on Delos until the end of October. Entitled Sight, it consists of 29 of his sculptures scattered across the island – you receive a map as soon as you step off the boat.
The experience feels like a mixture of conventional art and treasure hunt, which for me added an extra layer of fun and interest. Just searching for the Gormleys takes you all over the island terrain. One rusty, naked figure looks out from the highest rocky peak of Delos. To see this properly involves a climb up several hundred extremely irregular, 2,000-year-old steps. But it’s worth the effort, for the Gormley – and also for the view. I came upon others nestling in courtyards on ancient houses, reclining near the stage of the amphitheatre and looking out motionless across the waves.
The exhibition is an unprecedented combination, for Greece, of very old and extremely new. It is an initiative by NEON, an enterprising organisation founded by Dimitris Daskalopoulos, an entrepreneur and collector, six years ago, in the aftermath of the financial crisis, to present contemporary art in the Hellenic world. To put it on, NEON collaborated with the wonderfully named Ephorate of Antiquities of Cyclades and Dimitrios Athanasoulis, its enterprising director.
As far as I was concerned, putting these Gormleys in Apollo’s birthplace worked just perfectly. The classical works made the modern look more interesting, and vice versa. Before it tumbled, the colossal statue of Apollo was not quite as tall as Gormley’s Angel of the North, but nearly. Perhaps in the distant future visitors will admire the ruins of that near the A1 at Gateshead.
It’s unlikely the setting will be so lovely, though – or the wild flowers.