Santorini, perhaps the archetypal Greek island is just 18 km long and varying in width from 2 – 6 Km, with steep cliffs which offer amazing views, wonderful archaeological sights, traditional white houses with the much-photographed blue dome roofs and acclaimed sunsets. The cliff-top town, Thira, perches precariously, high above the splendour that is the Caldera (cauldren), a reputedly-bottomless bay at the centre of the island. The story of its formation is also central to the story of Santorini. We will come back to this so don’t go to sleep.
Confusingly the island is variously known as Santorini or Thira sometimes Fira, the latter, also being the name of the main town. More confusing, is the list of previous names. Like a yacht of checkered fortune, Santorini changed her identity many times through her long history. Originally she was Strogili, which means circular, a name which make sense as, at one time, she probably was circular. Then she graduated to Kallisti meaning beautiful which she was and still is. Her current name, of Santorini, was endowed on her by the Crusaders mispronouncing the name of the celebrated church of Agia Erini, meaning Saint Erini ( Peace), as Santa Rini and so to Santorini.
Whatever her name might at the time have been, it seems that the island was populated early in the Neolithic period and from as early in the second millennium BC, the original, tiny fishing hamlet had developed into a thriving city and a major port in the Aegean with a huge fleet of ships, its trading sphere extending across the Aegean to Syria and Egypt. With a sophisticated social structure, this urban centre had an emergent bureaucratic system and exerted an influence over the art and commerce of other societies in the Aegean area. Akrotiri, boasted advanced constructional techniques in the building of homes and some splendid public buildings. Two-storey buildings have been uncovered, which in itself is remarkable for the time, but some were large by any standard, with as many as 14 rooms on the upper floor and many, amazingly for 2000 BC, had toilets on both floors. The drainage system, which served the whole town, was part of the integrated town plan to which the city was built. All of the houses that have been discovered so far have been decorated with wall paintings, illustrating scenes, not only of daily life in the Aegean but of animals and peoples from much further afield. That wall-paintings, expensive to commission, were so widely used, indeed that there is not a house, so far excavated, without one, shows a good deal of superfluous wealth which was spread with an unusual democracy, across the whole social spectrum. Much more evenly spread than, say, the concurrent Minoan culture where rich were rich and the poor inhabited a decidedly second class milieu. There is evidence of elegant furniture and diverse and rich pottery as well as elegant jewelry, all the marks of a wealthy and developed society.
This amazing civilisation, united elements of Aegean life style with the more elaborate Minoan civilisation, forward thinking and well-ordered, it has been suggested, that Akrotiri may indeed have been the Atlantis, of legend. You will recall that Atlantis was an ideal society, a beautiful city which was lost suddenly in an unknown disaster. Her location and identity has been much debated, indeed her very existence has been challenged as possibly existing only in the imagination of Plato. Santorini does however go someway to being a candidate to fit the profile of the lost city of Atlantis.
In the centre of Strogili, the circular island, developed a huge volcanic vent which was triggered by several huge earthquakes around 1645 B.C. The centre of the island literally dropped out during one of a series of massive eruptions which must have scared the residents into early flight from the island. The volcanic cones were many and had developed over thousands of years, emerging and changing the landscape even then, uniting and dividing areas of the island. The Caldera cone was one of the latest to develop. The eruption, so huge that it was followed by the collapse of the magma shield below the already existing Caldera, extended and depended its area. The eruptions are thought to have created plumes of lava and debris between 34 and 37 Kilometres high over the island, scattering ash and lava over most of the Mediterranean and probably causing a global climate change and creating layers of lava, ash and pumice of between 50 and 600 cm.
From the evidence of the deposits it seems that there were four distinct phases of the eruption. The first, emanating from an area in the region of the current Nea Kameni, scattered a light layer of typical pumice fall-out, over much of the island and across the Mediterranean. This, some months before the main eruption, must have acted as a warning to residents although it may have been interpreted as the main event encouraging re-habitation when these initial eruptions died down.
During the second phase of the eruptions, seawater rushed into the volcano’s chambers, producing violent explosions that pulverized the magma which, together with huge rocks, was propelled from the caldera, creating a scene similar to those observed during atom-bomb tests, including a typical ‘mushroom cloud’ of debris. Not nuclear in nature but still deadly.
Later during the third phase, the flows must have been very energetic, judging by the steep gradients upon which they lay. They are present on steep slopes such as the upper flanks of Micro Profitis and Megalo Vouno Mountain and ash-flows, that were produced from an extremely enlarged vent, poured like “boiling milk” over the caldera-rim. Because of the large amount of rock fragments in the debris, at this stage, it has been interpreted as the beginning of the caldera’s collapse.
Residual layers, darker than those of phase three, characterise the final phase of the eruptions. These layers are however spread less evenly than in other phases and the upper areas have lost much of their covering indicating that either they have been eroded by rainfall, tsunami, wind or agricutural practices. The original deposits, from the steeper slopes such as Profitis Ilias, Mikro Profitis Ilias and Megalo Vouno has all but disappeared. Temperatures of the magma at this stage are estimated to have reached 200 to 400 Centigrade, in itself a terrifying statistic. Judging by the evidence of the Krakatoa eruption, where it was reported that the noise of the eruption was heard in Australia and in America, the sounds of these explosions must have resounded around the entire Mediterranean, as these eruptions are estimated to have been some three times more forceful than Krakatoa.
The effects of this series of enormous eruptions were not only that the whole island of Santorini was covered in ash and magma, preserving Akrotiri in a similar state to that of Pompei, but further afield, it is thought to have brought the Minoan civilization to an end. Just 60 miles away Crete received a huge deposit of ash and lava, as did far-away Turkey and Syria. It is probable that the tidal wave created by the collapse of the Caldera would have washed the shores of both Egypt and Spain swamping much in between. This almost certainly finished what the volcano started, in terms of eradicating the Minoans.
Although these events would have caused huge disruption and widespread death throughout a huge geographical area. Interestingly, however, no signs of human remains are found in the excavations of Akrotiri, indicating that the warnings of the early stages of the eruptions were heeded by the inhabitants who fled the city. What is not clear, is whether they found a safe refuge or were numbered amongst those killed by the fall-out from the eruptions or by the subsequent tidal waves. One cannot help but hope that some, at least, were spared.
The one positive effect of this volcanic explosion is that the wall-paintings, well preserved by the volcanic lava, are invaluable clues to the Aegean way of life at the time and indeed to much of what was going on in Europe as a whole. Excavation of the entire town of Akrotiri was started in the 1950’s and continues today. A fascinating glimpse into an ancient civilisation amazingly well preserved.
Since the Minoan eruption, as it is called, islands have appeared from the sea. Their appearance seems to be linked to the continuing submarine activity in the area.
The first recorded event is documented by Strabo in 96BC, when Old Kameni appeared from the sea followed by Mikra Kameni in 1570 and Neo Kameno in 1770
There is a later report of an island appearing but it disappeared again soon after.
Sitting in the Caldera today on a yacht, one must be aware that this is a volcanic crater and that some activity still continues in the depths below.
After the destruction of not just Santorini and Akrotiri but much else further afield, reminders of that ferocious episode include the multi-coloured rock strata which adorn the cliffsides of the island. The various elements shot from the volcanoes have settled into a kaleidoscope of coloured strata on hills and beaches which are most striking in direct sun when their myriad colours can truly be seen.
Santorini lay abandoned for years, until the late 13c when, according to Herodotus who reported that Phoenicians, led by Cadmus, settled on the island. A century later they were followed by a wave of Spartan settlers who named the new town Thira, after their leader and by 9th C BC there was a Doric community on the island.
Taken in 1204, at the fall of Constantinople, as part of the Byzantine empire, the island became part of the Duchy of Naxos. Prey to pirates until the period of the Turkish occupation, when the occupiers suppressed piracy in the Aegean, Santorini remained quite insular until the 18th C when she again became an influential power and saw a solid cultural rise. Shipping flourished, as did industry, such as tomato processing, wine making and textiles.
Another decline in the island’s fortunes was seen during the early to mid 20th centuries with the effects of the two world wars, occupation and the Civil war causing mass emigration, not only from Santorini but from most of the Greek islands. By the 1970’s the island again flourished with the advent of tourism and does to this day.
Famous for her wine, fava – a yellow split pea, baby tomatoes and chloro, a local goat’s cheese as well, of course for Pumice, the ever-present reminder of the past on Santorini.
What to do
There are the island’s characteristic black sand beaches to relax on. Perivolos, Perisa and Kamari are all 15 minutes taxi ride away from Thira.
Visit the museums and explore the villages as well, of course, as watching the dramatic sunsets over the Caldera.
Take a donkey ride up the steep winding cliff, up the 800 steps from the harbour to the town of Thira. You may want to walk back down or take the teleferic.
Where to go
Archipelagos, local and international cuisine, lunch – dinner, situated in Fira town on the caldera side.
Sphinx, local and international cuisine, lunch – dinner, situated in Fira town on the caldera side.
Calderimi, italian cuisine, lunch – dinner, situated in Fira town on the caldera side.
Pyrgos tavern, local, international cuisine and fresh fish, lunch – dinner, situated in Pyrgos village.
1800, local and international cuisine, lunch – dinner.