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View from the top of Thira
View from the top of Thira

Santorini is a small, circular group of volcanic islands located in the Aegean Sea, 75 km south-east of the Greek mainland (latitude: 35.25N - longitude: 25.20E). It is also known by the name of the largest island in the archipelago, Thira or Thera (Θηρα).

It is the southernmost member of the Cyclades group of islands, with an area of approximately 80 km² (30 sq mi), and in 2001 had an estimated population of 10,700. The inhabitants are citizens of Greece and speak Greek.

It is the most active volcanic centre in the Aegean Arc , though what remains today is largely a caldera. The name Santorini was given to it by the Venetians in the 13th century and is a reference to Saint Irene. Before then it was called Kallisti, Strongili or Thera.


"Minoan" Akrotiri

Excavations starting in 1967 at the site called Akrotiri under the late Prof. Spyridon Marinatos have made Thera the best-known "Minoan" site outside of Crete, the homeland of the culture. The island was not called Thera at the time. Only the southern tip of a large town has been uncovered, yet it has revealed complexes of buildings, streets and squares, with remains of walls standing as high as 8 meters, all entombed in the solidified ash of the famous eruption of Thera. The site was not a palace-complex such as are found in Crete, but its excellent masonry and fine wall-paintings show that this was no conglomeration of merchants' warehousing either. A loom-workshop suggests organized textile weaving for export.

The oldest signs of human settlement are Late Neolithic (4th millennium BC or earlier), but ca 20001650 BC Akrotiri developed into one of the Aegean's major Bronze Age ports, with recovered objects that had come not just from Crete but also from Anatolia, Cyprus, Syria and Egypt, from the Dodecanese and the Greek mainland.

Pipes with running water and water closets found on Thera are the oldest such utilities discovered.

Fragmentary wall-paintings at Akrotiri depict "Saffron-Gatherers" who offer their crocus-stamens to a seated lady, perhaps a goddess; in another house two antelopes, painted with the kind of confident, flowing decorative, calligraphic line one might expect in a Persian manuscript; the famous fresco of a fisherman with his double strings of fish strung by their gills; the flotilla of pleasure boats, accompanied by leaping dolphins, where ladies take their ease in the shade of light canopies. The Minoan frescos lack the insistent mythological content familiar in both Greek and Christian decor.

Volcanic eruption

The exact date of the Minoan eruption provides a fixed point for aligning the entire chronology of the 2nd millennium in the Aegean, because evidence of the eruption occurs throughout the region. Current opinion based on radiocarbon dating indicates that the eruption occurred between about 1650 and 1600 BC; information from dendrochronology has placed the eruption date in 1628 BC; and information from the Greenland ice cores, believed to be accurate to within 20 years, places the date at 1645 BC. These dates conflict, however, with the usual date from archaeology, which is a century or more later between 1500 BC and 1450 BC. There is an ongoing debate about the date and whether or not it caused the downfall of the Minoan Civilization.

The violent eruption was centred on a small island just North of the existing island of Nea Kameni in the centre of the caldera. The caldera itself was formed several hundred thousand years ago by collapse of the centre of a circular island caused by the emptying of the magma chamber during an eruption. It has been filled several times by ignimbrite since then and the process repeated, most recently 21,000 years ago. The northern part of the caldera was refilled by the volcano and then collapsed again during the Minoan eruption. Before the Minoan eruption, the caldera formed a nearly continuous ring with the only entrance between the tiny island of Aspronisi and Thera. The eruption destroyed the sections of the ring between Aspronisi and Therasia , and between Therasia and Thera, creating two new channels.

On Santorini, there is a deposit of white tephra from the eruption which is up to 60 metres thick overlying the soil marking the ground level before the eruption. The layer is divided into three fairly distinct bands indicating different phases of the eruption. The eruption would have caused a significant climate upset for the eastern Mediterranean region. It was one of the biggest volcanic eruptions on Earth in the last few thousand years.

A series of warning earthquakes must have been alarming enough and early enough before the eruption for all the residents to pack up and move out, as not a single body has been found at the Akrotiri site, and only one body has been found on Therasia. Differences in pottery styles between the beginning of the evacuation and the eruption, and preserved gullies in the ash indicate that the volcano may have given warning years in advance. It remains to be seen if further excavations will show bodies of people huddled along the coast, too late to get off in a boat to escape the volcano's fury, akin to the finds at Herculaneum, which was buried by the much smaller eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD.

The Minoan eruption created an Ultra-Plinian plume 30-35 km in height, and generated a 35 to 150 m high tsunami (estimates vary) that devastated the north coast of Crete, 70km (45 miles) away. The impact of the tsunami pummelled coastal towns such as Amnisos, where building walls have been knocked out of alignment. The tsunami would also certainly have eliminated every timber of the Minoan fleet along Crete's northern shore. On the island of Anaphi, 27 km to the east, ash layers 10 feet deep have been found, as well as pumice layers on slopes 250 meters above sea level. Elsewhere in the Mediterranean there are pumice deposits that could be caused by the Thera eruption [1]. Ash layers in cores drilled from the seabed in the 1960s suggest that the wind from the northwest in the troposphere blew the heaviest ashfall towards central and eastern Crete. In 1988, oceanographers Daniel Stanley and Harrison Cheng of the Smithsonian Institute pulled up cores from the Nile delta showing that the Theran ash reached all the way into Egypt.

The volume of ejecta is estimated to have been much more than four times what was blown into the stratosphere by Krakatau in 1883, a better-recorded event. Every human being, indeed every vestige of life, must have been eliminated or smothered in the ashfall, leaving an island that had essentially been sterilized.

Until 2003, the Minoan eruption of Thera was classified with Krakatau with a VEI=6. Recent studies of ashfall have upgraded the intensity of the eruption to a VEI=7, rivaling that of 1815's Tambora eruption. The 1815 eruption was of such a large volume and kicked so much sulfur dioxide into the air that it caused 1816's Year Without a Summer. Frost scars from the Minoan eruption show up in bristlecone pines in the Western United States, and traces of ash show up in the Greenland ice caps, indicating that the Minoan eruption had a worldwide impact. The impact of this colossal eruption on human civilizations at the time are not yet fully understood and still open to speculation. Some scientists correlate a volcanic winter from the Minoan eruption with Chinese records that say that during the last year of Xia China's King Jie (ruler), ice formed during the summer mornings and frosts occurred through July. Heavy rainfall toppled buildings, hot and cold weather arrived in disorder, and crops failed. These events then led to the toppling of Xia China by Tang, the founder of the Shang dynasty. Suggestions have also been made that the eruption of Thera and volcanic fallout coincides with the Titanomachy in Hesiod's Theogony, calamities of the Admonitions of Ipuwer of the Middle Kingdom of Egypt and the ten plagues of the Hebrew Exodus, with the Theran tsunamis possibly affecting the Red Sea to allow for the Hebrews' crossing. If the Exodus theory is to be believed, the duration of the Minoan eruption until its tsunami-generating caldera collapse makes it more likely that the volcano could have only caused one of biblical events and not both.

Furthermore, dates for the Exodus, 1491 BC by James Ussher in the Ussher-Lightfoot Calendar, 1250 BC by others, and the currently established Egyptian chronologies (as the Minoan downfall is dated to the reign of Thutmose III) may have to be revised to fit the scenario if the 1628 BC date is to be believed.

Starting with Spyridon Marinatos' 1939 landmark paper, this cataclysm at Santorini and its likelihood to have caused the fall of the Minoan Civilization is popularly regarded as the most likely source for Plato's story of Atlantis. The story is a literary device used to advance a rhetorical argument. The cataclysm of Santorini was certainly the kind of event that could change human ideas of what the gods are capable of, if provoked.

In 1704 an undersea volcano breached the sea surface forming the current centre of activity at Nea Kameni, and eruptions centred on it continue—three times in the twentieth century, the last being in 1950. Santorini was also struck by a devastating earthquake in 1956. At some time in the future, it will undoubtedly erupt violently again.

Greek, Byzantine and Ottoman Santorini

Over the following centuries, first Phoenicians, then Dorians, came to control the island. Thera, the main Hellenic city of the island, on Mesa Vouno, 396 m above sea level was founded in the 9th century BC by Dorian colonists whose leader was Theras, according to tradition, and continued to be inhabited until the early Byzantine period. According to Herodotus (4.149-165), following a drought of seven years, Thera sent out colonists who founded a number of cities in northern Africa, including Cyrene. As with other Greek territories, Santorini then was ruled by the Romans, the Byzantines, and the Franks. The island came under Ottoman rule in 1579.

Modern Santorini

Throughout the next few hundred years Santorini had a peaceful period of self-determination, although this was disrupted by the Nazi occupation during WWII. Santorini is now politically a part of modern Greece.

Major settlements in Santorini include Fira (Phira) , Oia, Emporio, Kamari, Imerovigli, Pyrgos and Therasia . Akrotiri is a major archaeological site with ruins from the Minoan era. The island has no rivers and water is scarce. Until the early nineties locals used to fill water tanks from the rain that fell on their roofs and courts, from small springs as well as by importing it from other areas of Greece. Nowadays, there is a desalination plant that provides running, yet nonpotable, water to most houses. The primary industry of Santorini is tourism, although there are some small wineries. The pumice quarries have been closed since 1986 in order to preserve the caldera of Santorini.


A cat in Santorini
A cat in Santorini

Last updated: 06-02-2005 04:33:35
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