Santorini is essentially what remains of an enormous volcanic explosion, destroying the earliest settlements on what was formerly a single island, and leading to the creation of the current geological caldera. Its spectacular physical beauty, along with a dynamic nightlife, have made the island one of Europe's tourist hotspots.
A giant central lagoon, more or less rectangular, and measuring about 12 km by 7 km (8 mi by 4 mi), is surrounded by 300 m (984 ft) high steep cliffs on three sides. The island slopes downward from the cliffs to the surrounding Aegean Sea. On the fourth side, the lagoon is separated from the sea by another much smaller island called Therasia; the lagoon merges with the sea in two places, in the northwest and southwest. The water in the centre of the lagoon is nearly 400 m (1300 ft) deep, thus making it a safe harbour for all kinds of shipping. The island's harbours are all in the lagoon and there are no ports on the outer perimeter of the island, and the capital, Fira, clings to the top of the cliff looking down on the lagoon. The volcanic rocks present from the prior eruptions feature olivine and have a notably small presence of horneblend.
It is the most active volcanic centre in the South Aegean Volcanic Arc, though what remains today is chiefly a water-filled caldera. The name Santorini was given it by the Latin empire in the thirteenth century, and is a reference to Saint Irene. Before then it was named Kallistē ("the most beautiful one"), Strongylē ("the circular one"), or Thera.
The island is the site of one of the largest volcanic eruptions the planet has ever seen: the Minoan eruption, which occurred some 3,500 years ago at the height of the Minoan civilization. The eruption left a large caldera surrounded by volcanic ash deposits hundreds of feet deep and may have led indirectly to the collapse of the Minoan civilization on the island of Crete, 110 km (70 mi) to the south, through the creation of a gigantic tsunami. Another popular theory holds that the Thera eruption is the source of the legend of Atlantis.
Ancient and Medieval Santorini
Santorini remained unoccupied throughout the rest of the Bronze Age, during which time the Greeks took over Crete. At Knossos, in a LMIIIA context (14th century BC), seven Linear B texts while calling upon "all the gods" make sure to grant primacy to an elsewhere-unattested entity called qe-ra-si-ja and, once, qe-ra-si-jo. If the endings -ia[s] and -ios represent an ethnikonic suffix, then this means "The One From Qeras[os]". If aspirated, *Qhera- would have become "Thera-" in later Greek. "Therasia" and its ethnikon "Therasios" are both attested in later Greek; and, since -sos was itself a genitive suffix in the Aegean Sprachbund, *Qeras[os] could also shrink to *Qera. (An alternate view takes qe-ra-si-ja and qe-ra-si-jo as proof of androgyny, and applies this name by similar arguments to the legendary seer, Tiresias. But these views are not mutually exclusive.) If qe-ra-si-ja was an ethnikon first, then in following him/her/it the Cretans also feared whence it came.
Over the centuries after the general catastrophes of 1200 BC, Phoenicians founded a site on Thera. Then, in the 9th century BC, Dorians founded the main Hellenic city - on Mesa Vouno, 396 m above sea level. This group later claimed that they had named the city and the island after their leader, Theras.
The Dorians have left a number of inscriptions incised in stone, in the vicinity of the temple of Apollo, attesting to pederastic relations between the authors and their eromenoi. These inscriptions, found by Friedrich Hiller von Gaertringen, have been thought by some archeologists to be of a ritual, celebratory nature, due to their large size, careful construction and - in some cases - execution by craftsmen other than the authors. Other historians, such as Dover and Henri-Irénée Marrou, have considered them to be pornographic in nature.
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.
In the 5th century BC, Dorian Thera did not join the Delian League with Athens; and during the Peloponnesian War, Thera sided with Dorian Sparta against Athens. The Athenians took the island during the war, but lost it again after the Battle of Aegospotami.
As with other Greek territories, Thera then was ruled by the Romans; and it passed to the eastern side of the Empire when it divided - which is now known as the Byzantine Empire.
During the Crusades, the Franks settled it, while in the 13th century AD, the Venetians annexed the isle to the Duchy of Naxos and renamed it "Santorini", that is "Saint Irene". Santorini came under Ottoman rule in 1579.
Santorini was united with Greece in 1912. Its major settlements include Fira (Phira), Oia,Emporio, Kamari, Imerovigli, Pyrgos and Therasia, and Akrotiri is a major archaeological site with ruins from the Minoan era. The island has no rivers and water is scarce; until the early 1990s locals filled water cisterns from the rain that fell on roofs and courts, from small springs, and with imported assistance from other areas of Greece. In recent years a desalination plant has provided running, yet nonpotable, water to most houses. The island's pumice quarries have been closed since 1986, in order to preserve the caldera, while it remains the home of a small but flourishing wine industry, based on the indigenous grape variety, Assyrtiko; vines of the Assyrtiko variety are extremely old and prove resistant to phylloxera, attributed by local winemakers to the well drained volcanic soil and its chemistry, and needed no replacement during the great phylloxera epidemic of the early 20th century. In their adaption to their habitat, such vines are planted far apart, as their principal source of moisture is dew, and are often trained in the shape of low spiralling baskets, with the grapes hanging inside to protect them from the winds. Also unique to the island is the red, sweet and extremely strong Vinsanto; white wines from the island are extremely dry with a strong, citrus scent, and the ashy volcanic soil gives the white wines a slight sulphurous flavour much like Vinsanto. It is not easy to be a wine grower in Santorini; the hot and dry climatological conditions give the soil a low productivity. The yield per acre is only 10 to 20% of the yields that are common in France and California, and the island's primary industry is tourism, particularly in the summer months.
In 1707 an undersea volcano breached the sea surface, forming the current centre of activity at Nea Kameni, and eruptions centred on it continue — the twentieth century saw three such, the last in 1950. At some time in the future, it will almost certainly erupt violently again. Santorini was also struck by a devastating earthquake in 1956. Although the volcano is at rest at the present time, at the current active crater (there are several former craters on Nea Kameni) steam and sulphur are given off.
The rediscovery of the violent explosion of Thera/Santorini spawned some speculative theories that aimed to connect the eruption with history and myth.
Development of the Exodus Connection
The eruption of Santorini has been connected to the Israelite Exodus from Egypt and to the Ipuwer Papyrus, which in turn have been connected to each other. These theories would tie the eruption to Pharaoh Ahmose I in the Second Intermediate Period of Egyptian History.
A 2006 documentary created by filmmaker Simcha Jacobovici, which explores new evidence in favor of the account of the Book of Exodus, "Exodus Decoded" (The History Channel, aired Sunday, 20 August 2006), investigates Egyptian records of the departure of the mysterious Semitic Hyksos.
Jacobovici suggests that the Hyksos and the Hebrews (whom he calls "Amo Israel", "the people of God") were one and the same, a thesis he supports with Egyptian-style signet rings uncovered in the Hyksos capital of Avaris. These signets read Yakov, similar to Hebrew name of the Biblical patriarch Jacob (Ya'aqov). Another standpoint for this theory is one of the important Hyksos cities, Avaris, which is called modernly Tel el-Yahudiyeh (meaning "mound of the Jews") known for its distinctive black and whiteware.
Jacobovici propounds the theory that the eruption of the Santorini Island volcano (c. 1623 B.C., +/-25) caused all the biblical plagues described against Egypt, redating the eruption to c. 1500 B.C.. The Hyksos, some of them Mycenaean Greek "Hebrews", fled Egypt (which they had in fact ruled for some time) after the eruption. Jacobovici (and fellow producer James Cameron) make a dramatic but rather thinly-supported presentation that the Hyksos were none other than the Israelites, who may have also been known as Habiru ("Hebrews"). The pharaoh with whom they identify the Pharaoh of the Exodus is Ahmose I, whose name means "the moon is born" in Egyptian, and "brother of Moses" in Hebrew. Rather than crossing the Red Sea, a marshy area in northern Egypt, known as the "Reed Sea" would likely have been alternately drained and flooded by Tsunamis caused by the caldera collapse and could have been crossed during the exodus.
Development of the Atlantis connection
It was not hard to see why this location was added to the list of possible locations for the fabled city of Atlantis. As with most myths, connections to real places are usually dubious, and many scientists are often skeptical. However some archaeological, seismological and vulcanological evidence (popularized on The History Channel show Lost Worlds episode "Atlantis") regarding Crete, Santorini and the description of Atlantis from Plato has been presented linking the Atlantis myth to Santorini:
- Plato's description of a palace where water was plentiful, collected from the surrounding hills, is a good match with the digs at Knossus and Akroteri. Plato also describes the palace of Atlantis as a multi-level acropolis sitting on a great, flattened, terraced hilltop. Again, this matches the palace at Knossus.
- In addition, the large foundation blocks of the palace walls were constructed of a crystalline stone called gypsum, quarried locally and cut into blocks with bronze saws. In Plato's Atlantis description, the external walls of the palace were said to "shine like silver," which is how a gypsum wall could have appeared as it glistened in the sun.
- Construction of the structure was advanced for its time period. The ancient engineers were able to control the path of air and light through the depths of the palace quarters using "pier and door partitioning", spiral staircase "light wells", and other features. Since violent quakes were common in the area, the palace engineers devised an anti-seismic technique, the buttressing of the unmortared walls with wooden frames and internal beams — another novelty for the age in which it was constructed.
Minoan civilization disappeared suddenly, at the height of its wealth and power. This was also similar to Plato's description of the fate of the "Atlanteans". Scientists theorize that multiple tsunamis hit the island of Crete, circa 1500 BC, that came from the direction of the island of Santorini (then called Thera) about 100 miles from Crete.
- Santorini is the site of a massive caldera with an island at its center. Vulcanologists have determined this ill-fated island was engulfed by the terrible ca. 1500 BC eruption and collapse of the Stroggilí volcano there, which affected the entire eastern Mediterranean, as far away as the Near East — possibly the most powerful eruption in recorded history, ejecting approximately 30 km³ (7 cu mi) of magma, up to 36 km (23 mi) high. Volcanic events of this magnitude are known to generate tsunamis. The eruption is also theorized by some to explain most of the seemingly miraculous Biblical events of Exodus (a controversial idea made popular by another 2006 History Channel documentary, "The Exodus Decoded" (see above for further detail).
- In 1966 at Akrotiri, archeologist James Maber Jr., uncovered an ancient city at the island's perimeter. The town remained substantially intact, like Pompeii, covered in ash. In fact, the entire island of Santorini was covered by volcanic deposits that fell during a single eruption. This layer of pumice and debris is over 100 feet deep. Underneath it, archeologists uncovered more homes with sophisticated plumbing and advanced engineering similar to those of Knossus. That only a single gold object was found hidden in flooring and a lack of human remains from the event indicate that an orderly evacuation was performed before the eruption.
- The island-city of Atlantis was described as being laid out in a series of concentric circles of land and water, each one connected to the sea by a deep canal. Docks for a huge number of ships, and a causeway for unloading cargo of said ships, was also described. Unearthed frescos from the island have depicted Santorini with a configuration that can be interpreted in this way. It also shows a huge city on the island, theorized by archaeologists to represent the center of the caldera.
- At Akrotiri there are multi-story buildings. This city may have had the earliest form of town planning (structured assembly of interconnecting roads and paths) ever discovered, again, with fresh running water and toilets in each house, leading to a sewer system. Many such sites have now been unearthed both on Crete and Santorini.
- Plato described quarries on the island of Atlantis where "rocks of white, black, and red" were extracted from the hills and used to construct a great island city. The description matches the rocks found on Santorini.
- The final clue is Plato's reference to Egypt as the source of the Atlantis myth, via Solon. The Egyptians called Atlantis "Kepchu", which also happens to be their name for the people of Crete. It is speculated that survivors of the Minoan volcanic disaster asked Egypt for help, since they were the only other civilization with high culture at the time.
The scientists Dr. J. Alexander MacGuuvry (archeologist), Dr. Colin F. MacDonald (archeologist), Professor Floyd McCoy (vulcanologist), professor Clairy Palyvou (architect), and Dr. Garassimos Papadopoulos (seismologist) are featured prominently in the documentary, and the above are examples of their research and conclusions.