Santorini (Greek: Σαντορίνη), classically Thera, and officially Thira (Greek: Θήρα) southeast of Greece’s mainland.
The island is the site of one of the largest volcanic eruptions in recorded history: the Minoan eruption (sometimes called the Thera eruption), which occurred some 3600 years ago at the height of the Minoan civilization. The eruption left a large caldera surrounded by volcanic ash deposits hundreds of metres deep and may have led indirectly to the collapse of the Minoan civilization on the island of Crete, 110 km (68 mi) to the south, through a gigantic tsunami. Another popular theory holds that the Thera eruption is the source of the legend of Atlantis.
Excavations starting in 1967 at the site called Akrotiri under the late Professor Spyridon Marinatos have made Thera the best-known Minoan site outside of Crete, the homeland of the culture. The island was not known as Thera at this time. Only the southern tip of a large town has been uncovered, yet it has revealed complexes of multi-level buildings, streets, and squares with remains of walls standing as high as eight metres, 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 certainly no conglomeration of merchants’ warehousing either. A loom-workshop suggests organized textile weaving for export. This Bronze Age civilization thrived between 3000 to 2000 BC, and reached its peak in the period 2000 to 1580 BC.
Many of the houses in Akrotiri are major structures, some amongst them three stories high. Its streets, squares, and walls were preserved in the layers of ejecta, sometimes as tall as eight metres, and indicating this was a major town. In many houses stone staircases are still intact, and they contain huge ceramic storage jars (pithoi), mills, and pottery. Noted archaeological remains found in Akrotiri are wall paintings or frescoes, which have kept their original colour well, as they were preserved under many metres of volcanic ash. The town also had a highly developed drainage system and, judging from the fine artwork, its citizens were clearly sophisticated and relatively wealthy people.
Pipes with running water and water closets found at Akrotiri are the oldest such utilities discovered. The pipes run in twin systems, indicating that the Therans used both hot and cold water supplies; the origin of the hot water probably was geothermic, given the volcano’s proximity. The dual pipe system, the advanced architecture, and the apparent layout of the Akrotiri find resemble Plato’s description of the legendary lost city of Atlantis, further indicating the Minoans as the culture which primarily inspired the Atlantis legend.
Fragmentary wall-paintings at Akrotiri lack the insistent religious or mythological content familiar in Classical Greek décor. Instead, the Minoan frescoes depict “Saffron-Gatherers”, who offer their crocus-stamens to a seated lady, perhaps a goddess. Crocus has been discovered to have many medicinal values including the relief of menstrual pain. This has led many archaeologists to believe that the fresco of the saffron/crocus gatherers is a coming of age fresco dealing with female pubescence. In another house are two antelopes, painted with a kind of confident, flowing, decorative, calligraphic line, the famous fresco of a fisherman with his double strings of fish strung by their gills, and the flotilla of pleasure boats, accompanied by leaping dolphins, where ladies take their ease in the shade of light canopies, among other frescoes.
The well preserved ruins of the ancient town often are compared to the spectacular ruins at Pompeii in Italy. The canopy covering the ruins collapsed in an accident in September 2005, killing one tourist and injuring seven more. The site was closed for almost seven years while a new canopy was built. The site was re-opened in April 2012.
The oldest signs of human settlement are Late Neolithic (4th millennium BC or earlier), but ca. 2000–1650 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 as well as from the Dodecanese and the Greek mainland.
Dating of the Bronze Age eruption
The Minoan eruption provides a fixed point for the chronology of the second millennium BC in the Aegean, because evidence of the eruption occurs throughout the region and the site itself contains material culture from outside. The eruption occurred during the “Late Minoan IA” period at Crete and the “Late Cycladic I” period in the surrounding islands.
Archaeological evidence, based on the established chronology of Bronze Age Mediterranean cultures dates the eruption to around 1500 BC. These dates, however, conflict with radiocarbon dating which indicates that the eruption occurred about 1645–1600 BC. Around the time of the radiocarbon-indicated date of the eruption, there is evidence for a significant climatic event in the Northern Hemisphere. The evidence includes failure of crops in China, as well as evidence from tree rings. The tree rings date the climatic event to 1628 BC.
Ancient and Medieval Santorini
In his Argonautica, written in Hellenistic Egypt in the 3rd century BC, Apollonius Rhodius includes an origin and sovereignty myth of Thera being given by Triton in Libya to the Greek Argonaut Euphemus, son of Poseidon, in the form of a clod of dirt. After carrying the dirt next to his heart for several days, Euphemus dreamt that he nursed the dirt with milk from his breast, and that the dirt turned into a beautiful woman with whom he had sex. The woman then told him that she was a daughter of Triton named Kalliste, and that when he threw the dirt into the sea it would grow into an island for his descendants to live on. The poem goes on to claim that the island was named Thera after Euphemus’ descendant Theras, son of Autesion, the leader of a group of refugee settlers from Lemnos.
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 lovers (eromenoi). These inscriptions, found by Friedrich Hiller von Gaertringen, have been thought by some archaeologists 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. According to Herodotus, 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. During the Hellenistic period, the island was a major naval base for the Ptolemaic Egypt.
As with other Greek territories, Thera then was ruled by the Romans. When the Roman Empire was divided, the island passed to the eastern side of the Empire which today is known as the Byzantine Empire. According to George Cedrenus, the volcano erupted again in the summer of 727, the tenth year of the reign of Leo III the Isaurian. He writes: “In the same year, in the summer, a vapour like an oven’s fire boiled up for days out of the middle of the islands of Thera and Therasia from the depths of the sea, and the whole place burned like fire, little by little thickening and turning to stone, and the air seemed to be a fiery torch.”
During the Crusades, the “Franks” – i. e. Catholic Western Europeans – annexed the isle to the Duchy of Naxos and renamed it “Santorini”, that is “Saint Irene”. Santorini came under Ottoman rule in 1579.