Santorini, on the Volcano

03/05/2015 17:36

Formerly Thera, or Santorini how the Venetians called it, was known before as Kallisté, the most beautiful, or Strongylé, the round one, thus was its perimeter. But this condition would change after the great eruption 1600 years before our era hit the isle and for some would explain the myth of Atlantis.

The cataclysm completely transformed the face of the island. What once was the top of the volcano became a vast crater flooded by the Aegean waters. This is the largest explosion of volcanic origin which is known in the ancient world, as only comparable to that caused the disappearance of Krakatoa, between Java and Sumatra, in 1883. Their immediate effects were even to be felt in China, the smoke darkened the skies of Egypt for nine days and in the Aegean caused a tsunami that devastated Minoan civilization in Crete. The round Strongylé was split in the islands now known as Santorini, Therasia and Paleo and Nea Kameni, plus some isolated rocks. The volcano activity has been incessant. In his Roman History the historian Cassius Dio cited the emergence of a new island in the centre of the caldera, it was Nea Kameni. In 1956 an earthquake that surpassed the seven degrees on the Richter scale caused forty-eight deaths remembering that there is activity. Today, the fumaroles still smoke, extending the characteristic sulphur smell in the crater.

The thesis linking the eruption of Thera with the end of Atlantis are, as all, merely speculative. Greek archaeologist Spyridon Marinatos and seismologist Angelos Galanopoulos tried to link in the past century the texts of Plato, in collecting the knowledge transmitted to Solon by Egyptian priests of Sais, with the Aegean cataclysm, which would mean that the legendary Atlantis people would not be nobody else than those who lived during the height of the Minoan culture.

In any case the great eruption of Thera must have been preceded by significant earthquakes. In 1860 the remains of a city in the south of the island were discovered near the village of Akrotiri, taking the name. Since 1967 excavations carried on by the aforementioned archaeologist Spyridon Marinatos accelerated. The work revealed that unlike Pompeii's catastrophe the population had enough time to leave the island because under the city, buried by a thick layer of ash, no bodies or any valuable object were found. The pithoi, abandoned vessels were too large to carry and easy to made again. The city was possibly founded around the second millennium BC and corresponds to the end of the Bronze Age and Minoan Neopalatial period, even centuries before the town of Thera was linked with the Cycladic culture that produced the stylized anthropomorphic statuettes on display in museums in the islands. Akrotiri was culturally linked to Crete, the frescoes found in the excavations reminisce those of the palace of Knossos. In the vicinity of the triangular square where frescos were found, one of the buildings revealed its liturgical use based on the narration of the paintings. Another one depicts two young men engaged in boxing combat as many others found in Egypt. In some also appear maidens, lions and monkeys. And others show scenes of maritime navigation between the islands.  

After the cataclysm Thera became a desert until the ninth century BC, when Sparta founded there a colony. They chose one of the highest hills in the south of the crater from where the whole island is practically seen. They called it Mesa Vouna, the city of the hill. Currently it’s reached following the road from Kamari which zigzags for a few miles. Then a path continues ascending until a Byzantine basilica. Excavations were started by the German archaeologist Hiller von Gaertringen in 1896 and uncovered ancient temples and shrines of the Ptolemaic period, when Thera was a dependency of the Greek kings of Egypt. Right at the entrance of the city the Hero of Artemidoros shows reliefs of an eagle, a lion and a dolphin. Rome also left its footsteps in the bathrooms and new sanctuaries. Nor miss a theatre with excellent views over the sea.

If Linear B alphabet written tablets were found in Akrotiri in the in ancient Thera those were examples of ancient Greek script derived from the Phoenician alphabet.

Today the clapboards have been replaced by credit cards at shops in the streets of modern Thera, Fira, where the vast majority of them are intended to seasonal activity directed at tourism. Mainly from Athens, many employers and workers previously landed on the arrival of the first visitors. Fira does exist just between April and October and only then turns to its natural balcony over the crater, one thousand two hundred feet above the sea level. Or the equivalent six hundred steps stair. A myriad of terraces of bars, restaurants and hotels overlook the steep hillside which ends beside the waters that surround the small port city. Following the crater outline just half a dozen parallel streets cross it to reach the Mitropoli, Fira’s Cathedral. Its narrowness keeps the road traffic away. But Fira has grown northward into the much quieter Firostefani, where local children play in the squares, away from the hordes that cruises left on ground every day and some signals try to steer downtown those who have lost their way.

However the authentic Aegean postcard is found in northern Oia, where the whitewashed walls of the blue-domed churches have another deep blue background: the sea. Oia is a smaller version of Fira, as this rests on vertigo crater walls pointing to the caldera of the volcano. Its shops have the same orientation and the same kind of customers. Streets are probably more convoluted and should add more degrees of unevenness also leading to a port that seems far from the heights, it’s Ammoudi.

Near Oia, Finikia is a haven of peace in Santorini. Its streets are like those of Fira or Oia but hidden from the beaten track, there are no shops or people strolling around. Just few hostels and an austere and lonely bar on the outskirts that promises live music in the evening.

Pyrgos is a picturesque village on a promontory almost in the geographical centre of Santorini. Its winding streets and covered passages climb up to the top overlooking the old Venetian kastro beside the church and the Orthodox Icon Museum.

In Fira when the temperature begins to drop while the sun begins its daily retirement, people turn to the terraces and balconies overlooking the caldera. Behind the silhouettes of Nea Kameni and Therasia the sun resumes its declining path toward the horizon accompanied by a gradual change in the daylight colour. New sun worshipers point their cameras and mobile phones to the last light of the day as if it was a last prayer or a poem left by Greek poet Nikolaos Calas:

From here the island looks dramatically at the volcano that created it

And follows its work with the perfection of bewitching supremacy

© J.L.Nicolas


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