Have you ever thought that the world-famous Caldera of Santorini with its magical sunset and astonishing natural beauty is a result of sudden, violent eruptions that have destroyed the island more than once in the past? Let us introduce you to the history of Thira, more commonly known with its Latin name Santorini, and how its people managed to co-exist with the ever-going danger of a roaring volcano.
Santorini or Thira is one of the ten volcanoes to be found in Greece and one of the five still active ones! Perhaps the most frequent and brutal eruptions happened on Thira, resulting in the special formation of the island, its unusual shape and the creation of its spectacular caldera. Santorini is included in the Decade Volcanoes, a volcano-group marked by scientists (IAVCEI) as particularly interesting because of their characteristics and history. The island of Thira has always been an important piece of land and a safe port due to its location in the middle of the Aegean archipelago, its close distance to the rest of the Cycladic islands and its proximity to the island of Crete. Therefore, humans quickly decided to settle on this small island, unaware of the dangers lurking.
Thira was not always a volcanic island. Millions of years ago, at the place where Santorini is today, there used to be a small island similar to the rest of Cyclades. This 'parent' island is nowadays identified as the mountains of Mesa Vouno and Profitis Ilias. The volcanic activity on the island started with the subduction of the African tectonic plate under the Eurasian. Then, a series of eruptions and magma flows formed a shield volcano with a slightly conical shape. The very structure of the island and the shift of volcanic activity about 400,000 years ago, set on track a series of brutal eruptions that changed dramatically the morphology of Thira. Geologists suggest that more than twelve massively explosive eruptions gradually formed the caldera and submerged almost the entire central part of the volcano.
Eventually, Santorini was formed into a circular island having a single entrance to an inner sea channel around the still above-the-water tip of the volcano, operating as a welcoming and safe port. During the Minoan Bronze Age, the Minoan civilization was at its peak, controlling the area of the Aegean and setting a sea-trading network, something quite revolutionary for the time. One of the most important settlements was Akrotiri at the southeast part of the island. The settlement was of great importance, covering quite a significant area with hundreds of houses, public squares, and palace complexes, reflecting a prosperous civilization with high standards of living. Suddenly, another huge explosion sealed the fate of the inhabitants. Due to the discovery of a carbonized olive tree branch, scientists dated the eruption between 1627 to 1600 BC. The eruption was so brutal that changed once more the morphology of the island by sinking a vast area and creating the islands of Therasia, Kameni, and Aspronisi.
Thira island before the Minoan eruption - credits: www.7reasons.net
The magnitude of this eruption is quite hard to know in detail, but comparisons to others outline a rough picture. It was a colossal eruption, not even close to the famous eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD, and it started a sequence of events noticeable from almost every corner of the world! The energy of the explosion could be roughly measured to 40 atomic bombs exploding simultaneously. The amount of ash escaped in the Earth's atmosphere caused an immediate drop in the globe's temperature and even changed the color of the sky. The immediate consequence was the massive tsunamis that swept the lands of the Aegean. The biggest hit was taken by Crete due to the absence of an island in between to reduce the speed of the waves. The entire north side of Crete was hit by enormous waves, destroying miles of land. This event, along with the deposition of volcanic ash poisoning the ground and burning the crops, signified the end of the mighty Minoan civilization.
Reconstruction of Akrotiri settlement - credits: www.7reasons.net
As mentioned before, the eruption was noticed by almost everyone around the world. Archaeologists digging across the Mediterranean region, always deal with the tephra layer related to Thira's eruption, from the shores of the Black Sea to the lands of Africa and Portugal. Researchers have found ash layers as far as Iceland, and even have managed to document the extension of the event by studying ice cores drilled from the glaciers of the Arctic and Antarctica! Ancient Chinese literature records the sudden change of the Earth's climate and scholars go as far as associating the eruption with the Plagues of Egypt and the Exodus of the Israelites! The eruption did not only affect the globe environmentally but also shook the political and social course of humanity. Excavations on the site of Akrotiri unearthed the evidence of the glorious civilization that perished after the eruption. Buried under 60 meters of ash, the settlement of Akrotiri got preserved at an outstanding level, including houses more than two-stories high, roads, public facilities, priceless artifacts, and impressive frescoes. The site of Akrotiri is the Aegean equivalent of Pompeii, capable of time-traveling the visitor back to the Bronze Age!
Despite the series of catastrophic events that occurred throughout the island's history, Santorini nowadays is one of the most majestic places to be around the world! The volcano stands as both a curse and a blessing, contributing to the morphology of the island, so widely admired around the world. The magmatic depositions gradually enriched the soil with nutrients, helping that way the cultivation of specific varieties of crops, giving to the wine of Santorini its exquisite taste and a huge range of local products! Next time you find yourselves enjoying the Mediterranean sunset on the island's caldera, take some time to realize the scale of this natural wonder and do not miss the chance to visit Akrotiri!