Thera, once home to a prosperous and thriving ancient Minoan civilization and known today as Santorini, is a volcanic island situated in the in the southern Aegean Sea, about 200 km (120 mi) southeast of Greece’s mainland and about 110 km (68 mi) from the northern coast of Crete. With a long history of repeated volcanic activity, things finally came to an intense and devastating conclusion around 1628 BCE when the island erupted and literally blew up, sending tons of material in an ash plume into the atmosphere an estimated 30 to 35 km (19 to 22 mi) high which extended into the stratosphere. The magma underlying the volcano also came into contact with the waters of the shallow marine embayment, and resulted in a violent eruption of steam. And if that wasn’t enough, the eruption also generated a 35 to 150 m (115 to 492 ft) high tsunami that devastated the north coast of Crete and wreaked havoc on the coastlines of other Aegean islands. The exact date of the eruption has proved difficult to determine. Archaeologists have traditionally dated the event at approximately 1500 BCE, but radiocarbon dates, including analysis of an olive tree buried beneath a lava flow from the volcano, which gave a date between 1627 BCE and 1600 BCE, suggest a date over a century earlier than the one accepted by the archaeologists. Other evidence comes into play too. Just about the time of the radiocarbon-indicated date of the eruption, there is some evidence for a significant climatic event that took place in the Northern Hemisphere. The evidence for this includes the failure of crops in China, documented in Chinese records of the collapse of the Xia dynasty. There is also dendrochronological evidence from tree rings, specifically from bristlecone pines of California, bog oaks of Ireland, England, and Germany; and other kinds of trees in Sweden. The tree rings precisely date the event to 1628 BCE. But as always there is much disagreement, and it is important to remember that “One man’s modus ponens is another man’s modus tollens.”
There is less controversy about the archaeological evidence. Excavations on Thera at Akrotiri have revealed a finely developed Minoan culture. The settlement was destroyed in the eruption and buried in volcanic ash, which preserved the remains of numerous objects and artworks, including a number of frescoes. Only the southern end of what must have been a very large town has been uncovered, yet just this excavated part has revealed complexes of multi-level buildings, streets, and squares with remains of walls standing as high as eight meters, all entombed in the solidified ash of the eruption. To date no human remains have been found in any of the excavations, indicating that the population must have had enough advance warning of the eruption to escape. Quite a number of the houses in Akrotiri are large structures, some of them up to three stories high. In many of the houses there are still intact stone staircases and they contain huge ceramic storage jars, mills, and numerous pieces of pottery. The well preserved frescoes have kept their original colour as well. There was a highly developed drainage system and the people used pipes with running water. These water pipes and water closets found at Akrotiri are the oldest such utilities discovered so far. The pipes, running in twin systems, indicate that the Therans used both hot and cold water supplies. Most likely they obtained the hot water from geothermic sources, given the volcano’s proximity. Remember, we are talking about a civilization that existed around 1600 BCE. The people who lived here were clearly sophisticated and relatively wealthy people. They were no doubt a very successful maritime power involved in trading throughout the Aegean. The dual pipe system, their advanced architecture, and the apparent layout of the Akrotiri site bear a striking resemblance to Plato’s description of the legendary lost city of Atlantis, giving some credibility to the idea of the Minoans as the culture which primarily inspired the Atlantis legend.
Legend it was and legend it remains. Now it’s quite obvious that some sort of historical event and perhaps place gave rise to that legend, but all the New Age mysticism and stories about a civilization much more advanced than ours is pure poppycock and has absolutely no basis in fact, truth or archaeological evidence. The Atlantis of Edgar Cayce and others, with its great golden city, crystal lasers and advanced civilization shining in the middle of the ocean that supposedly gave birth to all races of men and all subsequent civilizations is as much a myth as Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden. 90% of the material one can research about Atlantis is a pile of unsubstantiated garbage and wishful thinking. A civilization so advanced as that fantasized by Atlantis believers would have left some sort of archaeological traces. Somewhere. But there are absolutely none. Archaeology offers us only the evidence of the Minoan culture. One thing is 100% certain. There was never an island, as some people steadfastly believe, in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. The geological structure of the sea bed makes it impossible for such an island ever to have existed and furthermore no archaeological evidence for such an island or civilization has ever been found on the ocean floor. Nor will it ever be found.
I visited Thera in October of 1992. The approach to the island on the ferry was breathtaking, as was the view from up upon the volcanic cliffs. And, although very oriented towards the tourist trade and the day cruses from Heraklion (Iraklio) on Crete, the island has many other interesting things to offer if one has the time and the desire to do a bit exploring. But like spending a day wandering around the crater on Mount Vesuvius, just hope your visit to Thera doesn’t coincide with the next major eruption. That would be experiencing history just a little too up close and personal…
Photo of the massive volcanic cliffs inside the caldera of Santorini taken in October 1992
Photo of the ferry port taken from high up on the cliffs in October 1992.
Photo of the town of Fira, perched upon the volcanic cliffs of Santorini taken in October 1992.
Photo of the still active volcanic islands in the center of the caldera of Santorini, the larger Nea Kameni in the foreground and the smaller Palea Kameni behind it, taken in October 1992.
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