View from the top of Thira
Santorini is a small, circular group of volcanic islands located in the Aegean Sea, 75 km south-east of the Greek mainland, (latitude: 35.25N - longitude: 25.20E). It is also known by the name of the largest island in the archipelago, Thira or Thera (Θηρα).
It is the southernmost member of the Cyclades group of islands, with an area of approximately 80 kmē (30 sq mi) and in 2001 had an estimated population of 10,700. The inhabitants are citizens of Greece and speak Greek.
It is the most active volcanic centre in the Aegean Arc, though what remains today is largely a caldera. The name Santorini was given to it by the Venetians in the 13th century and is a reference to Saint Irene, before then it was called Kallisti or Thera.
Linear A etched on a vase found in Akrotiri
Excavations starting in 1967 at the site called Akrotiri under the late Prof. Spyridon Marinatos have made Thera the best-known "Minoan" site off Crete, the homeland of the culture. The island was not called Thera at the time. Only the southern tip of a large town has been uncovered, yet it has revealed complexes of buildings, streets and squares, with remains of walls standing as high as 8 meters, 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 no conglomeration of merchants' warehousing either. A loom-workshop suggests organized textile weaving for export.
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, from the Dodecanese and the Greek mainland.
Pipes with running water and water closets found on Thera are the oldest such utilities discovered.
Fragmentary wall-paintings at Akrotiri depict "Saffron-Gatherers" who offer their crocus -stamens to a seated lady, perhaps a goddess; in another house two antelopes, painted with the kind of confident, flowing decorative, calligraphic line one might expect in a Persian manuscript; the famous fresco of a fisherman with his double strings of fish strung by their gills; the flotilla of pleasure boats, accompanied by leaping dolphins, where ladies take their ease in the shade of light canopies. The Minoan frescos lack the insistent mythological content failiar in both Greek and Christian decor.
Oia on the edge of the caldera surrounded by flowers
The exact date of the Minoan eruption provides a fixed point for aligning the entire chronology of the 2nd millennium Aegean, because evidence of the eruption occurs throughout the region. Current opinion based on radiocarbon dating indicates that the eruption occurred between about 1650 and 1600 BC; this conflicts, however, with the usual date from archaeology, which is a century or more later. There is an ongoing debate about the date.
After a series of warning earthquakes that were alarming enough for all the residents to pack up and move out, the eruption created a 100 to 150m high tsunami that devastated the north coast of Crete, 70km (45 miles) away, and would certainly have eliminated every timber of the Minoan fleet along Crete's northern shore. On the island of Anaphi, 27 km to the east, pumice layers have been identified on slopes 250 meters above sea level. Elsewhere in the Mediterranean there are pumice deposits that could be caused by the Thera eruption  (http://baheyeldin.com/science/pumice-on-mediterranean-coast.html). Ash layers in cores drilled from the seabed in the 1960s suggest that the wind from the northwest blew the heaviest ashfall towards central and eastern Crete. The volume of ejecta is estimated to have been much more than four times what was blown into the stratosphere by Krakatau in 1883, a better-recorded event. Every human being, indeed every vestige of life, must have been eliminated or smothered in the ashfall, leaving an island that had essentially been sterilized.
Landsat photo of Santorini. The largest island is Thera, the smaller island top left is Therasia. The three small islands are Aspronisi (in the southern channel between Terasia and Tera), Palea Kameni and Nea Kameni (nearest the centre of the caldera). There are also two cruise liners visible in the enlarged picture
The violent eruption was centred on a small island just North of the existing island of Nea Kameni in the centre of the caldera. The caldera itself was formed several hundred thousand years ago by collapse of the centre of a circular island caused by the emptying of the magma chamber during an eruption. It has been filled several times by ignimbrite since then and the process repeated, most recently 21,000 years ago.
There have been suggestions that the eruption of Thera coincides with the Exodus of the Hebrew people from Egypt, possibly affecting the tides of the Red Sea to allow for their crossing.
Before the Minoan eruption, the caldera formed a nearly continuous ring with the only entrance between the tiny island of Aspronisi and Thera. The eruption destroyed the sections of the ring between Aspronisi and Therasia, and between Therasia and Thera, creating two new channels.
There is a deposit of white tephra from the eruption which is up to 60 metres thick overlaying the soil marking the ground level before the eruption. The layer is divided into three fairly distinct bands indicating different phases of the eruption. The eruption would have caused a significant climate upset for the eastern Mediterranean region. It was one of the biggest volcanic eruptions on Earth in the last few thousand years.
This cataclysm at Santorini is popularly regarded as the most likely source for Plato's literary parable of Atlantis, disregarded as a literary trope to advance a rhetorical argument. It was certainly the kind of event that changes human ideas of what the gods are capable of, if provoked.
In 1704 an undersea volcano breached the sea surface forming the current centre of activity at Nea Kameni, and eruptions centred on it continue — three times in the twentieth century, the last being in 1950. Santorini was also struck by a devastating earthquake in 1956. At some time in the future, it will undoubtedly erupt violently again.
Greek, Byzantine and Ottoman Santorini
Over the following centuries, first Phoenicians, then Dorians, came to control the island. Thera, the main Hellenic city of the island, on Mesa Vouno, 396 m above sea level was founded in the 9th century BC by Dorian colonists whose leader was Theras, according to tradition, and continued to be inhabited until the early Byzantine period. 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. As with other Greek territories, Santorini then was ruled by the Romans, the Byzantines (who introduced Christianity in the 3rd century AD), and the Franks (who in the 12th century named it Santorini). The island came under Ottoman rule in 1579.
Throughout the next few hundred years Santorini had a peaceful period of self-determination, although this was disrupted by the Nazi occupation during WWII. Santorini is now politically a part of modern Greece.
Major settlements in Santorini include Fira (Phira), Oia and Therasia. Akrotiri is a major archaeological site with ruins from the Minoan era. The island has no rivers and water is scarce. Until the early nineties locals used to fill water tanks from the rain that fell on their roofs and courts, from small springs as well as by importing it from other areas of Greece. Nowadays, there is a desalination factory that provides running, yet nonpotable, water to most houses. The primary industry of Santorini is tourism, although there are some small wineries and pumice quarries.
- Hellenic Ministry of Culture: Akrotiri of Thera (http://www.culture.gr/2/21/211/21121a/e211ua08.html): fully illustrated capsule of the finds
- Broad, William J.: Scientists Revisit an Aegean Eruption Far Worse Than Krakatoa October 21, 2003, The New York Times. Available: http://www.nytimes.com/2003/10/21/science/earth/21VOLC.html?pagewanted=1&8dpc October 21, 2003.
- Sturt Manning, Test of Time: (http://www.personal.rdg.ac.uk/~lasmanng/testoftime.html#News) dating the Thera eruption, and a Bronze Age chronology for the Aegean (technical)
- Is Pumice on the Southern Mediterranean coast due to Thera? (http://baheyeldin.com/science/pumice-on-mediterranean-coast.html)
- Forsyth, Phyllis Y.: Thera in the Bronze Age, Peter Lang Pub Inc, New York 1997. ISBN 0820448893
- Santorini Pictures (http://www.hickerphoto.com/categories.php?cat_id=160)
- The Saffron Gathers (http://www.saffronspecialist.co.uk/Information/Saffron_A-Z/S.htm) Saffron A-Z
- Minoan Crete (http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/mino/hd_mino.htm) Net Museum