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Volume 24, Number 4July/August 1973

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Written by Robert Arndt
Photographed by Robert Azzi

In the Eastern Mediterranean, about midway between Crete, the Greek mainland and the Turkish coast, is an island that the gods and the Greek Government call Thera. To romantics, and some scholars, it may be lost Atlantis (Aramco World , May-June 1972). To the rest of us, that island is Santorin, the most fascinating—and most fateful—of the circle of Aegean islands known as the Cyclades.

From the air, Santorin looks like a ragged crescent, open toward the west. Between the crescent's points lies the satellite island of Therasia, and just below Therasia the tiny islet of Aspronisi. With Santorin itself, these two islands define an oblong patch of water almost completely surrounded by land. In its center lie two further islands that even from a 5,000-foot height seem different from the others: hard, black, and without sign of habitation.

Therasia from the west, and Santorin from north, east and south, slope gently upward from the Aegean toward the 32 square miles of encircled sea; there the land plunges suddenly downward in near-vertical cliffs.

From this aerial perspective, it is easy to believe what we are told: that we are looking at the three remaining fragments of what was once a single, roughly circular volcanic island; that in one cataclysmic explosion the volcano blew its insides out and collapsed into the sea, leaving only this broken ring of sloping shore above water. The Atlantis legend begins to appear credible.

We can see more if we sail to Santorin. Furrowing the blue-black water, our ship sails through one of the gaps in the island ring, into the circle of sea, into the ancient crater of what was once—and someday may again be—the most violent volcano on earth since the last ice age. The underwater crater, or caldera, is so deep no ship can anchor in it—up to 1300 feet in places—and small boats ferry us ashore. There we stand and look up at the sheer 800-foot cliff, brown, gray, red, yellow, black and dazzling white, at whose top edge is perched Santorin's largest town, Phira, dazzling too in its coat of whitewash.

This cliff that rings the caldera is the island's history made manifest. Formed by the shearing collapse of most of the volcano into its own empty magma chamber, it is composed of layer upon layer of lava, slag, pumice and ash. The cliff's uppermost level is the surface of all of Santorin—a layer of ash still 100 to 150 feet deep after the erosion of 35 centuries.

No aspect of past or present life on this small tatter of land can be considered separately from the one central fact of the volcano that was—and is—Santorin. The volcano gave the island its crops, its exports, its terrain, its very shape—and the volcano, growing even now in the center of the caldera, has the last and final word on the future of Santorin.

For the present, though, we face more than a mile of steep, winding step-street—587 steps—that takes us zigzagging up the cliff to Phira, where new construction, financed by a growing influx of summer visitors, is well on the way to wiping out the signs of the 1956 earthquake, when Santorin's sleeping monster stirred and 2,000 houses were leveled in 45 terrible seconds Phira's streets, whitewashed along the gutters, are of black lava pebbles tamped into concrete, and its fieldstone lanes follow their own random paths as they trickle over the lip of the cliff and downwards from house to house and chapel to chapel. Many of the houses, square and flat-roofed, are built directly into the cliff, one atop the other at irregular angles; others, free-standing, are simple rectangles with barrel-vaulted roofs—a style that requires no timber for beams and that resists earthquake shock as well. All the houses are whitewashed every spring, and from a distance the whole town looks as though a giant hand had scattered sugar cubes along the cliff-edge to gleam in the.

From the cliffs around the caldera, the land slopes back again toward the Aegean in gentle hills. Their every inch is terraced, held back by dry walls of red and black lava lumps, often six feet high. Even the dry stream-beds are lined with rock against the winter rains, for all of Santorin's soil is weathered volcanic ash, light, mineral-rich and dry; one good rain can erode a ravine six feet deep in an unprotected surface. From Mount Elias, the island's highest point and site of a windblown 250-year-old monastery, the terrace walls look like flow ripples on a sandy stream bottom. Less pleasant from a closer viewpoint, though, the terracing, Japanese in its careful intensity, makes it almost impossible to walk crosscountry on the island, unless one sticks to the stream-beds or goes only downhill. And then the fields themselves make walking difficult: cultivated for centuries, the loosened, almost fluffy soil drags on our feet like snow.

What grows best in this soil is grapes, and on Santorin they are cultivated in a manner used nowhere else in the world. The vines are trained to form round baskets three feet in diameter and—in the case of older plants—two feet high or more. Each year's new growth is interwoven with the old. The grapes grow inside these dense, earth-floored wicker circles, protected against Santorin's steady north wind and shaded from the worst of the sun. The shade also conserves precious dew, important on an island with no summer rainfall and only one year-round stream. In three wineries, thirsty Santorinians make four different wines from these grapes: a broad-shouldered wine called brusko, halfway between rose and red; a rough, dry, full-bodied red wine locally called "bordeaux"; a delicious dry, fruity white wine, called nikteri ("up all night"), because the grapes have to be pressed as soon as they are picked; and visanto, a sweet, sherry-like wine made from grapes dried almost to raisins before pressing.

But although some of the wine is left undrunk for export (along with tomatoes and early spring peas), Santorin's most important product is itself. The billions of tons of volcanic ash that mantle the island are the main ingredient of pozzolanic cement, used in underwater construction for its property of growing harder the wetter it gets; shiploads of it have left the island for Athens every week since the 1860's, when the builders of the Suez Canal first mined ash from the southern cliffs of Therasia. Santorinians put the pozzolana to good use as well. Those who build a boathouse, a shed, or their home into the ash layer, either on the cliffs or in one of the ravines that gash the island, need only wipe the walls of the newly excavated rooms with a wet cloth to "plaster" them permanently, and any light concrete construction requires only lime and a few shovelfuls of this island topsoil. Since half of Santorin's population of 13,000 left the island after the 1956 earthquake, many of the remaining farmers use areas of vacant land as water catchment surfaces, plastering them with concrete and leading the winter rains into cisterns for crop irrigation during the short, early growing season. The ash, soft enough to dig with one's hands, also allows Santorinians to excavate temporary shelters, dug into terraces or road embankments, to protect themselves, their mules or donkeys, or an occasional load of hay or basket of grapes from wind or sun. The island is dotted with these arched niches, some large enough for a mule and wagon; one or two have been made into roadside shrines. The ash dug out to make them is generally used for construction.

Commercially, large quantities of ash are mined in several cliffside quarries near Phira, by methods of hair-raising simplicity. Crews of workmen dig tunnels from the cliff face horizontally into the lowest part of the ash layer, then cross them with more tunnels to form a grid that seriously weakens the foundations of a large volume of ash. The foreman's senses are sharpened by years of experience and the crudest kind of good luck; when he feels the time is right, tunneling stops and the workmen withdraw. Cracks appear in the pillars of ash that separate the tunnels, and soon the entire mass collapses, to be bulldozed or shoveled down the cliff to the ships. Pumice, which underlies the ash layer all over Santorin in depths of 12 to 15 feet, is also exported, used in building for its lightness and its insulating properties and in furniture-making as a finishing agent. Shoals of floating pumice pebbles often stain the surface of the water in the caldera below Phira, the leftover debris of a departed shipload, and not a few tourists have innocently stepped off the concrete dock onto the apparently solid, concrete-colored layer of floating stone.

The mass of ash and pumice that covers the island, along with the 32-square-mile caldera, are the evidence still at hand today for the Santorin volcano's latest major eruption, which probably took place in two phases, some 30 years apart, around 1500 B.C. For violence and sheer destructive power, nothing like that eruption has been seen since the glaciers last receded, and no other eruption has had such a momentous effect on history. The eruption of Krakatoa in 1883, carefully observed and well-documented, was the similarly paroxysmal end of a volcano of the Santorin type. There, the final explosion was heard over 3,000 miles away; windblown ash fell 3,300 miles away; seaborne islands of pumice spread over 100,000 square miles; tidal waves killed more than -36,000 people; and airblast cracked house walls 100 miles from the volcano. Yet Krakatoa's coat of ash was only 200 feet deep immediately after the eruption; at Krakatoa only eight square miles of land collapsed into the sea—a quarter of the area lost in the Santorin eruption, whose soft ash layer now, three and a half millennia later, is still up to 150 feet thick. The final explosion of the Santorin volcano must have been of unimaginable, unspeakable violence.

It began, according to archeological evidence, with an earthquake—a shift in the deep-lying Miocene limestone basement of the Aegean that somehow altered the balance of huge underground forces. Earthquakes are a common phenomenon in much of the Near and Middle East (Aramco World, May-June, 1971) and Santorin has the misfortune of lying above the intersection of two geologic faults. At this spot the volcano had been rebuilding itself after its last great eruption sometime around 23,000 B.C., and its lately dormant cone had formed an island so round, so beautifully watered and wooded and so delightful that later legend called it Strongyle (Round Island) or Kalliste (Most Beautiful). The earthquake rattled the island severely, and shattered its large, rich Minoan city, reducing the comfortable, beautifully decorated two- and three-story houses to four-foot heaps of rubble, beams and mud brick. Organized rescue teams, perhaps from Crete, the mother island of the Minoan civilization, cleared streets and rebuilt walls, and the city's inhabitants had time to flee with their valuables before the volcano's next blow came.

A rain of hot pumice—lava aerated by volcanic gas to make a sort of rock froth—fell on Kalliste, its city, its sheepfolds, its harbor and the surrounding sea. Falling lumps stripped the trees of leaves, buried the partly-reconstructed walls of the city, and collapsed with their cumulative weight, every roof still whole. Houses that the earthquake had left open had their remaining contents—kitchen utensils, storage jars, altar tables, libation vessels and frescoed walls—buried in the hail of hot light stone. Between 12 and 15 feet of pumice covered the lovely cone-shaped island and left it a smoking desert. A length of time passed, probably a number of years; the sparse Mediterranean rainfall eroded a few channels into the pumice, but rain and surf were the only sounds heard on the island—till the volcano began to boom.

It boomed and threw out spatters of pumice and occasional huge "bombs" of hot hard lava, and sent up a column of dust and vapor miles high. As time went on, the dust and pumice ejected by the volcano increased, dusting passing ships and downwind islands. Steam, the result of seawater leaking into the magma chamber, vented continuously, and loud explosions grew in frequency and in power. Lightning played in the towering column of steam, dust and pumice, and lava, probably visible as far away as Crete at night, rolled down the mountain's slopes.

Then in midnight darkness came the final, indescribable explosion as the mountain emptied into the sky the last millions of tons of fine white ash, dust, lava and rock, and, exhausted, collapsed into itself and the sea.

So earthshaking was this event that its physical consequences reached around the world. Ash fell in appreciable quantities to within 90 miles of the coast of Egypt; tidal waves ravaged neighboring coasts to heights of 250 feet, and some historians speculate that they may have lowered the water level of marshes in the Isthmus of Suez enough to grant dry passage to Moses and his followers, fleeing Egyptian captivity at the time—new chronological data may make tenable the theory that this exodus coincided with the Santorin eruption.

The indirect consequences were no less dramatic. At the time of the eruption, the Aegean Sea had been a Minoan lake for over 1,000 years. Piracy had been suppressed, colonies and trading routes had been established, and a brilliant, rich, luxuriant civilization had grown. In 1500 B.C., the Minoan culture had reached its peak: so secure that no city was walled or fortified; so far-reaching that Minoan keeled ships traded with Britain and Egypt; so artistic and inventive that Minoan frescoes found on Santorin show attempts at perspective rendering ten centuries before the Greeks. This civilization, the most advanced west of Egypt's Old Kingdom, was snapped off in full flower by the Santorin volcano and, unable to recover, effectively disappeared within 50 years.

With much of their fleet smashed by tidal waves, their farmland covered and poisoned by volcanic ash, their orchards stripped of leaves, their buildings flattened and their survivors panic-stricken and starving, the Minoans abandoned eastern Crete for the less heavily affected but less hospitable western third of the island, for the Peloponnese and mainland Greece, and for new homes more distant. Sailing along their own old trading routes now as refugees, they settled in southern Italy and Sicily, on Rhodes and Cyprus, and in Egypt. Resettling Minoans became the "Atlantes" of Tunisia (probably) the Carians of southwestern Turkey (possibly) and the Philistines of southern Palestine (certainly), and they brought with them wherever they went their social organization and their peaceful genius.

Greek first became a written language when Minoan scribes adapted their script, now called Linear A, to the new language. The Minoan religion shaped the Greek pantheon and gave it its character. The Minoan spirit became the leaven of the later Greek civilizations, and remained as a haunting memory of a lost golden age throughout the classical period. And now, even the legend of lost Atlantis, which Plato received from Egypt, has been convincingly shown to be a memory of the fall of the Minoan civilization and the collapse into the sea of the Santorin volcano.

The man who first proposed that the widespread desolation of Crete was due to Santorin's eruption, and who has illuminatingly interpreted the Atlantis legend in the light of Cretan archeology, is now digging on Santorin. On the island's southern limb, near the village of Akrotiri, Dr. Spyridon Marinatos has begun to uncover the city buried by the great eruption of 1500 to 1470 B.C., and his is surely the most exciting archeological dig in progress today. The site, sheltered under a sprawl of asbestos roofing to keep Santorin's relentless wind and winter rain from affecting the work, is located in a small seaward ravine, where years of erosion have removed most of the ash overburden and left the pumice within reach. Dr. Marinatos' dig is probably very near the place where a group of scientists, on Santorin to observe the volcano's 1866 eruption, found and excavated stone walls, pottery, tools, gold trinkets, animal bones and an exquisite bronze blade inlaid with gold—a lord's weapon. A better-organized dig in 1870 excavated several houses and found brilliant frescoes (later reburied), pottery still containing barley, lentils and fava beans, a copper saw and other items; but the greatest treasures and the most informative and suggestive finds have come from Marinatos' six years of work in the Akrotiri ravine. There the Minoan city is undergoing a strange resurrection, its streets cleared but empty, the tools of the rebuilding teams lying abandoned, the footprints in its large square now made in flour-fine ash. Whole quarters of the city have been cleared, and though its fleeing citizens left no valuables, their full storage cellars, their plumbing systems, their single-family houses, the "palace" of unknown dimensions just beginning to emerge from the earth, and above all the exquisite frescoes all leave no doubt that this city was rich, prosperous and peaceful. Its citizens ate and drank well, did not stint sacrifices to their gods, bathed, traveled, boxed and observed the natural world around them. If the masonry and pottery found on Therasia when ash was mined for the Suez Canal should turn out to be remains of the same city—a city that would then be shown to stretch some five and a half linear miles—then others may join the one expert who today believes that the Minoan city on Santorin was "Atlantis" itself, was the glittering mother city of what we now call the Cretan Minoan civilization.

Santorin never again reached the heights it knew as a Minoan island. Though Mycenaean Greeks occupied Knossos on Crete after 1470 B.C., they seem not to have visited Santorin itself. Herodotus writes that Phoenicians used the island as a station on their trading routes, which webbed the Mediterranean and Aegean seas. Perhaps through the Phoenicians, their neighbors on the Eastern Mediterranean coast, the once-Minoan Philistines heard again of the island that had made them refugees—though if so they could not have recognized it from descriptions of its new Vulcan-formed shape.

Through the centuries that followed, Santorin faced first west, then east, then west again as the winds of empire shifted. With the coming of the Dorians at the end of the second millennium B.C., Thera, as it then became known, became Hellenized. Today still, so-called Antika Thera stands on the island as a Dorian site, largely overbuilt by an Egyptian Ptolemaic garrison that later claimed the location because of its command of all of the island as well as of wide sea reaches southeast toward Egypt. After this Greek and later Egyptian period, control over the island gradually passed back westward to Rome, as what were originally trade connections beginning as early as 200 B.C. solidified to become governing power.

Christianity came to Santorin as early as the third century, and left the remains, visible today, of three early basilicas on the island's eastern slope—the "classical side." With the shift of power and influence toward the Roman Empire's eastern half, Santorin too turned east again. Sometime between 324 A.D., when Constantinople became the eastern capital, and the sixth-century reign of Justinian, the island came fully into the Byzantine sphere of influence. That period, which lasted till 1204, left the great monastery and Orthodox archepiscopal seat of Episkopi at the north edge of Mount Elias' abrupt limestone slope.

In the backwash of the Fourth Crusade, Santorin became a part of the Venetian duchy of Naxos under the Barotsi and Crispi families, and the island's present familiar name derives from their patron saint, Irene. Religious dispute occupied much of those years, as the Roman Catholic bishops spread their influence in the island under the shield of Venetian hegemony and at the expense of the Greek church.

In 1537 the last Venetian duke became a tributary of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent, not by force of arms but by the irresistible expansion of Ottoman influence. Though the Turco-Venetian War 60 years earlier had, according to Greek sources, reduced Santorin's population to 300 souls, the Ottoman Empire was now content to leave the island untouched and even unvisited. In contrast to the Venetians' three centuries, the Ottoman rule, almost as long, left not a trace on Santorin itself.

The Ottomans only occupied fertile areas," says one student of that time, and indeed, records in Istanbul seem to show that the Empire's harvests from Santorin consisted largely of complaints: thanks to the Ottoman practice of allowing each minority substantial self-rule—the millet system—the Ottoman rulers found themselves arbiters of continuing religious disputes between Santorin's Roman and Eastern churches over mutual infringement of episcopal rights, and, especially, questions of land. In Ottoman records, Santorin is called Değirmenick (Little Mill), after the dozens of cloth-sailed windmills that once dotted the landscape. Only a few survive today.

As those centuries and their changes washed over the surface of Santorin, the volcano far below was not idle. The geological fault-junction that had spawned beautiful Kalliste was still there, and still provided an outlet to the surface for the elemental forces of the earth. Only a few centuries after the great eruption, the Santorin volcano began the work of rebuilding its mountain cone, and by the beginning of the second century B.C. the peak of that cone had appeared above the water's surface in the southwest corner of Santorin's caldera.

The island that resulted was called Iera at the time, and its emergence was chronicled—after the fact—by the Greek geographer Strabo. According to him it grew "as if forged by implements out of a red-hot mass until it reached a circumference of 12 stadia"—a little over one and a third miles. Its dramatic and frightening formation—Strabo says that flames came bursting out of the sea and that the water seethed and roiled—forged a link in men's minds with the gods; one group of Rhodian sailors erected on the island an altar to Poseidon Earth-Shaker and then retreated from those awesome precincts. Later eruptions added to Iera's size until, in 1457, an earthquake and an eruption split the island—by then called Palea Kameni (Old Burnt) by the Greek-speaking population—into two halves, and parts of it sank again beneath the waves.

The volcano's main vent was apparently plugged by this collapse, and molten tentacles began a search for new side vents inside the 900-foot-high mountain built up from the caldera floor. The result came in 1573, when another outbreak produced another island, Mikra Kameni (Little Burnt), a little east of the first. Gases vented inside the caldera have given the waters around the volcanic islands the property, sailors say, of killing barnacles and other marine growth on a ship's hull: "Three days lying off the Kamenis is as good as a careening," they say.

A third island in the caldera, Nea (New) Kameni, appeared gradually during a period of activity that lasted over four years, beginning in 1707; and the 1866 eruptions which brought to Santorin those volcanologists who first began archeological work there, enlarged the new island through two new crater vents. A further new vent between Nea and Mikra Kameni spewed out almost 150 million cubic yards of lava in 1925-1926, filling the strait and joining the two islands, and 1928, 1938 and 1950 saw new eruptions. Today, though several vents on Nea Kameni still release sulphur-bearing gases, other, more gentle natural forces are at work making the two Kamenis hospitable. Over 20 different plant species grow there now—some of them will not grow in Santorin's soil at all—and one fig tree graces the islands. In just this way did the volcano produce round Kalliste over the millennia following the eruption of 23,000 B.C., and the distant future will probably again see an island Most Fair on the site of Santorin, bearing in it, like its predecessors, the seeds of incredible violence.

Yet none of the horror of past eruptions—or the potential of future horrors—can be felt in Santorin's salt air, or seen on the faces of the Santorinians, all of whom live within five and a half miles of the Aegean's sole active volcano. They till the island's volcanic soil, mine its volcanic pumice, build with its lava and pozzolana, fish in its volcanic caldera, and bathe from its volcanic black-sand beaches—their most everyday activities are connected with this most un-everyday phenomenon, the volcano. It is the paradoxical linkage that is so fascinating: on the one hand the spreading dark mass of lava in the middle of the caldera; on the other, the colors of the cliffs, the ripples of the terracing, the silence of the Minoan city, the wind over the mountain's ancient limestone, the movements of a farmer tending his vines—the peaceful beauty of Santorin.

Robert Arndt is a Turkish-American free-lance writer now living in Istanbul.

This article appeared on pages 20-29 of the July/August 1973 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for July/August 1973 images.