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Panoramic view of Thira (Santorini) from Imerovigli to Fira from an approaching ferry.
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View from the top of Thira
View from the top of Thira
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View from street in town of Fira on the island of Thera

Santorini is a small, circular group of volcanic islands located in the Aegean Sea, 75 km south-east from the mainland of Greece (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 km² (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, Strongili or Thera.


"Minoan" Akrotiri

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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 outside of 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 multi-level 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 20001650 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. The pipes run in twin systems, indicating that the Therans used both hot and cold water supplies. The hot water's origin was probably geothermic, given the volcano's proximity.

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 a kind of confident, flowing decorative, calligraphic line; 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 content common in both Greek and Christian decor.

Ancient volcanic eruption

Physical effects of the eruption

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. The northern part of the caldera was refilled by the volcano and then collapsed again during the Minoan eruption. 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.

On Santorini, there is a deposit of white tephra from the eruption which is up to 60 metres thick overlying 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.
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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 Therasia and Thera), Palea Kammeni and Nea Kammeni (nearest the centre of the caldera). There are also two cruise liners visible in the enlarged picture

A series of warning earthquakes must have been alarming enough and early enough before the eruption for all the residents to pack up and move out, as not a single body has been found at the Akrotiri site, and only one body has been found on Therasia. Differences in pottery styles between the beginning of the evacuation and the eruption, and preserved gullies in the ash indicate that the volcano may have given warning years in advance. It remains to be seen if further excavations will show bodies of people huddled along the coast, too late to get off in a boat to escape the volcano's fury, akin to the finds at Herculaneum, which was buried by the much smaller eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD.

The Minoan eruption created an Ultra-Plinian plume 30-35 km in height, and magma coming into contact with the shallow marine embayment would have caused a violent phreatic eruption. The eruption also generated a 35 to 150 m high tsunami (estimates vary) that devastated the north coast of Crete, 70km (45 miles) away. The impact of the tsunami pummelled coastal towns such as Amnisos, where building walls have been knocked out of alignment. The tsunami would also certainly have eliminated every timber of the Minoan fleet along Crete's northern shore. On the island of Anaphi, 27 km to the east, ash layers 10 feet deep have been found, as well as pumice layers on slopes 250 meters above sea level. Elsewhere in the Mediterranean there are pumice deposits that could be caused by the Thera eruption [1] ( Ash layers in cores drilled from the seabed and from lakes in Turkey, though, show that the heaviest ashfall was towards the east and northeast of Santorini. (Ash found in Crete is now known to have been from a precursory phase of the eruption, some weeks or months before the main eruptive phases, and would have had little impact.)

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. Almost every vestige of life must have been eliminated or smothered in the ashfall, leaving an island that had essentially been sterilized.

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Oia on the edge of the caldera surrounded by flowers

Dating the volcanic eruption

The exact date of the Minoan eruption provides a fixed point for aligning the entire chronology of the 2nd millennium in the 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. These dates, however, conflict with the usual date from archaeology, which is between about 1500 BC and 1450 BC.

Some scholars believe the radiocarbon dates to be completely wrong. Some suggest re-scaling archaeological chronologies with the radiocarbon dates. Others look for a compromise between the archaeological and radiocarbon dates for best fits of both sets of data. Re-scaling archaeological chronologies is controversial, because revising the Aegean Bronze Age chronology could require, by association, revising the well-established conventional Egyptian chronology. The debate about the date continues.

It has long been hoped that information from Greenland ice cores would determine the date exactly. A large eruption, identified in ice cores and dated to 1644 BC +/- 20 years was suspected to be Santorini. Volcanic ash was retrieved from an ice core, and this was shown to not be from Santorini [2] (; so the 1644 BC date is incorrect.

Tree ring data shows that a large eruption occurred in 1629-1628 BC, which may be the same event as the 1644 BC signal in the Greenland ice cores. However, no firm evidence links these two events and, while unlikely but plausible, the two signals could be separate events. At the present time no hard evidence linking or refuting the 1628 BC tree ring date with Thera has been found.

While a VEI-4 or greater eruption can leave signals in tree rings and ice cores, the absence of such a signal does not mean the absence of an eruption. It is still hoped that Santorini ash might be found in another layer of the ice core, which would fix the date of the eruption.

Chinese records

Until 2003, the Minoan eruption of Thera was classified with Krakatau with a VEI-6. Recent studies of ashfall have upgraded the intensity of the eruption to a VEI-7, rivaling that of 1815's Tambora eruption. The 1815 eruption was of such a large volume and kicked so much sulfur dioxide into the air that it caused 1816's Year Without a Summer. The impact of this colossal eruption on human civilizations at the time are not yet fully understood and still open to speculation. Some scientists correlate a volcanic winter from the Minoan eruption with Chinese records documenting the collapse of the Xia dynasty in China. Per the Bamboo Annals, the collapse of the dynasty and the rise of the Shang dynasty (independently approximated to 1618 BC) was accompanied by "'yellow fog, a dim sun, then three suns, frost in July, famine, and the withering of all five cereals".

Egyptian records

Oddly, there seem to be no surviving Egyptian records of the eruption. Santorini ash deposits were at one time claimed to have been found in the Nile delta, but this is now known to be a misidentification. Suggestions have also been made that the eruption of Thera and volcanic fallout coincides with the Titanomachy in Hesiod's Theogony and calamities of the Admonitions of Ipuwer of the Middle Kingdom of Egypt.

Association with the Exodus account

Some have speculated that the Santorini eruption and resulting tsunami resulted in the ten plagues of the Hebrew Exodus, with the Theran tsunamis possibly affecting the Red Sea to allow for the Hebrews' crossing. If the Exodus theory is to be believed, the duration of the Minoan eruption until its tsunami-generating caldera collapse makes it more likely that the volcano could have only caused one of biblical events and not both.

Association with Atlantis

Starting with Spyridon Marinatos' 1939 landmark paper, this cataclysm at Santorini and its possibility to have caused the fall of the Minoan Civilization is sometimes regarded as a likely source for Plato's story of Atlantis. The cataclysm of Santorini was certainly the kind of event that could change 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

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Oia, 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, and the Franks. The island came under Ottoman rule in 1579.

Modern Santorini

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Oia at night

Santorini was annexed to Greece in 1912.

Major settlements in Santorini include Fira (Phira), Oia, Emporio, Kamari, Imerovigli, Pyrgos 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 plant that provides running, yet nonpotable, water to most houses. The primary industry of Santorini is tourism. The pumice quarries have been closed since 1986 in order to preserve the caldera of Santorini.

Santorini is home to a small but flourishing wine industry, based on the indigenous grape variety, Assyrtiko. Assyrtiko vines are extremely old, as they are resistant to phylloxera and have consequently not needed to be replaced during the great phylloxera epidemic of the early 20th century. They are adopted to their native habitat by being planted far apart and their principal source of moisture is dew. They are trained in the shape of baskets, with the grapes hanging inside to protect them from the winds.

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Sunset view from the town of Fira



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