There is a land called Crete in the midst of the wine-dark sea, a fair land and a rich, begirt with water, and therein are many men innumerable, and ninety cities. And all have not the same speech, but there is confusion of tongues; there dwell Achaeans and there too Cretans of Crete, high of heart, and Cydonians there and Dorians of waving plumes and goodly Pelasgians….
— Homer, The Odyssey, Book XIX
Today’s volcano destroyed that fair land and ended its multicultural civilization forever.
People and plate tectonics
The Aegean is Homer’s “wine-dark sea” – it’s on Greece’s right in the map below.
See the long island of Crete, in the southern Aegean? It’s the big island below the Google marker and has Heraklion and other cities on it – you can enlarge the map by right-clicking on it.
I don’t know if there were “ninety cities” on Crete in 1600 BC, but as the center of the Minoan civilization, it was definitely a good place to be.
Back then, about a hundred miles to the north on the volcanic island of Thera (modern-day Santorini), there was a small town whose name has been lost to history. People today call it Akrotiri, after the modern town nearby.
Back in Minoan times, Old Akrotiri wasn’t anywhere near as glamorous as Knossos on Crete, but it had a thriving port and sat on a beautiful ring-shaped island.
They had no idea how dangerous it was.
The island of Thera, unbeknownst to its residents and neighbors, had a ring shape to it because it had been having caldera-forming eruptions going back as far as 180,000 years. Why?
Well, all the lands around the Aegean are as restless as the spirit of Odysseus. In this region, Earth’s outer surface is broken into three big plates that jostle around and interact in sometimes dramatic ways.
For example, the tectonic plate that’s carrying Africa is subducting under the Aegean Sea plate. As we saw last week at Sinabung in Indonesia, subduction zones can make for powerful earthquakes and massive volcanic eruptions.
At Thera, there were already three big calderas dating back around 180,000 years, 70,000 years, and then 21,000 years before present. The tricky part is that, in between these catastrophic events, there would be tens of thousands of years of relative calm.
During one such quiet period in the Bronze Age, people built up Old Akrotiri, while nearby Crete became the center of the great Minoan civilization.
Then something spooked Thera’s residents and they evacuated Old Akrotiri. This turned out to have been a very good move, because something a little like this soon occurred (ignore the narrator – it was actually a VEI 7 – ultra-plinian – and way more powerful than your average atomic bomb [also, there is a possible connection with the Atlantis story, but it’s too vague to go into today]):
Yes, even much smaller volcanoes can put out shock waves like that.
As one writer describes it, “Thera didn’t just blow a massive hole into the island of Santorini – it set the entire ancient Mediterranean onto a different course, like a train that switched tracks to head off in a brand new direction. Minoan culture, the dominant civilization in the Mediterranean at the time, crumbled as a result of the eruption, historians believe, changing the political landscape of the ancient world indefinitely. Environmental effects were felt across the globe, as far away as China and perhaps even North America and Antarctica.”
After the Minoan eruption, the island of Thera was abandoned for a long time, but eventually it was settled again in spite of the volcano’s ongoing restlessness. Santorini volcano had a series of much less catastrophic but still respectable VEI 3 and 4 eruptions beginning in 197 B.C., going a hundred years or more between events. Starting in the 19th century, the intensity of the eruptions lessened to VEI 2 (for comparison, Sinabung’s current eruption is classified as a VEI 2).
It seems people could live with that. Today Santorini island (officially called Thira) is a part of Greece. It has 12 municipal subdivisions and is a very popular tourist destination.
Scientists travel there, too.
In 1967, archaeologists and others started excavations in Old Akrotiri, which hadn’t seen the light of day since it was buried in thick ash and pyroclastic flows back in the Bronze Age. The town was very well preserved by the ash, just as Pompeii would be in 79 AD, and so far no human remains have been found.
Hopefully all the island’s residents got out while the getting was good.
A virtual field trip to Santorini
Geologists also are fascinated by Santorini.
Here is an interesting YouTube video about the volcano. I just stumbled across it while researching this post and only know what a Web search could reveal about the film maker, but he seems knowledgeable and credible.
Also, the video’s opening hooked me, and the rest of the “field-trip” style content kept me watching.
Hope you enjoy it!
The geology of Santorini, from Santorini.net.
Finally, here is a 3D model someone made of Old Akrotiri.
It’s in surprisingly good shape for a town that was sitting close to such a massive eruption.
The ash preserved some beautiful artwork in the town. What a vibrant, rich life those Bronze Age people enjoyed!
Best of all, they were smart enough to realize, before it was too late, that all good things must come to an end sometime.