The island of Santorini has an extensive history of volatile seismic and volcanic activity. Aside from the four caldera eruptions that have decimated the entire island over the past 200 thousand years, Santorini seems to be a hot spot for smaller eruptions and large earthquakes. Despite this reputation, civilizations have been settling the land since the third millennium BCE (before common era), ignoring the obvious hazards that would later plague each of them. What do these messy histories entail and what did these peoples of the past see in this dangerous land to warrant them staying for generations?
In The Beginning… (The Bronze Age, 3000-1615 BCE)
The first recorded peoples on the island of Santorini stemmed from the Minoan civilization. Originally from Crete, the Minoans established the settlement of Akrotiri on the southern peninsula of Santorini’s main island, Thera. This point was perfectly situated between various larger trading ports, making it vital for copper trade and farming (1).
However, by this point the caldera had already erupted three times with another one brewing beneath the surface. “Several times in its history the town was destroyed or damaged by earthquakes; on each occasion the ruins were leveled, and new [buildings were constructed above],” wrote art historian Nigel McGilchrist (2). These Minoans were not deterred due to Crete’s own history of earthquakes, including a massive one in 1450 BCE.
It wasn’t long after this cycle of rebuilding that the fourth and most recent caldera eruption occurred, destroying the settlement and contributing to the fall of the already-weakening Minoan Empire.
This is Sparta (Post Bronze Age, 900 BCE)
After a few centuries, the eruption of Thera seems to have faded into legend, as the island was re-settled briefly by the Phoenicians, then the Dorians from Sparta. The Dorians viewed Thera as being a strategically located maritime trade hub as well as a fortified military stronghold (Figure 1).
Situated securely on the limestone bedrock of Mesa Vouno, the mountains provided an ideal spot for ports protected from the strong winds and provided the Dorians with plenty of stone building materials. In this settlement, known as Ancient Thira, there were no catastrophic geologic events, most likely due to the fact that the city was not built on any of the weak volcanic material deposited by the Minoan Eruption. The city eventually lost importance and was abandoned, but seems to be the only long-standing civilization on Thera to leave unscathed by the dangers within the island.
In Hot Water (140 BCE-727 CE)
As with every civilization in the Mediterranean, the Romans soon conquered Greece and with it, Thera. There is not a substantial Roman record on Thera itself and the island was soon passed to the Byzantine Empire that rose from the eastern half of Rome after its collapse.
It was during this time that the next volcanic eruption occurred. In the summer of 727, a hydrothermal eruption took place in the sea between Thera and Therassia. Byzantine historian George Kedrenos witnessed the event, writing “the whole place burned like fire,” (3). However, like with any previous activity, people here still saw value in Santorini’s placement in the Aegean Sea and simply rebuilt on top of the wreckage.
A Modern Terror (1550-Today)
Into the modern age, the island of Santorini still faces the near-constant risk of geologic hazards. The volcanic risk is fairly low, with recent eruptions having occurred only on the uninhabited island of Nea Kameni. Nevertheless, there are still highly active fault lines that crosscut the island, the most active being the Kolumbo fault line through the northern part of the island (Figure 2). There are noteworthy earthquakes here every few hundred years or so. An earthquake in 1570 radically altered the coastline and destroyed the ancient settlement of Eleusis. Another earthquake in 1956 destroyed most of the buildings on Thera, leaving the people without building materials for years.
A Lesson to Be Learned
Will the people in this region learn from the past? This seems unlikely. The majority of Thera’s major cities are built on top of several meters of weak, hollow pumice left behind by the Minoan eruption. Oia and Fira especially are at risk, as they also rest on the edge of the caldera rim, one large earthquake away from possibly plunging into the sea.
Similar to the Minoans and Dorians, though, there is always some factor keeping people on Santorini. Today, that motivation is a booming tourist-based economy, with thousands of people visiting the island each year for the volcanic beaches, shopping, and wine. The economic benefits for now outweigh the fear of earthquakes and volcanoes, but like with the Minoans before, it is dangerous to ignore a land that always holds the potential to disrupt this peace.
For Further Reading:
1. Fagan, Brian. People of the Earth: An Introduction to World Prehistory. Vol. 14, 2013.
2. McGilchrist, Nigel. Santorini & Therasia With Anaphi. Vol. 1, Genius Loci, 2010.
3. “Santorini.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 6 June 2018, en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Santorini.