Thera, also known as Santorini, is the southernmost of the Cyclades Islands, and sits like a croissant in the Aegean some seventy miles north of Crete. It is a favorite among photographers, and its blinding white buildings and blue rooftops can often be seen in travel brochures hugging the sheer cliffs against a brilliant blue sea and sky; it makes your mouth water for an Aegean vacation. It is also a dry and sterile place, where vegetation struggles to survive, and where water must be carefully conserved and recycled.
Once, Thera was called Kalliste, the most beautiful, and Strongyle, the round island, because at one time, some thirty-seven centuries ago, that croissant was more of a pancake, with lush forests and fields, towns and seaports, and a high mountain in the center. The people who lived there loved life and nature, and decorated their houses with beautiful frescoes that showed what the island was like in their time. They did not know that their paradise sat atop one of the world's most dangerous volcanoes.
Sometime around 1628 B.C., the island began to signal the impending cataclysm. There would have been frequent ground tremors, and the mountain would have begun to vent; we know the ground shook before the main eruption, because under the ash layers the few houses which have been excavated at Akrotiri show signs of violent jolting which threw objects to the floor.
So far, no human remains have been found at Akrotiri. It has long been assumed that the people fled the island, but then again, only a fraction of Akrotiri has been excavated, and the current thinking at the archaeological site is that the people are still nearby, that they left their houses and camped outside as people will do after large temblors. They may have fled back inside after the ash began falling, as at Pompeii, or ran to the harbor to try to evacuate by ship, except it would have been too late. No person or ship could have outrun the eruption's pyroclastic death cloud, or the tsunami which followed. Nowadays, they still find remains out in the Pompeiian countryside, where Vesuvius's final surge caught hundreds, perhaps thousands, on the run. Akrotiri's dead must still be in their houses, where they suffocated waiting for the ashfall to stop, or out in the landscape somewhere. There might even be a boathouse by the remains of an ancient harbor, as there was at Herculaneum, where people huddled waiting to be rescued.
All that remains of an island that was once circular.
Like Krakatoa, Thera blew itself apart. Forests, vineyards, towns, sanctuaries, and people were hurled twenty-two miles into the stratosphere, to the very edges of space, and were vaporized. And when the eruption column collapsed, and the Aegean rushed in to the crater, the results were cataclysmic. A death cloud of superheated gas and ash raced toward northern Crete, followed by a tsunami which swallowed towns by the dozens: Amnissos, Malia, Palaikastro, and more. More died from the sea than from the eruption itself. Houses well above sea level had their north-facing walls blown out by the wave; in places, the tsunami reached to a height of 420 feet. The Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004 had an 80% mortality rate. Think what it must have been like in Crete and the nearby islands, where people lived by the sea. Today, you can walk along the seashore at Palaikastro and find bits of jumbled potsherds, colored plaster, and animal bones in the eroding hillside. You can go a mile or more inland and find the same.
The Theran eruption and tsunami did not bring an end to Minoan civilization, but certainly weakened it, and brought about a slow decline. The Mycenaeans, who were themselves affected by the catastrophe, invaded and occupied Crete more than a century-and-a-half later.
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