On a late Friday afternoon, I arrived in Santorini, Greece, one of my top bucket list destinations. It took two flights to get there; one from New York to Athens and another from Athens to Santorini. It’s where the relics of an ancient past in the town of Akrotiri have been discovered buried below the surface.
The long day of travel was well worth it. An ancient volcanic eruption gave Santorini its unique topography and stunning appearance. Low, rocky hills in shades of tan and yellow dot the landscape.
Dry grasses cover the volcanic soil of the hillsides. A picturesque scene of low-rise whitewashed buildings, many with iconic blue doors. There are several churches with traditional blue roofs.
I’m dropped off at a lovely boutique hotel, perfectly positioned on the cliff-side coast of the Aegean Sea in the sleepy town of Akrotiri. The cerulean water is hypnotic. Stunning views of the caldera and two volcanos beckon me to reflect on the unique beauty of this island.
The laid-back village of Akrotiri is away from the hustle and bustle of droves of cruise ship passengers and Instagram photo seekers. The Akrotiri Archeological Ruins are located on the southwestern end of Santorini. There are also a few cliff-side beaches, a lighthouse built in 1892 from which stunning sunsets can be seen, and the nearby Tomato Industrial Museum.
Akrotiri’s Venetian Castle remains, which from the top provide breathtaking views of the surroundings, can be found in the town centre along with a few restaurants and cafes, quaint narrow streets lined with traditional whitewashed homes adorned, and colourful front doors.
Signs of the previous volcanic eruption can be found throughout Santorini, particularly in Akrotiri. Wade into the water, where volcanic rocks cover the ocean floor. The black-sand beaches are littered with lava rock fragments. The imposing cliffs are clearly visible, with multicoloured layers of solidified lava and volcanic ash.
The volcanic soil harbours just enough moisture from the humidity of the caldera to result in high-quality wine production. As a result, the wine is crisp and vibrant. It’s also responsible for the tomatoes’ intense flavours. Tomataki Santorinis are so named because they have firm skin on the outside, a sweet taste, and an incredibly juicy inside.
The volcanic ash is also responsible for the preservation of an ancient town.
Akrotiri was initially a fishing and farming village. Around 3,200 BC, it grew into a thriving Minoan port town positioned along a trade route on the Aegean Sea. Akrotiri prospered from the trade of copper, with connections as far away as Egypt and Cyprus.
It was at the height of this success and prosperity the inhabitants of Akrotiri left after a series of severe earthquakes. Somewhere between 1620 and 1530, the volcanic eruption of the Santorini Volcano occurred and blew the centre out of the island, creating a four-mile-wide caldera and sending a 100-meter-high tsunami toward the island of Crete.
The eruption buried Akrotiri beneath a thick layer of volcanic ash and debris, and re-shaped the rugged landscape of the entire island into the unique beauty it is today. According to some, the ash was over 200 feet thick in some areas, and Santorini was abandoned for centuries. This is widely regarded as the largest volcanic eruption in the last 4,000 years.
Visiting Akrotiri Archeological Site
The archaeological site of Akrotiri is directly south of the modern-day village with the same name. Often called Santorini’s Pompei, the true name of this ancient town is actually unknown. Archaeologists began the excavation in 1967. The site is still under construction and is a project of the Archeological Society of Athens.
A bioclimatic roof protects the ruins. Visitors can view what has been unearthed and areas that are still buried below via walkways suspended above the archaeological dig site. From the ground level, supporting columns may be seen, which represent the depth of the old settlement below and the height of the ash and pumice above. Strikingly, there is an entire town here. The ash from this cataclysmic event preserved it. Walking around the site, some ruins are completely unearthed, while others have bits and pieces poking out from the surface below.
Telchines Street, a paved road, runs through the village toward the sea. 30 public and private structures, four of which have been fully excavated, serve as humble reminders of what once existed. They provide glimpses into the town’s ingenuity and the way people lived.
The homes stand two to three floors high, typical of Minoan buildings. Lower walls were made of stone, and upper walls were made of mud-brick. There are window and door openings. In one house, a bathtub has been preserved as it was thousands of years ago. An ancient toilet on the second floor of another, a reminder that people lived here.
The murals depict clusters of papyrus flowers, seascapes, sea life, and various animals
Incredibly, there is plumbing and an elaborate drainage system. The sewage system ran beneath the streets and served two functions. The first was to provide and distribute water to the buildings and the second is to relocate sewage and redirect stormwater. This demonstrates a sophisticated society with advanced engineering and town-planning capabilities.
Colourful frescoes discovered on the walls have been remarkably preserved. The murals depict clusters of papyrus flowers, seascapes, sea life, and various animals.
The frescoes, furniture, clay tripod cooking pots, and other artefacts can be found in the Thera Gallery of the National Archaeological Museum in Athens and the Museum of Prehistoric Thera in Santorini. Everything is significant in the lives of those who lived here.
Aptly named the Pithoi Storage Room, it is where jars called Pithos were found intact. These ornately decorated ceramic jars were used to store and transport food items like oil, wine, and grain.
Archaeologists were able to create plaster casts from charred wood hallows, one of which was a wooden cradle. An ordinary object today, yet it holds such emotion and significance from the past. There have been no discoveries of human remains. It is thought that Akrotiri was evacuated prior to the eruption.
While the site still bears the scars of the destruction and vast mounds of rock and debris still hold the undiscovered secrets of ancient Akrotiri, dedicated archaeologists continue to work on this site. The excavated ruins and artefacts confirm what scholars believed, the Minoans were a prosperous and advanced culture of the late Bronze Age.
The volcano is still active today. There are no indications that it will erupt anytime soon. What is certain from this tragedy is that the ash that doomed Akrotiri proved to be the very thing that saved it.