Santorini is the Mother of Volcanoes. Its caldera, seen from a boat for the first time, is a source of wonderment—something so unusual that it can only marginally be minimised by the fact that it will already be familiar from photographs. Images, though, do not do justice to the magnitude, or to the changing shapes and colours of the marine landscape as the boat cuts through the enclosed circle of islands towards the harbour, which is no more than an improvised ledge beneath a 270m, stratified cliff of lava. The view from the town above is no less ex traordinary—especially at about two hours before sunset, when the vast bowl of cliffs and islands below begins to fill with a palpable light reflected on the water from the low angle of the declining sun. Santorini is an astonishing natural phenomenon; but its human history and archaeology, both prehistoric and historic, are no less astonishing. For its small size, it has one of the richest and most varied archaeological histories of any island.
The volcanic nature of the island, even before the great eruption in the 2nd millennium bc, has always shaped its history, forcing the early inhabitants into a life of mari time trade and shipping rather than agricultural production, pushing them to evolve new methods of construction to withstand their seismically active terrain, and giving them an array of brilliant volcanic earths with which to decorate their walls with paintings. Then, the eruption itself—one of the greatest, if not the greatest in human history—destroyed and buried their prosper ing city. But it did so in such a way that it preserved the streets and superbly decorated rooms in packed ash, until the painstaking campaigns initiated in 1967 by Spyridon Marinatos first began to reveal it again to modern eyes in the excavations near the town of Akrotiri. The eruption itself was so great that the airborne blanket of volcanic powder in the stratosphere provoked a period of climatic cooling around the world; it altered the course of history in the Eastern Mediterranean; and it may be the central event at the heart of the myth of Atlantis, recounted by Plato. Today the same volcanic history determines the is land’s economy—its famous wine, the export of pumice and pozzolana, and the tourism it attracts which comes to gaze on this vast, toppled ruin in the sea.
Santorini today has to be taken on different terms from most of the other islands. Tourism and the incessant ar rival of cruise-ships and aircraft from all corners of Europe has utterly transformed the land, the people, and the spirit of the place. But not even the artificiality and the press of humanity can diminish the island’s interest or drown out the extraordinary magic of the light. It takes not much effort to find a quiet corner for contemplation of the scene: a balcony in the delightful settlement of Oia, a plateia in forgotten Emboreio, or a shaded taverna by the water at Akrotiri, looking across to distant Crete which nurtured the island throughout its earliest history. And for those who wish to have a glimpse of what Santorini was like a few decades back, an early morning, fifteen-minute ferry ride—which nobody except locals ever seems to take—from the harbour of Amoudi to the islet of Therasia opposite, will leave you to explore in peace a Theran landscape and villages, and to encounter the willing salutations of people whose lives have been little touched by the crowds and activity across the water.
Santorini Island is part of the Cyclades Island Group, Greece.