The beautiful villages of Fira and Oia on Santorini stand high on a cliff above the sparkling Mediterranean Sea. On the day of our visit, their narrow streets were full of tourists, visibly enjoying the unique magic that only Greece seems to offer and the opportunity to hunt for the perfect keepsake to encapsulate a perfect visit to this unique island. The whitewashed houses and shops, distinguished with gaily-painted doors, shutters and trims, evoke and complement an incomparable blue Mediterranean sky. The villages are the perfect iconic images of Greece. “Picturesque, “charming,” and “idyllic” are words that seem to have been invented with this island in mind.
For the photographers on our voyage, this place is heaven. Even someone like me, who freely admits he is not a photographer but simply a person who takes pictures, can scarcely go wrong pointing a camera in any direction.
But today’s beauty masks yesterday’s horror. Who could possibly imagine the disaster that swept this island we are now exploring some 3,600 hundred years ago! Sometime around 1620 BC, Santorini, then called Thera, literally exploded. A long dormant volcano unexpectedly came to life with a destructive power that is almost unimaginable This eruption that carried much of the island into the atmosphere may have been the largest one in the historic era. As the sea swept into the giant caldera cause by this explosion, a giant tsunami carried devastation far beyond this island.
This was “Big Bang” of the Bronze Age. Yet it seems inexplicably to have escaped notice in our ancient records. Surely, a catastrophe of this magnitude should have been remembered, but it remains the “smoking gun” for which there is no body.
Is this assessment incorrect? Has one recollection of this tragic event actually survived? Could Plato’s story of Atlantis, written more than a millennium later, contain a distant memory of the paroxysm that destroyed ancient Thera? Did this destruction provide the kernel of truth in his cautionary tale of an advanced civilization that disappeared beneath the sea in a single day and night?
Other unanswered issues remain as well. Did the horrific destruction of this island trigger the collapse of the Minoan civilization on Crete? Why can’t archaeologists and scientists agree on a date for this cataclysmic event? How many more secrets lie beneath the ground on this island, waiting discovery by future archaeologists? So many questions and so few answers.
As the Panorama spends the night in Santorini’s caldera, the dramatic geological evidence of this long-ago disaster is everywhere we look. The memory of a glorious day on a beautiful island with a tortuous, natural history will sails way with us, as do the many unsolved mysteries of Thera. There is much to think about as we head to Folegandros tomorrow.