The spectacular approach to Santorini by sea, usually entering the caldera from the north-west, is the high point of many yacht charter holidays in the Cyclades.
Thira, the ancient name of Santorini, together with the smaller islands of Thirasia and Aspro are part of a volcanic crater, which has been engulfed by the sea. In the centre are the Kammeni islands, the cones of later volcanoes, which came into being in historical times. Hot springs and emissions of gas bear witness to continuing volcanic activity.
The steep caldera cliffs range in height between 200 m and 400 m, while on the outside the land falls away gradually to the sea, its fertile slopes covered with vineyards.
Yet, the island is treeless due to lack of water, though the inhabitants achieve a modest degree of prosperity through the export of wine, pulses, pistachios and tomato purée. Santorini also possesses a natural resource in the form of pozzolana, a hydraulic cement used in structures exposed to water (harbour works, the Suez Canal).
In more recent years large numbers of visitors have been attracted to the island by its extraordinary natural structure and its excavation sites, which are among the most important in Greece, and the tourist trade has made an increasing contribution to the economy.
Also – with the new Vlichada marina nearly finished (see the bottom of this page) – more and more yachtsmen visit this beautiful island.
Geological history of Santorini
Santorini represents the most active area of the South Aegean Volcanic Arc, which includes the islands of Aegina, Methana, Poros, Milos, Kos and Nisyros. Volcanism in this Aegean Arc generally first occurred about 3-4 million years ago with the exception of Kos where Miocene deposits suggest eruptions 10-11 million years ago.
The local volcanic field of Santorini also includes the Khristiana islands 20 km to the southwest and the submerged Kolomvos volcano 7 km to the northeast. Non-volcanic rocks – which are exposed on Thira at Mt Profitis Ilias, Monolithos and the inner side of the caldera wall near Athinios – represent a former 9×6 km non-volcanic island similar to the neighbouring Cycladic islands of Anafi, Ios or Amorgos. On the other side of the harbour are the imposing mansions of early 19th century ship owners and merchants, including the houses of Admiral Lakovos Tombazis (now occupied by an outstation of the Athens Academy of Art) and Dimitrios Voulgaris. One such mansion houses a training school for the merchant navy. The plain white and sometimes colour-washed houses of the town on the slopes above the harbour are rather Cycladic in type. Above the town to the west are the ruins of a medieval castle, and lower down are fortifications built during the War of Independence.
The friendly village of Ermioni (Hermioni) is located at the stem of a wooded headland. Despite its proximity to Athens the place is relatively tranquil and unspoiled from tourists. In earlier times Ermioni was of some importance as shown by the ancient mole and walls near the end of the headland.
Volcanism in the area of Santorini – at that time just a small, non-volcanic island – started about 2 million years ago. In short, the important stages of Santorini’s volcanic evolution:
• 2000-500 thousand years ago: The oldest volcanic rocks are found near Akrotiri and the Khristiana islands. On the Akrotiri peninsula the up domed areas still are well visible and the marine fossils embedded in the tuffs, suggest a minimum age of 2 million years.
• 360-1600 BC: The cyclic construction of shield volcanoes interrupted by large explosive and destructive events like the Minoan eruption at 1645 BC.
• 197 BC – today: The formation of the post-Minoan Kammeni islands, is recorded by human observation and documented by historians. The ancient writer Strabo is the first to mention volcanic eruptions inside the caldera and described the rising of a new small island during the year 197 BC. After that, at least 8 eruptive phases followed.
Recent history of Santorini
In antiquity Thira was known as Kalliste (the Fairest island) or Strongyle (the Round island) and was inhabited in the 3rd century BC (Cycladic culture), probably by Carians. Archaean Greeks settled on the island about 1900 BC, but were driven out by Phoenicians. The excavations at Akrotiri have shown that Santorini was flourishing and prosperous place in the first half of the 2nd century B. It was in contact with Minoan Crete but had developed a distinctive culture of its own. It can be supposed that at least the city of Akrotiri was not ruled by some central authority but by a plutocracy of merchants and ship owners who had trading links reaching as far as Libya.
This trade, and perhaps also an ethnic connection with North Africa, can be deduced from the wall-paintings of astonishingly high artistic quality, which are now in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens as well as in Fira. The Golden Age ended with the eruption of the volcano, which seems to have taken place in the mid 15th century BC, after premonitory activity in the 16th century. It must have been many times more violent than the Krakatoa eruption of 1883. A number of archaeologists, in particular Spyridon Marinatos, believe that it explains the sudden end of the Minoan cities on Crete. After the eruption, Santorini remained uninhabited for 500 years, until the beginning of the 1st century BC, when it was resettled by Dorian (Minoan) incomers from Crete, who established themselves on a limestone ridge south-east of Mount Profitis Ilias.
In 630 BC their king, Grinos, founded a colony at Kyrene – the largest Greek colony in North Africa. Allied with Sparta at the beginning of the Peloponnesian War, Santorini was required to pay tribute to Athens from 427/426 BC onwards. It enjoyed a measure of prosperity under the Ptolemies, when an Egyptian garrison was stationed on the island. Thereafter it came under Roman rule. In 1207, after the Fourth Crusade, Santorini was conquered by Marco Sanudo, Duke of Naxos, and thereafter remained in Italian hands for three centuries. In 1539 Santorini was taken by the Turks; in 1830 reunited with Greece. The volcanic force which originally built up the island round the older limestone cone of Mount Profitis Ilias and then destroyed it shortly after 1500 BC continued to manifest itself in later centuries. The last violent volcanic phenomena, combined with earth tremors causing considerable damage, took place in 1956.
Wines of Santorini
The strong volcanic soil seems to deliver a faint smoky bouquet to the famous local Santorini wines. The grapevines are pruned in a distinctive way to encourage them to twine around in a basket shape called a stefani. This preserves the scant moisture and protects the vines from the omnipresent winds that scour the surface of these treeless slopes.