Gaunt, sheer cliffs loom hundreds of metres above the deep blue sea, nothing grows or grazes to soften the awesome view, and the only colours are the reddish-brown, black and grey pumice layers on the cliff face. Santorini’s intrigue reaches deep into the past and this striking landscape tells of a history so dramatic and turbulent that legend hangs as fact upon it.
Firstly, Santorini was named by the Latin Empire in the thirteenth century, and is a reference to Saint Irene, from the name of the old cathedral in the village of Perissa – the name Santorini is a contraction of the name Santa Irini. Before then, it was known as Kallístē (Καλλίστη, “the most beautiful one”), Strongýlē (Greek: Στρογγύλη, “the circular one”), or Thēra. The name Thera was revived in the nineteenth century as the official name of the island and its main city, but the colloquial name Santorini is still in popular use.
There are several myths which are associated with Santorini:
Euphemus and the lump of earth:
According to Mythology, Santorini Island was initially created from a clod of earth thrown to the sea by Euphemus, son of Poseidon, who dreamed one night that he made love to a nymph, the daughter of Triton. In his dream, the nymph got pregnant and fearing an angry reaction of her father, asked Euphemus to get a clod of earth from Anaphe (the Island he was at with the Argonauts at the time) and throw it into the sea so that she could hide there until her child was born. Despite it being a dream, Euphemus decided to follow the nymph’s request and threw a clod of earth into the sea. Miraculously the Island of Santorini, initially named Kallisti (the most beautiful) appeared.
Another myth connects the great eruption of the volcano of Santorini with Phaethon. Phaethon was the son of Helios (Sun) and Clymene. He asked permission from his father to drive his horse chariot; however, he was not able to control the horses, thus creating considerable damage. Then Zeus, in order to stop the chariot, threw a thunderbolt at Phaethon.
This myth connects the destruction of the civilization of Santorini with the myth of Atlantis. Atlantis consisted of two islands with great cultural development and wealth, the “major” and the “minor”. According to the testimonies, Atlantis was destroyed by big floods and violent earthquakes. A description of Atlantis as written by Plato shows a striking resemblance to Santorini. In his account Plato describes quarries on the island of Atlantis were “rocks of white, black and red were extracted from the hills and used to construct a great island city”. One of the frescos discovered at the archeological site of Akrotiri, painted before the eruption, resembles Plato’s description of the mythical Atlantis. All these, bring about the theory that Santorini may have been one of the possible locations of the fabled island of Atlantis.
The history of Santorini is best seen at the Akrotiri archaeological site on the south-western side of the island. It remains one of Greece’s most important sites – an entire Minoan town recovered from the ashes, although the majority of the relics are now displayed at the Archaeological Museum in Athens. Fira, the island capital, also comes with a number of ancient ruins, although they are not quite in the same league as those of Akrotiri. The digs here reveal examples of Roman and Greek architecture, as well as that of the Byzantine period. Fira’s much-visited Archaeological Museum displays many items from the sites.
The first known settlers of Santorini were Pre-Hellenes, who inhabited the island around 3.000 BC, during the Bronze Age. Later, Santorini was inhabited by the Phoenicians and the Dorians. Archaeological digs at Red Beach and Akrotiri suggest that it was home to a Minoan colony towards the end of this period, until its total destruction by a tremendous eruption of the volcano in 1550 – 1500 BC. Although Santorini today comprises a small collection of islands, it was in fact one island before the cataclysmic eruption. The blast was so large that the centre of the island sank, creating a huge caldera some 400 metres / 1,310 feet deep and ringed by islands. Legend has it that this event led to the extinction of the Minoan civilisation and perhaps that of mythical Atlantis.
During the period of the Persian War, the inhabitants of Thira initially refused to side with the Athenian Alliance, claiming that they were Dorians, although this did not last for long, as they finally sided with Athens. Later, they submitted under the rule of the Spartans.
Little is known of Santorini’s fate during Roman domination, although when the Roman Empire was divided, it came under the rule of Constantinople. Like the rest of Greece, Christianity spread to Santorini during the 3rd century AD, and the island even had its own organized church and Bishop.
With the fall of Constantinople to the Fourth Crusade, Santorini came under the rule of the Venetians in 1204 AD. It is believed that Santorini became known by its present name during this period, when seamen from foreign lands had named the island after its church of Santa Irini, which gradually developed into Santorini. In 1207, Santorini was relinquished to the Duke of Naxos, while attempts were made to liberate the island. The island was taken by the Greeks for a short time, but it was recaptured by the Venetians in 1296 and stayed there until 1579, when Santorini came under Ottoman rule. In 1452, another violent volcanic eruption, which submerged half of the isle of Palea Kammeni, took place. This occurrence, along with the constant pirate attacks, caused much hardship for the island’s inhabitants.
Turkish Rule – Modern Times
During the Turkish Rule, Santorini kept most of its autonomy and even had an elected representative who represented the islanders before the Ottomans. The Catholic and Orthodox communities lived in relative peace, on different parts of the island. The Monastery of Profitis Ilias is one of the lasting landmarks of the Ottoman period. This 18th-century monastery sits high up, boasting fine views, and also has its own related museum.
Santorini finally gained its independence in 1821, along with the rest of Greece. At the time, Santorini had one of the most powerful naval fleets in the country. During the period of WWII, Santorini was occupied by the Italians and the Germans until its liberation on October 18th, 1944.
In 1956, a great earthquake caused many deaths and the destruction of many buildings on the island. Several years passed before the Santorinians were able to return to normal life.
Santorini previously had a thriving pumice industry, although in 1986 it was decided to close the quarries down in an attempt to protect the caldera.
Tourism is the main industry in Santorini today, with many quaint villages and multitude of historic sights. A relatively recent newsworthy event was the dramatic sinking of the MS Sea Diamond in 2007, while the island was ranked number one in the world by Travel and Leisure Magazine in 2011.