Santorini 2: Volcano

We have our first view of the Santorini caldera exactly at sunset (I am sure George engineered it this way).

Easy enough to find pictures; hard for those pictures to convey the drama of emerging from the close little alleyways of the town (almost Arabic in their coolness, though totally cruise-ship oriented in their contents – good jewelry, bad painting, “We ship anywhere” on crockery) to a sudden view of the whole circle of the volcano – raw, edgy, dipped into the sea opposite us, but clear in its crescent moon-like embrace of 24 square miles of ruffled water dotted with ships, bigger than Haleakala in Maui, with us perched on its highest point above the absolute black cliff straight down a couple of thousand feet into the harbor far below.

The explosion of this volcano, around 1600 BC, shook the Mediterranean world. The ash has been found in the Greenland ice, and in the rings of fallen sequoias in California. It produced a tsunami of 500 feet (the Javan tsunami of a couple of years ago was 60 feet). The island of Santorini itself was of course obliterated, and the island of Kriti (Crete) to its south took the full force of the tsunami and earthquake, and these two islands were the seat of the ancient Minoan civilization, that of the House of the Ax and the Labyrinth, the bull dance and the mosaics of Knossos, which ruled the whole of the eastern Mediterranean and perhaps beyond before the rise of the Phoenicians, the Athenian states and the whole Platonic school (Plato himself, writing many centuries after the event, theorized that the earthquake and volcano sank Atlantis, placing Atlantis here in Santorini), and way before the Roman triremes ruled the waves. The mighty Minoan empire was wiped out in a matter of days, never to rise again. See Mary Renault’s The King Must Die for a fictional but brilliantly realized tale of this time.

And oh yes, one other minor effect of this huge cataclysm: the initial pull of the tsunami drained the water around the head of the Red Sea, allowing a small group of escaping slaves from a minor tribe on the Levant to cross to safety from Egypt to the Sinai, while the pursuing army was caught in the returning water of the tsunami itself. “Pharoah’s army got drownded, Oh, Mary, don’t you weep.”


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