Santorini Through the Centuries
Whatever the truth of Atlantis, there is no denying that the explosion put a temporary end to the human settlement of Santorini (which had begun about 3500 BC), and it would be about 900 BC before humans in any significant numbers would venture to resettle here. These were Greeks, and by the 4th century BC the island was taken over by the Athenians. After the death of Alexander the Great (323 BC), Santorini came under the control of the Ptolemies who inherited Alexander’s empire based in Egypt, and of course when Rome took over Egypt, it also inherited Santorini. During Greece’s Byzantine period (395-1200 AD), Santorini was a forgotten outpost, but when Western European Crusaders captured Constantinople in 1204, Santorini was assigned to the Italians, who managed to hold onto it until the Ottoman Turks took it over in 1537. During their long and relatively benign occupation, the Italians introduced their own Roman Catholicism, with churches and other institutions that survive to this day.
The Turks also left Santorini pretty much untouched, and when Greece won its independence in 1829, Santorini joined what would become the modern Greek nation. Individual Santorinians who prospered in shipping or other businesses enriched their island with fine mansions, but for the most part it remained in the shadow of more glamorous Greek islands.
The Tourism Explosion and the Akrotiri Excavation
Individual travelers from Western Europe would occasionally visit and write about the unusual aspects of Santorini, but it was not until the 1970s that it began to come into focus on the screen of mass tourism, and this in turn was influenced by the excavation of the great site known as Akrotiri, situated along the southwestern coast.
Although a few archaeologists had long known of some remains under the layers of volcanic fallout, major digging only began in 1967, and soon revealed an incredibly well-preserved town, complete with roads, buildings as high as three stories, frescoed rooms, countless ceramics and other artifacts. The fact that there have been no human remains and almost no valuable metal objects confirms that the inhabitants at the time were able to evacuate before the great explosion. Even those with only passing interest in archaeology and ancient history will want to give a few hours to visit this unique site, while others may choose to also visit the Museum of Prehistoric Thira in Fira, home to some of the frescoes and major finds at Akrotiri.
There is no use pretending that most people come to Santorini to track down archaeological sites, but one more should be singled out because it is so spectacular in its own way. This is Ancient Thira, located on a peak abutting the southeast coast, albeit with adventurous access demanding an uphill hike. First settled by Greeks as early as 850 BC, its major remains date from approximately 550 BC to 150 AD. Although no individual building is significant, strolling among them with the wind playing about your ears and the dramatic vistas over the sea and land below is an unforgettable experience. Remains from this site and various other sites around the island can be found in the fine Archaeological Museum in Fira.