An archetypal Greek island fantasy
Giannis Bellonias was standing on the edge of a craggy cliffside in Imerovigli, a village built on the apex of Santorini’s vertigo-inducing caldera, waiting for sunset from the infamous lookout known as the ‘balcony to the Aegean’.
“There, right there! Look at the volcano,” the Santorini local said to me, pointing to what are in fact two small, black lava islands created by volcanic activity (and are the most recently formed pieces of land in the Eastern Mediterranean basin), called Palea Kameni (Old Burnt) and Nea Kameni (Young Burnt).
With sun-bleached, blue-shuttered houses dotted among rocks, and alabaster paved paths meandering between them, Santorini is the archetypal Greek island fantasy, an envy-inducing sight on travel brochures and Instagram posts. But beneath the glittering facade, there is a dark secret to its seductive prowess.
Situated in the southern Aegean Sea, Santorini is a small, circular group of five Cycladic islands, made up of main island Thera; Therasia and Aspronisi at the periphery; and the two lava islands. All five surround a colossal, mostly drowned caldera, a bowl-shaped crater that forms when the mouth of a volcano collapses. But during the Bronze Age, approximately 5,000 years ago, Santorini was a single volcanic landmass called Stronghyle (which means ‘round’ in Greek), and one that played a crucial role in shaping history.
Around that time, a civilisation started developing on the nearby island of Crete. The inhabitants were the Minoans, named for mythical King Minos, an enigmatic and educated people, who were warriors but also merchants, artists and seafarers. The Minoans’ ancestry has been the subject of hot dispute: some believe they were refugees from Egypt’s Nile Delta, while others say they hailed from ancient Palestine, Syria or North Mesopotamia. The most recent research says the Minoan civilisation was a local development, originated by early farmers who lived in Greece and south-western Anatolia. Whatever the case, there is little doubt that between 2600 and 1100BC a sublimely sophisticated and advanced civilisation thrived here. Excavations in Crete, especially in Knossos (the capital of Minoan Crete), have unearthed the remains of a spectacular palace, golden jewellery and elegant frescoes.
Over the centuries, the Minoan empire extended over the island of Rhodes (309km east of Stronghyle) as well as parts of the Turkish coast and perhaps as far as Egypt and Syria. Stronghyle (now Santorini) was an especially important outpost for the Minoans due to its privileged position on the copper trade route between Cyprus and Minoan Crete.
“The excavations in Akrotiri [a village in Santorini’s south-west] have found three-storey houses, vast and elaborate palaces, Europe’s first paved roads, running water and a spectacular sewage system,” said Paraskevi Nomikou, assistant professor in geological oceanography and natural geography at the University of Athens.
Most fascinating of all, Europe’s first writing systems were found in buildings in Akrotiri and on the faces of Bronze Age rocks in the Cretan palaces of Knossos and Malia: it was here that the Minoans inscribed the first of their written words, initially in the form of Cretan Hieroglyphics and later in Linear A.
Cretan Hieroglyphs is an ancient script of around 137 pictorials that look like plants, animals, body parts, weapons, ships and other objects, and is believed to have been in use until 1700BC. Gradually, the Minoans refined Cretan Hieroglyphs down to the much more stylised Linear A, which took the linguistic helm until about 1450BC. Linear A had various numbers, 200 signs and also more than 70 syllable signs, making it more like language as we know it today (though both scripts remain undeciphered).
Rightfully, the creators of Europe’s earliest written script have been hailed as the continent’s first literate and advanced civilisation. And their intellectual achievements were only surpassed by their uninhibited way of living, celebrating the joy of life even at funerals, playing with bulls instead of killing them and living in blissful harmony with nature.