Santorini: Volcano, Natural History, Mythology

Santorini: Volcano, Natural History, Mythology

Santorini: Volcano, Natural History, Mythology

Santorini: Volcano, Natural History, Mythology

Excerpt

Volcanoes leave their mark on the history of the earth through their direct or indirect impact on nature and humans. One need only consider the effects of recent eruptions-such as those of Pinatubo on the island of Luzon, Philippines (1990-93), and those of Mount Unzen on the island of Kyushu in Japan (1991 and 1995). Why are volcanoes concentrated in certain regions? What influence have they had on the climate, glaciation, and vegetation of the earth? These questions have been asked for centuries, and countless geologists, archeologists, botanists, and climatologists have devoted much scientific research to finding answers.

This book deals with the historical development of one of the world’s most remarkable active volcanoes, Santorini. Nowhere on earth can we learn so much about volcanism as we can on this island in the Greek Aegean Sea. We find material evidence there that enables us to trace the volcano’s activity for nearly two million years and to construct a picture of the devastation it wrought over the course of time. One of the highlights of this history is the Minoan eruption, probably the greatest volcanic catastrophe of the Bronze Age. The event had a severe impact on much of the Western world and contributed to the decline of the Minoan civilization. Scholars continue to discuss some of its possible effects. For example, the question of whether the sudden darkening of the sky mentioned in the Argonautica–one of the oldest Greek myths told by Apollonius of Rhodes –could be a reminiscence of this eruption. It is even thinkable that the myth reflects some of the scenes shown in the Bronze Age frescos found at Akrotiri, as they possibly depict a journey from the Nile Delta to Santorini (Callisti)–a route that also Jason and the Argonauts followed.

Another myth by Hesiod tells us about the fight between Zeus and the Titans, where Zeus uses all his power and hurled stones after the Titans. It is still warmly debated whether the ten plagues of Egypt mentioned in the Bible–and even the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt–could be attributed to this eruption. Similar discussions deal with the question of whether Santorini was the fabled island of Atlantis–described by Plato. Studies of Santorini show that the event had such an impact on the people of that time that the memory of it has been passed down in written accounts or as legends.

Santorini has an unusual geological situation in a zone of intense deformation between the converging continents of Europe and Africa. Like the other Aegean volcanoes that are adding new material to the earth’s crust, Santorini is a product of the collision of the two continents. Studies of these Aegean volcanic islands and the natural events that have occurred on them have contributed to the development of a number of basic geological concepts. One of the most famous of these was the theory of ‘craters of elevation’ which, when it was proposed by Leopold von Buch early in the nineteenth century, stimulated heated discussions, especially among scientists familiar with the geology of Santorini. According to von Buch’s theory, large craters, such as the bay of Santorini, were the result of the expansion of a volcano by gas and molten magma; the swelling eventually opened fissures and triggered an eruption. Virtually all the noted naturalists of the day, including Alexander von Humboldt and Charles Darwin, contributed to the discussions, but it was the detailed geological studies of Santorini by Ferdinand Fouqué (1879) that finally put the theory to rest.

Santorini again attracted worldwide attention when Spyridon Marinatos (1939) proposed that the Bronze Age eruption of Santorini was responsible for the sudden demise of the Minoan civil-

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