I joke a lot on my Instagram that my posts are basically just “Kathleen looks at old shit.” It’s not really a joke though – ancient history is one of my favorite things to explore wherever I am. And today, in Greece, a place that might have an ancient site or three to offer, I’m headed to one of the most mysterious and tragic places of all: the city of Akrotiri, on present-day Santorini.
If you have read a few of my blog posts by now, you know that I’m super into ancient history. (If you haven’t, hi and welcome!)
So while visiting Santorini, I am not here just for the sunset selfies against the white and blue hills with the Insta-famous set here. Also I’m not rich enough for yachts so that rules out another diversion here. In an island full of honeymooners and basic bitches and bros constantly posing, what’s a solo female traveler to do?
Hannah has some great ideas on how to spend your time here to get the classic Santorini experience. but if you’re an Ancient Greek history buff like me (I might have a tattoo in Ancient Greek, if that tells you anything), Akrotiri is a must-see.
Lost history in the Santorini hills
Out at the far end of the island, next to a beach covered in glossy black rocks washed by the clear blue sea, you’ll find Akrotiri (at least that’s what we call it today).
That’s right: it’s a place so shrouded in mystery we don’t even know what it was called back in its own time.
What do we know?
It was settled by ancient Minoans from Crete who sailed over and found a perfect port and lands to farm, probably about 4000 years ago. They built a huge city, which was knocked about by an earthquake. Then they built it even bigger.
It had multi-storied houses with intricate frescoes adorning the walls. It had pottery workshops producing gorgeous wares that were exported all over the Aegean Sea and beyond, in trade as far as Syria and Egypt.
It had aqueducts (probably) and really sophisticated indoor plumbing (definitely). A few of the places I’ve stayed here today have less advanced plumbing than the ancient Minoans. And underfloor heating! It is 2018 and I have never lived anywhere with underfloor heating.
They had systems of writing and measuring and weighing. They had a complex bureaucracy and organizational systems and incredibly advanced shipbuilding techniques.
This is at a time when everyone in Britain was living in shitty little huts, just for reference.
But underfloor heating will not save your civilization from the ravages of the earth (America, take note!).
Around 1450 BC, another big earthquake rocked Akrotiri. This must have been a warning to the residents, because they fled with their gold. And good thing they did.
In their time, this entire bay was part of the island. Turns out there was a giant volcano underneath and it blew its top, literally.
It was one of the biggest volcanic explosions the world has ever seen.
And it buried the city of Akrotiri under several feet of ash, and most of the remaining island under lava. The rest just sank into the sea.
That’s how Santorini got its famous caldera, seen above. Those dramatic cliffs are the result of catastrophic explosions. Scenic! You can still swim around the volcano today, which is still active. Under this gorgeous tranquility lies the ever-present possibility of death and destruction.
And that’s how Akrotiri disappeared forever (until 1971 when excavations began, anyways).
Santorini’s ancient history and ancient mysteries
There were no bodies found in Akrotiri, so we know everyone escaped the city alive. But that’s all we know.
Where did they go? They left pots full of food and pigs to be butchered and most of their belongings except their gold (we know this because all the jewelry that’s been uncovered is just some basic wood pieces), so they probably planned to return. But no one came back to Santorini for at least 200 years after the explosion.
Did they sail back to Crete? Are they buried in ash somewhere else on the island? What other secrets died with them? (Like why did they put nipples on their jars?!)
The myth of Atlantis
You’ve likely heard the legend of Atlantis, the fabulously wealthy society, advanced beyond conception, that suddenly sank into the sea.
Was this Akrotiri? Maybe! Historians debate back and forth. Plato is the first to mention the myth, and it’s quite possible he knew of this civilization catastrophe.
I like to think yes.
Practical info: getting to Akrotiri
Once you’re on Santorini, getting around is pretty easy. If you take buses, it’s cheap too. All the buses connect in Fira in the middle of the island, so I stayed there which made exploring easy (I liked both Pension Stella, which is a bit of a walk out of town, and Markakis Studios right in the center for budget options).
To get to Akrotiri, hop on a bus to Fira if you’re not already there and find the bus to Akrotiri in the main bus station in town. They leave fairly regularly, but be sure to check an updated schedule as things are subject to change. It will cost you €2 and drop you right at the entrance of the site.
Admission costs €12 normally, but there’s a student discount. And I happened to go on Oxi Day, a national holiday where all the museums (and buses) were free! Check out opening hours and prices here.
You can hire a guide or just wander around reading the comprehensive signage (in English and Greek) all over. Then hop on the bus back when you’re done and treat yourself to a few well-earned glasses of wine overlooking the caldera at Tropical Bar.
History is everywhere
Even socialite havens like Santorini (not that I’ve seen any celebs here, I guess they don’t hang out at €30 per night pensions in late October) are full of history and beauty.
I love to visit ancient sites because it reminds me of the connection to our common humanity. You can get a view of the lives of people thousands of years ago, and they’re not so different from our own (everyone likes indoor plumbing).
Even 3500 years ago, the people here marveled at the sparrows diving and the eagles soaring and the waves cresting just like I did today. We know this from the art on their jars and walls they left behind. That’s what draws me to art: the stories it can tell us about who we were and who we are today.
And if our world might (literally) explode out from under us tomorrow, how should we spend our precious time today?