Encyclopædia Britannica, Ninth Edition/Thera

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THERA, or, as it is now called, Santorin, is a volcanic island in the Ægean Sea, the southernmost of the group of islands, called Sporades, which intervene between the Cyclades and Crete. From the last-named island it is separated by a space of 60 miles of sea, but the lofty Cretan ranges of Dicte and Ida are clearly visible from it in fine weather.


In shape Santorin forms a crescent, and encloses a bay on the north, east, and south, while on the western side lies the smaller island of Therasia. The encircling wall thus formed, which is elliptical in shape and 18 miles round in its inner rim is Thera and neighbouring Islands. broken in two places,—towards the north-west by a strait a mile in breadth, where the water is not less than 1100 feet deep, and towards the south-west by an aperture about 3 miles wide, where the water is shallow, and an island called Aspronisi or White Island, lying in the middle, serves as a stepping-stone between the two promontories. The cliffs rise perpendicularly from the waters of the bay, in some places to the height of 1000 feet; but towards the open sea, both in Santorin and Therasia, the ground slopes gradually away, and has been converted into broad level terraces, everywhere covered with tufaceous agglomerate, which, though extraordinarily bare and ashen to the eye, is the soil which produces the famous Santorin wine. Towards the south-east rises the limestone peak of Mount Elias, the highest point of the island (1887 feet), and the only part that existed before the volcano was formed. In the middle of the basin lie three small islands, which are the centre of volcanic activity, and are called Palaea, Mikra, and Nea Kaumene, or the Old, the Little, and the New Burnt Island; the highest of these, Nea Kaumene, is 351 feet above the sea-level. Owing to the depth of the water there is no anchorage, and vessels have to be moored to the shore, except at one point in the neighbourhood of the modern town, where there is a slight rim of shallow bottom. The cliffs both of Santorin and Therasia present an extraordinary appearance, being marked in horizontal bands by black lava, white porous tufa, and other volcanic strata, some parts of which are coloured dark red. The modern town of Thera (or Phera, as it is more commonly pronounced) is built at the edge of these, overlooking the middle of the bay at a height of 900 feet above the water, and the houses of which it is composed are themselves peculiar, for their foundations, and in some cases their sides also, are excavated in the tufa, so that occasionally they are hardly traceable except by their chimneys; and, owing to the absence of timber, for, with the exception of the fig, the cactus, and the palm, there are hardly any trees in the island, they are roofed with barrel vaults of stone and cement. Both wood and water have occasion ally to be imported from the neighbouring islands, for there are no wells, and the rain water, which is collected in numerous cisterns, does not always suffice. The largest of the other towns or villages is that of Apanomeria, near the northern entrance, which is crowded together in a white mass, while the rocks below it are the reddest that are seen in the island.

Santorin has from the earliest times been a centre of volcanic agency, and is closely connected with the earthquake movements to which the countries in the neighbourhood of the Mgean are subject, and which have been the chief cause of the destruction of the public buildings of ancient Greece. It is hardly accurate to speak of the basin which forms the harbour as a crater, for most geologists, including Lyell, support the view that the whole of this space was once covered by a single volcanic cone, the incline of which is represented by the outward slope of Santorin and Therasia, while the position of the crater was that now occupied by the Kauraene Islands; and that, at some remote period, owing to the sinking of the strata beneath, the central portion of this, extending over an area which a French writer compares with that included within the fortifications of Paris at the time of the siege, fell in, by which convulsion the basin was formed. The principal erup tions that have taken place within historic times are that of 196 B.C., when, as we learn from Strabo (i. 3, 16, p. 57), flames rose from the water halfway between Thera and Therasia for four days, and the island of Palsea Kaumene was ejected; that of 726 A.D., during the reign of the emperor Leo the Isaurian, when an addition was made to that island, and the pumice-stone that was cast forth was carried by the waves to the shores of Asia Minor and Macedonia; that of 1573, when Mikra Kaumene appeared; that of 1650, a fearful eruption, which destroyed many lives by its noxious exhalations, and ended in the upheaval of an island in the sea to the north-east of Santorin, which afterwards subsided and became a permanent reef below the sea-level; that of 1707, when Nea Kaumene arose; and, within the recollection of the present generation, that of 1866.

Santorin and Therasia have been recently the scene of a remark able archaeological discovery. In the southern parts of both those islands prehistoric dwellings have been found at some height above the sea, and there is no reasonable cause to doubt that these date from a period antecedent to the falling in of the crater and the formation of the bay. This is proved by their position underneath the layer of tufa which covers the islands, and, moreover, by these layers of tufa being broken off precipitously, in the same way as the lava-rocks, a fact which can only be explained by the supposition that they all fell in together. The foundations of the dwellings rested, not on the tufa, but on the lava below it; and here and there between the stones branches of wild olive were found, accord ing to a mode of building that still prevails in the island, in order to resist the shocks of earthquakes. Part of the skeleton of a man was discovered, and large vases, some containing grain, others stone instruments very carefully worked. Some of these vases were of fine yellowish earth, ornamented with brown bands; some, of smaller size, were more elaborately; decorated, sometimes with lines representing foliage, and in a few instances with figures of animals; some were of red earth, without ornament; while others, of pale red earth, were of very large dimensions. No implements of metal were found. Naturally it has been the subject of much discussion what was the origin of this very primitive art. The late M. Dumont, who was the leading authority on the subject (Les Ceramiques de la Grtce Propre, pp. 74, 75, 209), though speaking with great caution on account of the insufficiency of the evidence, inclined to the belief that it was partly derived from Phoenician influence, but at the same time that there were evident traces of native originality. Comparing it in respect of date with the other prehistoric developments of art in the neighbourhood of the Ægean, he would place it later than that of Hissarlik, but earlier than those of lalysus in Rhodes, and of Mycenæ.

In Greek legend the island of Thera was connected with the story of the Argonauts, for it was represented as sprung from a clod of earth which was presented to those heroes by Triton (Apollon., Argonaut., iv. 1551 sq., 1731 sq.). According to Herodotus (iv. 147), a Phoenician colony was established there by Cadmus a story which proves at least the belief that there was an early settlement of that race in the island. It has even been conjectured (see vol. xviii. p. 806) that the alphabet was introduced into Greece, not, as was commonly believed, through Thebes, but by way of Thera. Subsequently, we are told, a colony from Sparta, including some of the Minyse, was led thither by Theras, who gave the island his own name, in place of that of Calliste which it had borne before. But the one event which gave importance to Thera in ancient history was the planting of its famous colony of Gyrene on the north coast of Africa by Battus in 631 B.C., in accordance with a command of the Delphic oracle. The ancient capital, which bore the same name as the island, has been identified by an inscription as occupying a site on the eastern coast called Mesa-Vouno, between Mount Elias and the sea. The other remains of the classical period consist of walls and tombs, together with several lieroa or small shrines, one of which, now dedicated to St Nicholas Marmorites, who is so called in honour of his marble structure, is an almost unique specimen of a perfect Greek temple, for even the roof remains intact. After the fourth crusade, when the Byzantine empire was partitioned among the Latins, this island formed a portion of the duchy of the Archipelago; and it was at this period that it received the name of Santorin, i.e., St Irene, after the patron saint of the place, to whom Tournefort mentions that in his time nine or ten chapels were dedicated. At the present day Sautorin is in a prosperous condition, for, in addition to the wine trade, which is highly remunerative, there is a large export of pozzolana, which has been much used for the works at Port Said in connexion with the Suez Canal, since, when mixed with lime, it forms a very hard cement which resists the action of the sea.

General information with regard to the Thera group will be found in Ross's Inselreisen, and in Lieut. Leycester's paper in vol. xx. of the Journal of the R. Geogr. Soc.; a very complete account of the scientific phenomena is given in Fouque"s Santorin et ses Eruptions. On the prehistoric antiquities, Lenormant, Revue Archeologique, new ser., vol. xiv., and Fouque", Archives des Missions, 2d ser., vol. iv., and " Une Pompe"i Ant^historique," in the Revue des Deux blondes, vol. Ixxxiii., should be consulted. Of the life of the modern inhabitants a graphic account is given in Mr Bent's Cyclades. (H. F. T.)