Greece’s island of the gods
Today, divers are finding lava in a ring on the sea bed that stretches for more than 20 miles. When this place imploded, tree growth was stunted as far away as Ireland. This was an event of such mammoth proportions that it would have been remembered for centuries afterwards, and I’m certain that what happened spawned the tales of Atlantis. As the Greek philosopher Plato put it: ‘…there occurred portentous earthquakes and floods, and one grievous day and night befell them, when the whole body of your warriors was swallowed up by the earth, and the island of Atlantis in like manner was swallowed up by the sea and vanished…’
And the volcano is not quiet yet. Take a 10-minute boat ride across to the islet of Nea Kameni – in fact an oozing magma chamber – and the power of the gods is still palpable. Giant basalt rocks glisten like black molasses, while the earth weeps sulphur and jets of steam. The 17th-century eruption blew the centre out of the island, and seawater hurled into the void. Today, boats pass over what were once fields and homes. The chief archaeologist here, Professor Christos Doumas told me, with a crack in his voice, that one day he is sure we will find the lost Therans themselves.
Marvelling at the play of light around the caldera at sunset, the brilliance of the moon on the ocean, or the peace at dawn, we share experiences enjoyed by centuries of travellers. Settlers from Sparta recolonised the island seven centuries after the eruption, while later inhabitants welcomed Egyptian visitors and Eastern divinities; we can still see the remains of one such goddess, Basileia, in the pretty marble chapel of Agios Nikolaos near Emporio. Medieval Byzantines built churches on Mount Profitis Ilias, where a monastery still exists today. Santorini was believed to bring mankind closer to Heaven.
It is Santorini’s very impossibility that makes it so compelling – it is sublime on the surface, with a diabolic core. There is a sense here of being given the island, and time on it, as a gift. And while we touch its past, Santorini also encourages us to love the living of the present.