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Volcanic Eruption of Thera: End of Crete Minoan Civilization?

Volcanic eruption of Thera

Around 1500 BC, the Mediterranean experienced the greatest natural disaster in its history. The volcanic eruption of Thera, currently Santorini, in the Cyclades, caused considerable damage on the island and beyond.

First, the earth trembles

At the time of its prosperity, Thera, a small circular island, sheltered a very advanced population. One of its urban centers, the city of Akrotiri, was excavated by Greek archaeologists. Their work made it possible to follow the main stages of the annihilation of the island. Some time before the volcano erupted, the city suffered a violent earthquake which damaged its buildings. Walls collapsed and cluttered the streets with rubble. Inside houses, heavy blocks of stone from the steps shattered, which testifies to the violence of the earthquake. It is possible that part of the population then abandoned the site.

Then the volcano gets angry…

Restoration and reconstruction work on the buildings are under way. They will never be completed, as the volcano begins to manifest. It’s probably only gas fumes, which gives residents time to flee. Archaeologists have, in fact, found no corpses or valuables in the city.

The first volcanic eruption of Thera covers Akrotiri and the rest of the island with a thin layer of pumice stones. The main eruption occurs some time after. It then projects pumice stones, the layer of which reaches 6 meters thick, then a formidable quantity of ashes. The ash layer rises to 30 meters in some places on the island.

Finally, the walls of the volcano, which are no longer supported, collapse, causing a vast circular depression that the sea invades. The island then takes on the shape of a crescent that it still presents today.

The end of the world

Towns and villages disappear completely under the volcanic deposits. The civilization of traders and sailors of Thera is swept away. Only the ruins of Akrotiri, hidden under the ashes, today bear witness to its refinement and richness. The carefully constructed two- or three-story mansions are adorned with superb murals depicting everyday life, naval expeditions, battles ... Two centuries will pass before life resumes in Thera, above the ruins.

Consequences difficult to measure

Beyond Thera, in the Aegean Sea, the eruption is causing serious damage, the extent of which is difficult to assess today. Clouds and rains of ash touch islands as distant as Rhodes and Kos, off the coast of Turkey, and leave significant deposits there. Eastern Crete is also affected, but to a lesser extent. By plunging these areas into darkness for hours or even days, the clouds probably caused a great fright among the populations.

It is also possible that harmful gases have escaped from the volcano and poisoned living things. The volcanic clouds have also caused climatic changes which must have considerably affected the living conditions of the peoples of the Aegean Sea; finally, the collapse of the dome of the volcano was certainly followed by a tidal wave. It is not known, in the case of Santorini, in which direction the huge waves then propagated.

Two very distinct disasters

In 1939, Greek archaeologist Spyridon Marinatos theorized that the eruption of Santorini was responsible for the sudden end of the Minoan civilization of Crete. He believes that the destruction of palaces and cities in eastern Crete, like the palace of Knossos, was caused by the earthquakes, ash rains and tidal waves that followed the explosion. According to volcanologists and geologists, the thin layer of ash and the weak intensity of earthquakes could not have caused the irreparable damage suffered by the Cretan palaces.

By comparing the pottery found in Crete and in Thera, the archaeologists note in turn that the two disasters did not happen at the same time, but that they were separated by some ten years.

Cretan civilization, weakened, disappears

Today, many scholars believe that the eruption of Santorini has seriously disrupted the people of the Aegean Sea and dealt a serious blow to their trade relations and prosperity. In the aftermath of the disaster, Crete may have hosted many refugees who fled from islands that became inhospitable. Weakened by all these events, the island could not have responded to external attacks, or avoided the destruction of its palaces by fire noted by archaeologists. For some, it would have been raided by pirates; others believed it was ravaged by Mycenaeans, invaders from mainland Greece who took possession of the island. In the years to come, studies in different disciplines will undoubtedly clarify the causal links between the cataclysm and the brutal end of a brilliant civilization.