It might seem like the island of Santorini in Greece is wall-to-wall whitewashed villages, caldera views and sublime sunsets. But head south of famous Oia and Fira and you’ll find a different type of Greek settlement – the ruined city of Akrotiri, Santorini. Or at least that’s what it’s known as now. It was christened Akrotiri after the nearby modern town of the same name, but its real identity is just one of its mysteries. Nicknamed Santorini’s Pompeii, it is similar in that both cities were buried by a volcanic eruption, but there are a few big differences between them.
The history of Akrotiri, Santorini
The first difference between Pompeii and the Akrotiri archaeological site is their age. Pompeii was founded in 600 BC and destroyed when Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD, but Akrotiri makes it look young. It was home to the ancient Minoans over 4000 years before Pompeii was founded, and has been preserved just as it would have been in 1500 BC. Visiting Akrotiri is a window into the life of a distant people – and a different side of Santorini.
Akrotiri started life as a simple fishing and farming village, growing olives and grains. But because it was positioned on the trade route between Europe and the Middle East, the money flowed in and it grew up into a big, prosperous city. It was a democratic place though, with its own parliament and no palaces. People lived in two- and three-storey houses which had balconies, underfloor heating, hot and cold running water and proper toilets.
The Minoans painted elaborate frescoes, made their own wine and crafted pots and sculptures. Amazing when you think this was during the Bronze Age, when people in Britain were living in huts and building stone circles. It’s even said that Akrotiri was Plato’s inspiration for the city of Atlantis. But somewhere around 1500 BC, it all went wrong for Akrotiri when the huge volcano Thera erupted and blew the centre right out of the island of Santorini.
It was one of the largest volcanic events recorded on Earth, creating a four-mile-wide caldera and sending up an ash cloud 20 miles high. It also set off a 100-metre tsunami that battered Crete’s coastline and reached as far as Egypt. When the eruption finished Akrotiri had been buried in a 200-foot layer of ash and debris and the shape of Santorini had been changed for good. Covered with hot lava and piles of ash, the island was abandoned for centuries.
Eventually Santorini was recolonised, with the Phoenicians, Dorians, Romans and Byzantines creating new settlements on the island. But the buried city of Akrotiri was forgotten about until the 1860s. Workers quarrying ash to build the Suez canal dug down and discovered some artifacts from the old city. There was some small-scale digs but the remains stayed where they were for another hundred years until archaeological excavations finally started in 1967.
Just a few hours into the excavation archaeologists discovered the first of ancient Akrotiri’s historic buildings. Since then around 40 buildings have been identified but there’s a long way still to go. New finds are constantly being found and it’s estimated only a third of the city has been uncovered so far – and it could take another century to excavate it all.
Visiting Akrotiri, Santorini
The Akrotiri archaeological site is open to visitors, set in a big, light and airy building. The ruins need to be covered up as the houses are made of mud bricks so would get damaged by water. But things were put on hold at the site in 2005 after the roof of the previous building collapsed and killed a British tourist. It took seven years to repair and reopen the site in a smart new building, made of steel and wood to let just enough light in but keep things cool.
Walkways are suspended above the ruins and take you around the edge of the city. But what’s ground level for us is roof height in Akrotiri – the layer of ash was up to 40 metres thick in places so it takes a lot of painstakingly digging and the removal of huge quantities of rock to get down to the original street level. A pathway leads down through some of the reconstructed houses, where you can see details like an original Minoan toilet and a stone bathtub.
During the excavations lots of different remnants of people’s everyday lives were uncovered among the buildings, and they’re what makes the site so fascinating. The ash has perfectly preserved the Minoan way of life, from painted frescoes to hundreds of pots. These range from drinking cups up to giant storage vessels decorated with geometric patterns. Many are amazingly still in tact, and some even had remains of olive oil or fish inside.
You can see some artifacts at the site, but many others have been moved to the archaeological museum in Fira, and the best of Akrotiri’s frescoes are on display in Athens’ National Archaeological Museum. Furniture like beds, chairs and tables have been recreated by pouring plaster into the casts made by the ash, like they did with people’s bodies in Pompeii. But the big difference at Akrotiri is that no human or animal remains were found here.
It’s thought there were probably lots of foreshocks before the big eruption so the Minoans had time to pack up their livestock and valuables and leave the city, unlike in Pompeii where it all happened so quickly. As it was a rich seafaring city, people probably had easy access to boats which made it easy for them to escape. Though where they went next and why they never came back to Santorini is another of the many mysteries that surround Akrotiri.
The ruins of Akrotiri make a great Santorini day trip. They’re located in the south of the island, 25 minutes’ drive from Fira. If you don’t have a car there are regular buses from Fira to Akrotiri town and the car park for the Red Beach – this is only a short walk from the archaeological site and is well worth a visit. You can also book a bus tour from Fira to the ruins and Red Beach.
Entrance to Akrotiri costs €5 per person. It’s normally open from 8am–8pm from April to October, and until 3pm (closed on Mondays) during the rest of the year. There are a few information boards dotted around the site which give you some basic information about what you’re looking at. But if you want to get more of an insight into the site then it’s worth hiring a guide (there are usually a group of them at the entrance if you haven’t pre-booked).
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