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The ancient buried city of Akrotiri, Santorini: Greece’s Pompeii

The ancient buried city of Akrotiri, Santorini: Greece’s Pompeii

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.

Read more: Domes and donkeys: What to see and do in Fira, Santorini

Minoan pottery from the buried city of Akrotiri

Uncovered pottery

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 ruined ancient city of Akrotiri

Among the ruins of the city

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.

Ancient Minoan toilet at Akrotiri archaeological site

The Minoan version of a toilet!

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.

Building at Akrotiri archaeological site

The archaeological building at Akrotiri

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.

Walkways through the ruins at Akrotiri

Walkways down to the ruins

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.

Minoan artefacts in Santorini

An Minoan tub

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 Red Beach at Akrotiri, Santorini

The Red Beach at Akrotiri

The details

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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Exploring the archaeological site of Akrotiri, Santorini: A buried city that's a window into the life of the ancient Minoans and Greece's version of Pompeii #Akrotiri #Santorini #archaeology

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19 Comments

  • Reply
    restlessjo
    November 18, 2015 at 6:20 pm

    It’s always been a fascinating subject, Lucy. If I ever get back that way I’d like a look. 🙂

    • Reply
      Lucy
      November 18, 2015 at 7:59 pm

      These buried cities are so interesting – and the age of Akrotiri was just mind-boggling!

  • Reply
    Suzanne Jones
    November 20, 2015 at 10:22 pm

    What a fascinating and alternative side to Santorini – I had no idea this existed!

    • Reply
      Lucy
      November 23, 2015 at 1:02 pm

      I read about it somewhere and loved Pompeii and Herculaneum so knew I’d have to go and see this too!

  • Reply
    atravelingb
    November 21, 2015 at 2:51 am

    Very cook, Lucy! I have been to Santorini, but never knew Akrotiri existed. I love this history of it – its crazy to think of how long it does make Pompeii look!

    • Reply
      Lucy
      November 23, 2015 at 1:03 pm

      It’s hard to get your head around huge numbers like 5000 BC! Really interesting place to visit though and a real contrast to the rest of Santorini.

  • Reply
    Daniela Frendo
    November 22, 2015 at 3:11 pm

    Love reading about little-known archaeological sites like this one. I often wonder how many ancient sites have yet to be discovered…

    • Reply
      Lucy
      November 23, 2015 at 1:04 pm

      Yes I’m sure there are hundreds of unknown places around the world just waiting to be found, archaeology must be a fascinating field to work in.

  • Reply
    Vlad
    November 23, 2015 at 1:29 pm

    Looks fascinating! I’m dying to visit Santorini so I’ll make sure to include this on my itinerary when I’ll go there 🙂

    • Reply
      Lucy
      November 23, 2015 at 2:52 pm

      Santorini is great – it is really busy but there’s a lot to see so you can always escape the crowds. Akrotiri wasn’t busy at all, and there’s a cool red beach nearby too.

  • Reply
    aggy87
    November 24, 2015 at 4:55 am

    Woah! Being a fan of Pompeii, I can’t believe I didn’t come here when I was in Santorini. Another reason to come back then. It’s amazing to see that all the ruins after all this time – and to think Pompeii was old!

    • Reply
      Lucy
      November 24, 2015 at 9:30 pm

      It’s such an interesting place – and the age is just incredible, especially when you think how advanced the city seems.

  • Reply
    Sarah
    November 24, 2015 at 1:21 pm

    This is one of my favourite blog posts ever – how had I not heard of this place before?! Thanks for sharing Lucy 🙂

    • Reply
      Lucy
      November 24, 2015 at 9:33 pm

      Thanks Sarah, I was really surprised it wasn’t more well-known (or busy!).

  • Reply
    Amrita Ahuja
    December 17, 2015 at 6:41 am

    Amazing post. Santorini –the name itself brings so many questions to the minds. This article has inspired me to visit Santorini’s ancient city of Akrotiri. I would love to travel there with my friends and unravel the mystery!

  • Reply
    Maria Anagnostopoulou
    November 17, 2018 at 4:11 pm

    Very good job Lucy and thank you very much you wrote about Akrotiri. Very few of the tourists seem to know about it and its a pity, its sooo interesting and rare!

    • Reply
      Lucy
      November 28, 2018 at 8:17 pm

      Thank you – it was such a fascinating spot, hope I can introduce a few more people to it!

  • Reply
    Awa
    July 5, 2019 at 7:16 am

    Visited this amazing city in May 2019. i remember reading about this ancient city and asked our tour guide about it as for some reason I don’t think it was on his list of places to show us. However he was happy to take us there and gave us an hour (our request) to have a good look through. Absolutely amazing. The path takes you over most of the site however you can get off it and get up close to the walls and walk through part of the city. Recommend getting a guided tour. We didn’t unfortunately. There are some information boards and a short video at the end but a guide would’ve been better. Think entry was about 12 Euro each.

    • Reply
      Lucy
      July 8, 2019 at 5:46 pm

      So interesting isn’t it – such a lot of history to explore!

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