I was walking through a ghost town with no ghosts. Maybe that’s why it never whispered any clear answers. Ancient Akrotiri was a city of 30-thousand souls, until they vanished, every last one of them.
In about 1650 BC, the ancient Minoan town of Akrotiri was buried under tons of volcanic ash and pumice, buried by the volcano atop which its people lived. Unlike Pompeii, in Akrotiri no evidence of a single victim has yet been found. This suggests the Minoans had some warning that Santorini Volcano was about to blow, and they decided to flee. They left behind beautifully decorated clay storage jars, hidden under beds and in cubbyholes, leaving the impression that they’d stashed supplies in hopes of returning. They never did.
The city is in amazingly excellent condition, preserved by the very volcanic material that buried it. For almost 4000 years, it lay hidden beneath the volcano’s remaining crater rim, now known as the Greek Island of Santorini. Then, in 1967, archaeologists began uncovering the remains of a sophisticated civilization: houses two and three stories high, with walls featuring beautiful frescoes and large windows, a sewage system complete with indoor toilets, and town walkways leading to an ancient port. At that port, they once kept up a busy seafaring trade with fellow Minoans from the island of Crete. They had a written language, inscribed on the clay tablets they left behind. But their writing was based on an alphabet, rather than hieroglyphics, and no one has figured out what the tablets say.
Many archaeologists and historians believe the eruption of Santorini was the major cause in the disappearance of the entire Minoan civilization. The explosion of hot magma would have killed anyone within 20 miles, and a great black cloud of poisonous ash blew south toward Crete. But the greatest killer of all was set loose when the island collapsed and the crater filled with water, creating tsunamis of incomprehensible size.
Evidence shows that at least one giant wall of water roared south, as tall as 300 to 600 feet high. If the Akrotiri residents fled north, they might have avoided the giant wave, but if they fled south, toward Crete, they were likely swallowed by the monster sea. The tsunami would have devastated Crete, the center of the Minoan civilization.
It’s not the only theory about the end of the Minoans, and with no way to understand their writings there’s no way to be sure exactly what happened.
As I walked along the village paths and peaked though the doorways, I hoped to feel some connection, some sense that the people who once lived here were much like me. I yearned to see signs that the urge to become civilized is the urge we all have to become more than we have been. But the strongest connection I felt was when I saw that familiar pinnacle of human achievement: the indoor toilet.
Although Akrotiri offers more questions than answers, sometimes a mystery can carry a message of its own. To me, the eerily empty village of Akrotiri is a reminder that, no matter how civilized we become, it can all end at any moment. The earth is a fiery, unpredictable mistress.
Not that volcanoes frighten me, any more than anything else. Life is an endless gauntlet. Death awaits us all, though we run along life’s narrow rim as if no dangers lie below.
(The archaeological site of Ancient Akrotiri is expected to reopen to tourists in 2010 or 2011. Due to the collapse of the modern roof that covered the site, it was closed for several years for repairs.)