Akrotiri, a Bronze Age town on the present-day island of Thera in Greece, is one of the most intriguing archaeological discoveries in the world. Often dubbed as “Minoan Pompeii,” the prehistoric city is located on the southern end of the main island, between the famous Red Sea and the village Akrotiri. Due to the lack of accessibility, the village remains hidden behind the famous white and blue buildings and dramatic views of Santorini to most of the tourists. The once rich and sophisticated urban civilization now exists only as a preserved memory of the past as it became victim to the volcanic eruption of the 17th century.
The site’s antiquity remains a mystery, with just a small portion of the estimated 20 hectares of ancient civilization excavated and explored.
From the Origin to Destruction to Exploration
Dating back to 4000 B.C., Akrotiri emerged as an important and wealthy trading city of the Bronze age due to its strategic geographical location and active trade of goods with mainland Greece, Crete, Cyprus, Syria, and even Egypt. Owing to the close similarities to Cyprus, Akrotiri is often described as a Minoan City; however, it is not evident to what extent its several thousands of inhabitants adopted the Minoan lifestyle. The civilization enjoyed its wealth, power, and prosperity for the next 50 years to come after its origin, according to the historian Nanno Marinatou.
In the 17th century, a massive earthquake triggered one of the most destructive volcanic explosions in the last 4000 years. This huge disaster left a permanent scar on the city of Akrotiri, annihilating the whole civilization; the ashes and lava covered the city, preserving it through time.
Due to the similar shared fate, Pompeii is usually compared to Akrotiri; the only difference between the destruction of two cities is that the inhabitants of the latter were able to flee unharmed. It has led the researchers to believe that the earthquake might have cautioned the inhabitants and animals, giving them enough time to leave the city before the volcanic eruption. However, it is still unknown why the inhabitants never returned to their homes, and Akrotiri remained an abandoned city for the years to come.
Several years later, in the 1860s, the buried city would be discovered when the earth from Santorini was excavated to build of the Suez Canal. However, it took another century for the extensive excavations and studies on the city of Akrotiri to begin; a Greek archaeologist, Spyridon Marinatos, became the first person who started unravelling the buried mysteries of this city. Interestingly, to date, the actual name of the prehistoric city, the one used by the inhabitants for their city, is not known. The name Akrotiri comes from the nearby modern village, making it one of the many questions that are left unanswered.
The City’s Lost Architecture
In the silent remains of the once-thriving town, it is evident that Akrotiri was a secure and prosperous town. Currently, the area near the harbour is excavated, which is indicative of the higher living standards of the upper class. Among the thirty-five different buildings excavated on-site, with only ten to a satisfactory level, mostly identified to have two or even three floors.
The architecture of this ancient city is still not described to a definitive degree as most of the buildings had extensions, modifications, unique organized plans, and maybe much more that is yet to be discovered. Even with an incomplete picture, as a result, historians have successfully developed a “the model of the typical Theran house,” that includes the common components found to date in the houses but in no way claims to be the prototype or the ideal concept of houses of Bronze Age.
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While strolling through Akrotiri’s small, deserted alleyways, one may spot The West House, one of the most important structures excavated. Although it is smaller than the other structures, its well-organized layout, spaces, and artefacts distinguish it. With a kitchen, mill installation, workshops on the ground floor, and a spacious chamber for weaving adorned with murals and frescoes, it is a free-standing structure on the northern edges of the town.
Another large two-storeyed building, House of Ladies, is architecturally interesting, as it had a light-well constructed at the centre of the building. Named after the frescoes of papyrus and ladies found on its walls, it shows how architecturally advanced the lost civilization was. Xeste 3 and Xeste 4 are large buildings with two- and three-stories respectively and multiple rooms; Xeste 3 was probably used to perform some ritual, whereas Xeste 4 was a public building based on its lavish and unusually large, impressive exteriors and openings.
The structures of ashlar blocks and rubble with timber lacing and clay plaster are highly impressive. The ground floors, seemingly used as storage rooms, are connected to the first floors of residential accommodation by stairways. The rooms filled with artefacts hold memories of the past, while the walls adorned with paintings recount tales of bygone eras. Everything, from architecture to artefacts to art, reveals Akrotiri’s affluence during the period.
Lifestyle of the Prehistoric Settlement
Life in the city of Akrotiri was marked with their connection to the sea and trade. Even though it developed into a commercial and trade hub, it was primarily a farming and fishing village. It was a common practice to cultivate grains such as wheat, barley, legumes as well as olives, and wines. Trades were made in terms of wines, metals, and volcanic rocks. The houses found on site are all similarly constructed and with open areas, balconies, hot and cold running water, and an elaborate plumbing and drainage system for every structure. With no palatial residential structures or lavish houses, it is believed that the Akrotiri had a democratic and egalitarian society with no such societal hierarchies. However, they still portrayed their higher standards of living through art and decoration.
Christos Doumas, Director of the Akrotiri Archaeological Excavation, has so rightly stated how the quality of the murals and other artefacts found in the ruins of Akrotiri is the reflection of the history of the consumer society.
A Tour to the Minoan City of Akrotiri, Today
Akrotiri today has become a site of exploration with an excavation research laboratory for various archaeologists while thousands of tourists circulate it daily, witnessing the charm of the lost city. With the beginning of excavations in 1967, Marinatos concentrated mainly on protecting and safeguarding the built area and the artefacts found; this led him to put the whole area/site under a unified bioclimatic roof to protect them from wind, harsh sun, and adverse climatic conditions. In 2005, the previous roof collapsed, which resulted in the killing of a British tourist. The site was closed down to the general public and tourists for the next 7-years while constructing a new roof that better suits the site and the existing landscape.
Now, everyone can visit Akrotiri, walking down the paths of a guided tour to experience every layer of history and culture that lies within structures. In a city like Akrotiri, which combines history, legend, culture, and the tales of a civilization, many discoveries are yet to be made, stories yet to be heard and many paths yet to be explored.
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