Santorini – ancient artifacts and donkey derbys

Sayonara Santorini

Santorini is a crescent island, shaped liked a cookie with a big bite taken out of it. It lies on the junction of the Eurasian and African tectonic plates and is therefore prone to earthquakes and frequent volcanic activity. It did look like a whole cookie until, in 1450 BC, a huge eruption blew up the island and left the centre as a huge water filled crater, or caldera.

Aegean eye candy

In Akrotiri, the island has one of the most important archaeological excavations anywhere in the Agean. The prehistoric city is more than 3,600 years old and was beautifully preserved by the volcanic lava and ash which poured onto it during an even earlier volcanic explosion. It’s like the Pompeii of the Aegean but happened some 1500 years earlier and because an earlier earthquake alerted the inhabitants to the forthcoming eruption, there are no bodies as they all took to their ships and sailed (we presume) safely away.

Fred Flintstone would have loved Akrotiri

The city is astonishing in its sophistication and complexity. To say this was built 1500 years before the mighty Roman empire and at a time when we in Britain were still living in mud huts and thinking about discovering iron, it is an amazing find indeed. The city, of which perhaps only 3% has been excavated has three story buildings, public spaces, shops with displays of pottery and most stunning of all beautiful coloured frescoes which adorned the plaster of the finest buildings. Everything is a bit smaller than today though as people were a lot shorter probably due to the fact that they had a lot less protein in their diet than we do today.

The young fisherman

The house of jars shows that they were skilled potters and had vases for storing and presenting food and for decoration and rituals. They worshipped nature and many of the designs have fine depictions of ibis, horses, dolphins, swifts and even monkeys on them as well as plants like lilies and papyrus flowers. They are so modern in design it is quite astonishing.They even found a small hollow golden Ibis carefully forged and with its little head and horns welded on. They were able to take casts of the remains of elegant wooden furniture. A carved side table that would not have looked out of place in the court of Louis IV shows that these early people loved fine things.

Old gold goat

The colours in the frescoes are also still vibrant. They used natural dyes like ochre for yellow but also a blue chemical derived from copper which they got from Egypt shows that these people knew of and traded with other countries like Africa, Crete and Syria.

Picturesque port

The climate was probably not so dry as it is now and there seemed to be signs of antelope and lions here too. The excavations have stopped now at Akrotiri. Much as we observed in Bulgaria the financial difficulties of the government mean that digging up ancient artefacts is not a priority at the moment, but there’s still enough there anyway for you to marvel at for a tantalising taste of ancient history.
Back in Thira, a small but perfectly formed capital which, along with Oia, could easily serve as a fantasy kingdom in Game of Thrones, we descend the precarious stepped stone route from the city to the port. It is steep and winding and the surface is worn and slippery, but it is made even more hazardous by the large gangs of donkey taxis which career down the steps and then climb more slowly back up them with a multinational tourist cargo on board.

The donkeys are coming!

Donkeys are strong animals and many of them are mule crosses which are even bigger but there are still some astonishing sights as a couple of 20 plus stone Austrians climb aboard a couple of the hapless beasts who start to huff and puff their way up the 537 steps. Some of the tourists don’t even seem to realise that the donkeys are live animals and are not a Disney themed donkey climbing ride as they don’t really hold on and continue to wave their cameras about and video themselves having holiday fun. Curious.

I’m too fat for this donkey..

In the past people have tried to get the donkey taxis stopped and have said it’s cruel but it is a very old tradition and provides a good living for the donkey owners. Of course no one was that fat when they started..

I don’t fancy yours much..

The donkeys are as much a part of Thira as the blue domed churches or the jaw dropping view across the Caldera and I can’t see this gorgeous Greek island losing its appeal anytime soon.

Is it a Game of Thrones set?