Welcome to Atlantis


So – apparently I have been to Atlantis. And there was me thinking I was just going on a short holiday to somewhere warm, sunny and quiet….. Please indulge this post, which has little to do with Whitehall or even public management, but I just wanted to share.

The Greek island of Santorini (or Thira/Thera) is a crescent-shaped main island and smaller islands in and around a giant caldera or volcanic crater. So much I knew before I went, but only vaguely – I had no idea of the real significance of the place.

The volcanic crater was created when about 60 cubic kilometers were blasted out in an enormous eruption about 3,500 years ago. The original 1800 metre high island was almost completely vaporised and the sea filled the crater it left – apparently the largest on the planet. To give some idea this was more than 10 times the size of the eruption at Pompei. It was big enough to create a mini “nuclear winter” across much of Europe and devastate the Minoan civilization on Crete. What is left is the remnants of the original island is a crescent around the hole, with the most spectacular sheer cliffs dropping straight down into the sea. On top are perched various towns and villages – people didn’t return to Thira about a 1,000 years after the disaster that destroyed most of it.

So much is relatively well known, although the scale of the volcanic event is not exactly emphasised in anything I saw before I went, or even whilst I was there. What isn’t so public are the archeological finindgs at Akrotiri (on the outside of what’s left of the main island) that show that Thira was, 3,500 years ago, a rich, fairly egalitarian, technically advanced civilisation. So much so that a great deal of evidence points to the idea that this was the real basis for the mythologised ‘Atlantis’ that Plato wrote about more than a millenium after the disaster, as a recent BBC documentary by historian Bettany Hughes shows. (Incidentally, it was a somewhat surreal experience to return from Thira on the Tuesday night and then watch this documentary about it on the Wednesday!).

Whilst I was in Thira I didn’t know all the details of the ‘Atlantis’ hypothesis. But even the scope of the natural phenomena the islands represent and the stunning geology of the (for now) quiet volcano remnants were enough to get me wondering why the Greeks seem to make so little of it. It is clearly one of the natural wonders of the world and yet even on the islands themselves little is made of it.

Coming back and watching the BBC documentary, I am even more amazed how little is being done to publicise this astonishing location. The Akrotiri dig – a massive excavation – is closed to the public and even the media find it hard to get in. What we can see in books and in the BBC film is tantalising and frustratingly little. On the islands themselves there is no mention at all of the Atlantis connection, at least not any I saw. Why the Greek authorities – not to mention the international cultural heritage organisations – are making so little of all this as both a natural and historical phenomena is a bit of a mystery to me. Even if one discounts the ‘Atlantis’ connection, the story of a highly sophisticated Bronze-age civilisation destroyed in a cataclysm of mind-boggling proportions is surely worth telling a bit more forcefully? I certainly intend to do a bit more exploring – both in the literature and hopefully in person…. and the beaches are great (if a little black).

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About Colin Talbot

Professor of Government. Universities of Cambridge and Manchester, England.
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