Was Thera Atlantis?

THERA, Greece—Atlantis! Ever since Plato described the wonders of the Lost Continent 2,300 years ago, it has been name to dream about. And now, with the exercise of some faith and imagination, it lies within the reach of every traveler to the Mediterranean. If, that is, the traveler will accept the theory that Thera is the Lost Paradise, the Garden of Eden, which Plato said was “swallowed up by the sea and vanished.”

The theory has collected a few supporters recently, including A. G. Galanopoulos, the Greek seismologist, and James W. Mayor Jr. of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts. But it was a Frenchman, Louis Figuier, who first suggested—back in 1872—that Atlantis was an island in the Aegean archipelago and that its center was Thera, also known as San torin, 125 miles southeast of Athens.

Atlantis has, of course, been placed elsewhere: the Atlantic Ocean, Tunisia, northwest France and even Germany’s North Sea island of Helgoland. Others suspect that the whole thing was a figment of Plato’s imagination.

Plato claimed that Atlantis had an advanced civilization: its inhabitants could read and write and obeyed written code of laws; “All the exterior of the temple they coated with silver save only the pinnacles, and these they coated with gold.” He spoke of two islands—one, the Royal City, was roughly rectangular and immense; the other, the Ancient Metropolis, was round and quite small.

A Mistake in Transcription’

The Thera‐as‐Atlantis advocates say that Thera and two nearby islands, Therasia and Aspronisi, were once a single island called Stronghyle (“Round”), which exploded about 1500 B.C. The circumstances seem to fit the Atlantis picture very well. There is a problem about the dates—Plato put the explosion more than 8,000 years before the Stronghyle cataclysm. But there is good reason, I feel, to accept the notion of some scholars that there was a mistake in transcribing the dates, a sort of typographical error. In any event, as a visitor to Thera, I wanted to believe; the wish was father to the thought.

I left Piraeus, the port of Athens, on brilliant spring day. The next afternoon as our ship, the Elli, glided between Thera and Therasia, I viewed a breath taking scene. Cliffs, banded in grayish white, faded black and menacingly dark red strata, rose sheer from the sea.

As the ship drew closer, I saw that the cliffs were topped by a shimmering white ribbon, which gradually evolved into the houses and churches of straggling towns and villages. The multi colored, precipitous cliffs, exposed as pared by a cheese wire, were composed of a mixture of cinders, lava and pumice. Just then, ahead and slightly to the right, the tiny island of Aspronisi appeared.

As we sailed into the lagoon, which measures approximately 18 miles around its inner edge and is fringed by the islands, I could imagine the huge volcano that once stood there. The enormous eruption of 1500 B.C. left a cavity of gigantic dimensions under the central part of the original island. The roof collapsed; sea water rushed in, and the lagoon was formed. The steep cliffs of present‐day Thera are the shattered remains of the crater walls. (Crater Lake in Oregon is a similar geological phe nomenon.)

Emerald Glow

The ship tied up at a buoy a few hundred yards offshore. The water, which glowed like emerald below the ship’s keel, sank down, down, down to the very bottom of the volcanic chamber, a depth of between 1,000 and 1,500 feet—much too deep to drop anchor. Tenders buzzed around like so many mosquitoes, and soon I stood on the quayside of Thera at the foot of cliffs that rose sheer to a height of 1,200 feet.

A zigzag path of 587 steps traverses the cliffs to the town of Thera atop the crater’s rim. Donkeys are available for the ascent, but take heed: Unless the saddle is heavily padded with soft mate rial, it is unwise to sit astride. The Greek donkey saddle is a tent‐shaped wooden structure, designed for riding side saddle. Hang on grimly to the pommel, get both feet on one side and slump, as if concussed, toward the center for balance. Doing this, reached the top without mishap.

The Other Side

I walked to the far end of the town and from the courtyard of a gleaming new cathedral saw the other face of the 31‐square‐mile island. Sloping east ward were green fields supporting rich crops of barley, beans and tomatoes. The fields were separated from vine yards by walls of red, black and white stones.

Granted the blessing of but a little water, volcanic soil is a potent breeder of the vine. At times, in fact, wine is easier to come by on Thera than water, much of which is shipped by lugger from the island of Poros more than 150 miles to the north.

What I saw reminded me of Plato’s words in “Critias.” He says the acropolis of Atlantis was built on a small hill in the center of the island near a fertile plain, and he describes the buildings as being of red, black and white stones.

I found no signs of the rich, elegant life of Atlantis, however. Today’s is landers (about 10,000) are not dressed fashionably. No slim‐waisted, jewel‐be decked Atlanteans bathe in the hot and cold springs described by Plato. No longer is a priest‐king worshiped, but in both the number and magnificence of the churches there is a hint of the former glories of Atlantis.

Nowhere in Greece have I seen so many churches. Neighboring Mykonos may boast 365, but Thera has many more, and these are not tiny private chapels but large, glistening, white edifices frequently topped by a dome of celestial blue. One has the feeling that the vast number of churches is an at tempt to placate the ever‐present, all powerful volcano.

Accommodations on Thera are sparse. There are only two hotels, and these have fewer than 100 beds between them. Yet, even in July, when I last visited the island, there were rooms available in both hotels and in many private homes.

Plumbing Capricious

The rooms in the Atlantis Hotel are pleasant, the plumbing capricious, the food indifferent. (As in many hotels in Greece, demi‐pension is obligatory.) The Panorama is an acceptable class‐C hotel, all rooms having their own facilities.

I made several excursions during my stay. The first was to the village of Akrotiri, five miles south of the town of Thera. There is a ruined Venetian castle on the spur of a hill there, but of more interest are fragmentary re mains of a Minoan city uncovered dur ing the past four years below a thick layer of pozzalana (pumice and volcanic ash). Among the findings are some enormous storage vessels painted with an abstract octopus pattern, each vessel large enough to hold a full‐grown man. They reminded me of the huge jars had seen at various Minoan sites on Crete.

Last month Prof. Spyridon Marinatos, Inspector General of Greek Archeologi cal Services, announced the discovery in Akrotiri of a multistory building con taining a wall painting in red, blue and golden ocher. The fresco is said to show two swallows exchanging a kiss in mid air over a field of red lilies, the stems gently bending to the breeze.

Clay and Bronze Vases

In the room with the fresco were found about 100 vases made of fine clay, and in another room a collection of bronze vases and pans was uncov ered.

On my return from Akrotiri, I passed a quarry where men were working the pozzalana. It yields an excellent cement, which is one of the basic wealths of Thera. In this quarry, about 20 years ago, human bones and teeth and charred pieces of pine were found, and, accord ing to radiocarbon measurements, they had been buried there about 1500 B.C.

A bus journey of about five miles to the north, along the ridge of the crater, took me to the village of Jo, where ruined homes and crumbling buildings are mute testimony to recent eruptions. In was devastated by an upheaval in 1956.

Life on Thera is not easy, and the volcano will erupt again. Man exists here, however tenaciously, on a precari ous lease. I was forced to pose the question, “Why remain?” The answer is the same heard in the villages on the slopes of Mount Etna on Sicily, in the village below Mont Pelée on Martinique and in the earthquake‐shattered villages of Kalkan and Yeronda in Turkey: “It is our home.”

Most of the houses on Thera have been built since the 1956 eruption and are simple, long, barrel‐vaulted struc tures with tiny windows. The strange architecture is no whim but the type that presents maximum resistance to tremors. The houses, all gleaming white, sit amid and atop the gray and black rubble of buildings destroyed by the volcano. Other homes are gouged out of the soft rock of the cliffs and in these the inhabitants live like troglodytes.

The islanders can never forget the tenuous hold they have on their homes. Many keep caged singing birds. Can be that, trapped by the volcano, they wish other creatures to share their fate?

Far below, in the middle of the lagoon, they see the tiny islands of Palea Ka meni and Nea Kameni, which are the present dome of the volcano and look like a gigantic black squid spreading its tendrils far into the depths.

Bubbling Crater

Just before sunset I made my way down to the port and took a boat to those islands. In about 30 minutes landed in a sheltered cove. From there, a dusty path wound through a pumice strewn valley to the summit of the bubbling crater. From time to time, puffs of vapor burst through the burn ing sulphurous crust.

Suddenly, as I realized that I was in the middle of the gigantic hole blown in the earth’s surface 3,500 years ago, the calm, deep‐blue circle of water around me lost some of its reassuring quality.

Back on Thera, I made one other ex cursion: to ancient Thera, whose ruins are on the opposite side of the island from the present town. The ruins, by Atlantis standards, are quite young, go ing back only as far as 900 B.C. To reach them, I took a bus to Pyrgos and walked for three hours by way of the Monastery of Prophet Elias.

I was disappointed that the warm welcome customary at Greek monas teries was not forthcoming at Prophet Elias. Still, the day was brilliant and lingered awhile. Dimly in the distance could discern an amorphous shape: the island of Crete about 75 miles to the south. Crete—the Great Island—where archeologists have uncovered so many remains of the brilliant, luxurious Mino an civilization, which, about 1500 B.C., was wiped out overnight.

Those who believe that Thera was the center of Atlantis suggest that when the sea rushed in to fill the volcanic crater, the water violently recoiled, causing tidal waves that spread through out the eastern Mediterranean and en gulfed the cities of the Minoan Empire on Crete.

Dancers’ Graffiti

Thoughtfully, I proceeded on my tir ing trek to ancient Thera. Although the ruins there have nothing to do with the quest for Atlantis, I enjoyed seeing the temples, the theaters and the gymna sium, on the stones of which were many graffiti scratched by boys who danced at the festival of Apollo.

Later, over a bottle of fine Santorin wine, one of the best in Greece, I pon dered once again the possibility that Minos can be equated with Atlantis. It seemed inconceivable that organized agriculture, writing and the use of metals—which were not known until the third millenium B.C.—could have existed 3,000 to 7,000 years before their time, the date given by Plato. One valid anomaly might be permitted, but for Atlantis to have all three of these arts in 9600 B.C. takes some believing.

The Minoan civilization had all these things. So, were not the Minoan and Atlantean civilizations one and the same? Are not Thera and Crete Plato’s Ancient Metropolis and Royal City of the Lost Continent of Atlantis? I should like to think they are.

Citation: The New York Times October 25, 1970, Section XX, Page 5 By M. S. Brooke