ATLANTIS - The
Waves That Destroyed the Minoan Empire (Atlantis)
THE AEGEAN SEA is like a large lake, almost completely surrounded
by land. Around its western and northern sides stretches the
mainland of Europe; to the east is Asia Minor; while to the south,
like a breakwater, the long island of Crete separates it from
the rest of the Mediterranean Sea. The coasts of the Aegean are
deeply in dented with many bays and peninsulas, and scattered
across its entire width and length are hundreds of islands. This
is a part of the earth that en joys a mild, sunny climate with
rainy winters and dry summers. It is here that western civilization
began, and the island of Crete, located in the crossroads of
Europe and Africa, be came the leader of this early island civilization.
copying their Egyptian neigh bors in the beginning, the early
Cre tans progressed gradually, entering the Bronze Age sometime
after 3000 B.C. For the next few hundred years, their progress
was slow, but by the year 2000 B.C., they had developed a unique
and amazing civilization. Near the coasts, for convenient ac
cess to the trading ships, thriving industries developed manufacturing
pottery and metal works, highly in demand by the trade of that
era. Be cause of their mastery of the sea, their nautical skill
and daring, the Cretans monopolized the shipping and trading
and became wealthy and powerful. Larger cities were formed and,
at Knossos, the capital of a kingdom was established-a kingdom
that may have included not only the island of Crete, but many
of the neighboring islands of the Aegean Sea as well. This kingdom
of islands we now call the Minoan empire, a name that was derived
from their fabled king, or line of kings, called Minos.
A Lively Civilization
Though one of the
greatest and most distinct of the ancient civilizations, practically
nothing was known of it- even its existence-until the beginning
of the present century, when Sir Arthur Evans, an English archaeologist,
be gan his excavations on ancient Crete and rediscovered it.
For the last 60 years archaeologists have been placing the missing
pieces of the Cretan puzzle together, reconstructing this lively
and sophisticated civilization that flour ished in the islands
of the Aegean Sea and spread throughout the Mediterranean a thousand
years before Peri cles and the Golden age of Greece.
The rapid and dramatic
disintegra tion of the Minoan influence and civili zation, however,
has continued to be an intriguing mystery. The obliteration of
the Minoan empire could not pos sibly have been the result of
revolution or invasion from the outside. No other people in the
Mediterranean area pos sessed the resources and the naval power
to defeat the Minoans and de stroy their empire. What were the
causes, therefore, of the annihilation of such a great and advanced
If human action was
not responsible for its rapid fall and destruction, the only
other possibility must have been some gigantic catastrophic action
of nature. Such a natural disastrous event must have destroyed
the resources and the cities of the Minoans to such an extent
that recovery was not, there after, possible.
Destroyed by Natural
Evidence of such a
catastrophic cent of nature exists. In the fifteenth century
B.C., the volcano of Santorin an island to the north of Crete,
ex ploded with unprecedented violence, sending millions of tons
of volcanic ash into the atmosphere, giving rise to intense atmospheric
shock waves, and generating disastrous tsunamis, or "tidal
waves." Radiocarbon dating of wood and human teeth, found
on the island of Santorin by Professor A. G. Galano poulos of
the University of Athens in the ruins of an ancient city buried
by volcanic ash, indicates that this great eruption of Santorin
occurred some time around 1450 to 1480 B.C.
also con firms that around 1480 B.C. some great natural disasters,
including earth quakes, destroyed the Minoan palaces and brought
about changes that re sulted in the rapid disintegration of Minoan
civilization. The main disaster, it is now generally accepted,
was the violent explosion and collapse of the volcano of Santorin,
which was preceded and followed by numerous violent earthquakes.
In order to illustrate this particular disaster, something should
be said about the geologic setting and history of this region.
Remnants of a Mighty
The small group of
islands composing the volcano of Santorin is part of an isLand
chain called Cyclades, di rectly to the north of Crete. Several
other volcanic islands that belong to the same group extend to
the island of Methana on the coast of Peloponnesus. Another line
of volcanism extends in a north-south direction, aligned with
the coast of Asia Minor. From all these volcanic islands, only
two, Santorin and Nisyros, have erupted in recorded times.
Santorin was once
a large and intact volcanic island almost 5,000 feet in height.
The remnants of Santorin now are two larger islands, Thera and
Therasia, and one smaller island, Aspronisi. The three surrou
circular bay, the caldera cano, in which three smal are to be
found. These isl tive, secondary volcanic were formed in recent
The violent explosion
of Santorin in the fifteenth century B.C. may be paralleled in
many respects with the explosion of the volcano of (See "Krakatoa-The
Killer Wave," Sea Frontiers, Vol 17, No 3, May June, 1971.)
The latter occurred on August 26, 1883, in the Sunda Strait of
Indonesia. We know very little about the explosion of Santorin,
but many analogies can be drawn from the explosion of Krakatoa,
which has been thoroughly studied.
A Giant Pressure Cooker
We know, for example, that when
Krakatoa erupted in 1883, the entire northern portion of the
island was blown away, reducing 10 square miles of land with
an average elevation of about 700 feet to an extensive depression
in the sea with a depth of more than 900 feet below sea level.
The sound of that particular explosion was heard 3,000 miles
away, and the sea was covered with large amounts of pumice for
miles around. It has been estimated that in this eruption at
least 1 cubic mile of material was blown to a height of about
17 miles and that the dust was carried several times around the
earth by air currents, affecting the sun's incoming radiation
and the weather for many years thereafter. Quantities of dust
from Krakatoa precipitated on the decks of vessels as far as
1,600 miles away. The explosion of this volcano, furthermore,
generated tsunamis of over 100 feet in height, which destroyed
295 towns and villages in Western Java and Southern Sumatra and
drowned 36,380 people.
The eruption of Santorin
was probably very similar to that of Krakatoa, but several times
greater in strength. Volcanic explosions of this type are referred
to as being "hydromagmatic" in origin. According to
this mechanism of generation, cold seawater probably found its
way into the lava reservoirs in the weakened base of Santorin.
The irresistible pressure of expanding steam, as it mixed with
the hot lava, blew off the top of the volcano. When the eruption
lost its force, the unsupported remainder of the mountain collapsed
into the empty cavities underneath, creating a large depression,
or caldera, in the sea.
This caldera, the
large bay now between the islands of Santorin-has an area of
471/' square miles and an average depth of approximately 1,200
feet. Into this instantaneously formed cavity rushed approximately
15 cubic miles of seawater, filling it rapidly and creating waves
that, near the center, reached many hundreds of feet in height.
This large volume of water was supplied from two areas that were
opened to the sea by the explosion and by the subsequent collapse
of the volcanic dome.
Then, just as quickly
as the water had rushed into the depression, excess water rushed
out like a gigantic bore. Tremendous tsunamis radiated out in
all directions across the Aegean Sea and Eastern Mediterranean
with speeds of up to 350 miles per hour. Atmospheric shock waves
from the explosion and submarine landslides similarly generated
additional tsunamis. Undoubtedly, these waves must have been
tremendous in size and must have destroyed most of the coastal
Minoan cities on Crete and on the surrounding Cycladic Islands.
Walls That Bulge Outward
Of all the great palaces and Minoan settlements
on the north and east sides of Crete, Knossos was probably the
one that escaped destruction from the waves. Knossos lies further
inland and is separated from the sea by a long range of hills.
The palace, however, was not spared from other earthquakes that
occurred at different times before or after the eruption.
on other Aegean islands has produced quantitative approximations
as to the size and effects of the tsunamis. On the island of
Anafi, for example, about 15 miles east of Santorin, at the head
of a valley and at an 820-foot elevation, a layer of pumice 15
feet thick was found. This pumice could only have been carried
there by the slushing action of huge waves. Considerable amounts
of pumice concentrated in some areas along the east coast near
Kato Zakro have also been reported.
On the island of Amnisos,
at an archaeological site, Professor Spyridon Marinatos, a prominent
Greek archaeologist, found evidence of a building near the shore
that had been swept by large waves. In its foundation and in
cavities within the remnants of the structure, he found large
quantities of pumice stone and sand.
Further up the slope
on the same island, in the villa of the frescoes, additional
evidence was found that was similarly attributed to the action
of tsunamis. Parts of the walls and corners of the rooms of that
structure have collapsed in a peculiar manner. The walls there
bulge outward, and large monoliths, several tons in weight and
measuring 6 feet long by 3 feet wide, have been moved out of
position or are missing altogether. These effects can only be
attributed to the suction of the receding water waves.
that in the past Crete has suffered an average of three earthquakes
per century. Many of these have destroyed the Minoan palaces
of the island throughout the life of this kingdom. The first
major destruction of the palace of Knossos by earthquakes occurred
around 1720 B.C. After the palace was rebuilt and restored to
its original splendor, it was again destroyed by the earthquakes
of the fourteenth century B.C.
Sir Arthur Evans,
in his excavations at Knossos, found evidence of such extensive
earthquake destruction. Specifically, he found many Minoan houses
ruined by huge blocks of rock, displaced as much as 20 feet from
their original positions. Even while Evans was in Crete, twice
earthquake tremors were felt, accompanied by deep rumbling sounds
that were heard rising from the ground like the roars of angry
bulls. According to him, there was a connection between the bulls
that the Minoans worshipped and the shaking of the earth. Poseidon,
the favorite god of the Minoans, was not only the god of the
sea, but also the maker of earthquakes. The earth god, according
to Minoan belief, kept below the surface of the ground a bull,
which occasionally, when he was displeased, he unleashed to shake
The excessive seismicity
of this particular region can now be explained by current geophysical
knowledge of its structural development. According to such theories,
the whole western and southern part of Greece is intersected
by two major fracture zones, along which the Eurasian continental
shelf is separating from Africa, as the two continents are drifting
The major fracture
that transverses the Eastern Mediterranean Sea along the southern
coast of Crete appears to be a continuation of the Jordan rift
zone, another fracture surface along which the Arabian peninsula
is pushing against the large Eurasian continental block.
Because of this unstable
tectonic system, this whole part of the Aegean Archipelago belongs
to one of the most seismically active zones of the world. The
volcanoes of Santorin and Aetna and numerous other now extinct
or dormant volcanoes are offsprings of this seismicity and undoubtedly
have erupted with great violence countless times within their
long geological lives.
Recently, it has been
suggested that the islands of Santorin, Crete, and other Aegean
islands were the mythical lost continent of Atlantis, which has
been described briefly by Plato in his dialogs. The theory furthermore
is extended to say that the advanced civilization described by
Plato as thriving on Atlantis, was Minoan in origin and that
Santorin was one of the many and beautiful Minoan metropoles
that were destroyed by the volcanic eruption and the tsunamis.
Did the Sea Rise Above
work on the island of Santorin unearthed, partly submerged below
the sea, a completely intact, 3,500-year-old Minoan city. Excavation
work by the University of Athens uncovered one-, two-, and three-story
houses and numerous Minoan artifacts and utensils. The absence
of human skeletons from the city indicates that the inhabitants
had advance warning of the oncoming eruption of the volcano and
had time to evacuate the island.
Whether Santorin and
the other Minoan colonies in the Aegean islands actually constituted
the lost continent of Atlantis may never be known with absolute
certainty. The legend of Atlantis, like most of the legends,
is poorly substantiated and is based only on hearsay. (Also see
"Perennial Atlantis," Sea Frontiers, Vol. 18, Nos.
1 and 2, 1972.)
The possibility, however,
that Atlantis or some of its major cities have been covered by
the rising sea cannot be discounted. Of course, such a rise has
been worldwide and has affected all the oceans and the inland
seas. The~ effects of sea-level fluctuations have~ been even
more pronounced for the. Mediterranean Sea, not only because.
of its limited communication with the' Atlantic Ocean via the
shallow Straits of Gibraltar, but also because~of it higher evaporation
Sea level has changed
considerably in the last 20,000 years due to glacier and to the
amount of ice held on the polar caps and on the continents. This
has affected drastically the volume of water in the oceans and
the seas, and sea level has fluctuated considerably. In the last
20,000 years, therefore, as we are coming out of the Wisconsian
glacial period, the glaciers on the continents have recessed
northward and sea level has risen by about 270 feet.
From about 8000 B.C.
to 3000 B.C., the sea rose rapidly to about 18 to 21 feet below
the present level. Around 1600 B.C., sea level rose somewhat,
then dropped during brief interglacial periods. In 700 B.C.,
the sea level was about 12 to 15 feet lower in the Mediterranean
than it is today, and around 800 A.D., sea level had risen to
within 7 t/z feet below the present level. Since then, sea level
has been rising gradually due to the continuous melting of the
ice caps, and the rate has been calculated to be around 1.15
millimeters per year (or about 41/z inches per century). This
is a conservative estimate that can be substantiated by archaeological
discoveries, submerged forests and other indirect evidence.
Minoans Plagued by Earthquakes
This rise in sea level
has probably submerged many of the low-lying coastal areas of
the Mediterranean Sea and several of its coastal cities. Many
coastal Minoan settlements in the Aegean Sea have thus been partially
or entirely submerged. It is estimated that sea level in the
fifteenth century B.C., the time of the eruption of Santorin,
was at least 12 feet less than it is now. The ancient Minoan
City discovered on the island of Santorin may have been similarly
submerged by the rising sea level or, perhaps, by land slides
following the eruption and the earthquakes. The good condition
of the buildings of this city in Santorin, however, discounts
somewhat the probability of land slides.
Elsewhere in the Mediterranean,
evidence of coastal submergence of several ancient cities due
to rising sea level has been found. The change in sea level,
however, has not been sufficient to cover large areas of land,
and certainly there is nowhere an indication of a great land
mass, such as Plato's Atlantis, being covered by the rising sea.
In addition, any rise in sea level has been gradual and not associated
with a catastrophic event of natural origin.
Of course, the volcanic
eruption and the tsunamis alone did not destroy entirely the
Minoan civilization. Many inland cities, apparently, escaped
total destruction. The natural catastrophes acted only as the
catalyst for the ensuing declination. Minoan Crete for two centuries
was weakened by the numerous earthquakes that destroyed its cities.
These earthquakes continued well into the fourteenth century.
The attempt to rebuild these cities even with more splendor than
before, coupled with the expansionary empire seeking plans of
the Cretan rulers, similarly had weakened the country greatly.
The volcanic ash that precipitated from the eruption of the volcano
of Santorin probably ruined the crops, made the land infertile,
and created severe food shortages.
The fact that the
Minoan civilization was practically destroyed by the explosion
of the Santorin volcano, the precipitating ash, and the tsunamis
has also been verified by other evidence. It has been found,
for example, that around 1400 B.C. a large migration of Minoans
took place to the eastern part of the island of Crete. This is
an area that was spared from volcanic fallout due to prevailing
winds, and it was an area where crops could be cultivated. Similar
migrations of Cretans and other islanders to the mainland of
Greece and to Peloponnesus also took place at about the same
time. These refugees introduced to the mainland Greeks many of
their skills, arts, and other wonders of Minoan civilization.
The Myceneans of Peloponnesus,
by that time, had become a power to be reckoned with in ancient
Greece. Capitalizing on the weakness of Crete, the Mycenean dynasty
took control of Knossos and eventually of most of the island
Around 1400 B.C.,
therefore, a new Mycenean civilization began to flourish in Greece,
incorporating most of the advances of the Minoan civilization.
With the Myceneans, an alphabet was introduced and the recorded
history of Greece begun. The Minoan civilization, practically
destroyed by the explosion of Santorin, the tsunamis, and the
earthquakes, finally dwindled, collapsed, and lost its unique
George. The Waves
That Destroyed the Minoan Empire. Sea Frontiers, Vol 19, No. 2, p. 94, March-April,
George. The Destruction
of the Minoan Civilization.
Encyclopaedia Grollier, Science Supplement, pp 314-321, 197
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