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Evidence has been found on Santorini that the first humans visited the island at least as early as the Neolithic period (16,000-2,100 B.C.), also called the New Stone Age. Remains of permanent habitation, found at Akrotiri in the south of Santorini, date back to the early Bronze Age (ca. 2.000-1.800 BC).

During this period Santorini was inhabited by the Minoans, a highly developed civilisation, with artifacts also found on Crete, many paintings and pots with landscapes, animals and human figures. From the period after the Minoans, no archaeological findings are known, and it is believed that Santorini was not inhabited for three centuries due to the eruption of a volcano around 1500 BC.

Around 1.300 B.C. the Phoenicians settled on the west coast of the island and remained there until around 1.200 B.C. Around 1.100 B.C. Santorini came under the control of the Spartans from Laconia or Lakedaímon, a historic region located in the south-eastern corner of the Peloponnese with its capital at Sparta.

In the 9th century BC, the Dorians from north-western Greece founded the ancient city of Thira on Mount Vouno on the east side of the island (the present capital, Thira, is on the west coast). In the 7th and 6th centuries B.C. Thira had trade relations with most of the Greek islands and cities in mainland Greece. Cities were also founded in other areas of the Mediterranean, including Cyrene or Kyrene in present-day Libya. In the 5th century BC, Dorian Thira refused to join the Delian League (also called Delian Attic or Attic-Delian Sea League), an alliance consisting of several Aegean city-states led by Athens, who wanted to defend themselves better against attacks from the Persians. Thira joined the counterpart of the Delian League, the Peloponnesian League, which was led by Sparta. During the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC) the two unions fought each other and the Athenians succeeded in conquering Thira from the Dorians. The occupation of Thira lasted until 404 BC, in which year the entire Athenian fleet was destroyed by the Spartans.

During the Hellenistic period (323-31 BC), due to its strategic location, Thira became an important trading centre and military seaport for the Ptolemies of Egypt. After the annexation of Egypt by Rome, following the Battle of Actium (31 BC) between the armies of Octavian and those of Mark Anthony and Cleopatra, Thira was incorporated into the Roman Empire.

During the Roman rule over Thira, the city was initially used as a kind of open prison for dissidents exiled from Rome. But also the Romans soon realised that Thira was strategically very important, and Thira developed again into an important trade centre in the Aegean.

Middle Ages and Modern Times

In 330 AD, when Emperor Constantine shifted the political power of the Roman Empire from Rome to Byzantium (Constantinople), Thira became part of the Byzantine Empire.

During the time of the Crusades (1095 - 1291), the Franks settled on the island and made the fortress Skaros, located near Thira, their capital. This became a turbulent and conflictual period, with Frankish infighting, Turkish aggression, piracy and attempts by Byzantines to retake the island.

In the 13th century, Thira became part of the Duchy of Naxos (also known as Duchy of the Archipelago or Duchy of the Aegean), one of the Crusader states that emerged after the Fourth Crusade. After the fall and division of the Byzantine Empire in 1204, the Venetians settled permanently in the Aegean, something they had wanted to do long before the Fourth Crusade.

The Duchy of Naxos was created in 1207 by Marco Sanudo, a crusader and nephew of the former 39th Doge of Venice, Enrico Dandolo. In 1210, Sanudo gained control of all of Naxos and from there conquered many other islands. At the end of his reign in 1227, Santorini also belonged to Sanudo's duchy.

In Venetian times the island changed name and from then on was called Santorini (corrupted Italian for Santa Irena or Irini) after Saint Irene, a Greek martyr from Thessaloniki in the 4th century. She is said to have been exiled to Thira, where she also died. Saint Irene (feast day 1 April) is venerated in the Roman Catholic Church, but is much better known in the Orthodox Church.

In the 14th century, the situation on Santorini stabilised and piracy decreased, after which the island developed its own fleet and the economic situation improved. In 1570, a volcanic eruption sunk the northern part of the port Mikri Kameni.

In 1579, the Turks conquered Santorini and the island became part of the Ottoman Empire. In 1707, after another volcanic eruption, Nea Kameni was formed. During the Turkish period, Santorini continued to prosper and in 1821 it had the third largest fleet in the entire Aegean. In 1821, Santorini was freed from the Turks, but joined the Greek Republic in 1830 after the Congress of London.

In 1956, Santorini was provisionally hit for the last time by a violent earthquake and volcanic eruption. Many buildings on the island were destroyed and some villages were completely abandoned.

See also the history page of Greece.



Sheehan, S. / Santorini
Thomas Cook

Oswin, T. / A-Z guide to Santorini

CIA - World Factbook

BBC - Country Profiles

Last updated April 2024
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