Alternative History

Hi there. My name is FP. Others call me Forsaken, which is wrong, or Pear, which is also wrong. Grinds my gears, that does.


Today the ramble will be less of a ramble, more of a discussion on a topic I find rather fascinating, an event that changed the world and potentially  explains a whole host of mysteries. I am speaking of the cataclysmic eruption of the Thera volcano in the Aegean Sea, which is estimated to have happened at the start of the 16th century BC, and had devastating consequences on civilisation in a fledgling Europe.

Santorini today

The Eruption

Santorini - today a beautifully idyllic getaway for the rich, a collapsed caldera lagoon ringed by steep cliffs to which cling stunning villages of old Greek villas. Go back four thousand years and we are faced by an entirely different, yet familiar scene. The island was home to the Minoan settlement of Akrotiri, a bustling centre for trade in the Aegean for Knossos. The lagoon at the time was still in existence, due to earlier eruptions, but there was only one entrance, which was very narrow, making the caldera an ideal harbour. But this seemingly peaceful existence was soon going to be shattered by a disaster of tremendous proportion. After several months of small earthquakes and wisps of smoke rising from the island at the centre of the lagoon, a massive explosion ripped through the tranquil scene. The volcano had erupted, and it was a big one. It has been estimated recently to have ejected 60 cubic kilometres of rock - making it the largest volcanic eruption of the last seventy thousand years. Akrotiri was utterly destroyed, buried under metres of stone and ash, pumice and ash fell for hundreds of miles around, tsunamis devastated coasts all around the Mediterranean, and the ash clouds that spread round the world caused a winter lasting several years. The effects of the eruption have been recorded as far away as China, with documents dated to about 1618 BC describing "yellow fog, a dim sun, then three suns, frost in July, famine, and the withering of all five cereals".

There is no doubting that is was an almighty tragedy, but some interesting connections can be made, which bring up some fascinating hypotheses. 

Frescoes uncovered at Akrotiri

Fall of the Minoans

The least ambitious of these connections, and indeed the most widely suggested one, is that this eruption was the cause of the mysterious demise of the aforementioned Minoans, who hailed from nearby Crete. The Minoans are known as an early super-civilisation, an advanced hub of art and science in a dark Europe, who flourished from the 4th millennium BC for more than two thousand years. But, confusingly to many archaeologists, the empire seemed to fall into a sudden decline at around 1600 BC -  the time of our favourite eruption. Many historians attribute the collapse to the growing power of the Mycenaeans in mainland Greece, though another, more plausible theory blames the eruption for hugely weakening the Minoans, which in turn left them vulnerable to the northern invaders, as Mycenae certainly lacked the technological and militaristic aptitude to conquer Crete independently. So - mystery explained? Some say no, most say yes. But what seems rather clear is that if it were not for this eruption, the Minoans would have dominated the Mediterranean for many centuries longer.


For the next interesting link, we turn to everyone's favourite Biblical book of Exodus and the tale of Moses. In this particular event, our protagonist is leading the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt, and towards the promised land of Canaan in the East. But they have a minor obstacle in their way. The Red Sea. Now we all know what the Bible tells, how Moses held out his staff and God parted the sea before them, and they passed through just in time to avoid the waters crashing back together again, a fate that was not escaped by the pursuing Egyptian armies. But, with a few allowances, these seemingly miraculous events can be rather logically explained. First up, the Hebrew term for the point of crossing was 'Yam Suph', which is traditionally translated as the Red Sea, the very wide and deep body of water between Arabia and Africa. However, this is a mistranslation, as 'Suph' in fact means not 'red' but 'reed'. This places the location of crossing to a shallow salt sea on the north coast of Egypt, perhaps only a few metres at the deepest point, and at high tides connected to the Mediterranean. Now, theologians and historians have placed the events of Exodus to have taken place in the middle to late 2nd millennium BC, however this is up for debate. This is the same time-frame for the Thera eruption. This eruption, as I have explained before, caused massive tsunamis to devastate coasts all around the Mediterranean - including Egypt. With a little imagination, one could imagine the waters of this coastal marsh being drawn back (as tends to happen before a tsunami hits) before the fleeing Israelites, appearing to be thrust aside, allowing them to pass through. Then, moments later, once they are safely at the other side, and as Pharaoh's men are beginning to cross, a wall of water sweeps back into the Reed Sea, sweeping away the Egyptians and allowing Moses to continue on without being hunted. 

Then Ten Plagues of Egypt that accompany the Exodus can be explained in a similar way, with ash choking the Nile blood red, animals and insects feeling the volcano, bringing diseases to livestock and people, and the ash clouds causing storms and blocking out the sun for several days, all of which lead death in the land, especially amongst the young. Now these connections are tenuous at best, but I find them interesting nonetheless.

Location of Santorini in the Aegean Sea, and the areas possibly hit by the tsunamis.


Our final speculation is one of turning myth into reality, or, more specifically, explaining a possible inspiration for a timeless myth that we all know today - Atlantis. Atlantis, a story told by Plato in two of his writings, was a land of myth, a super civilisation (remind you of something?) that existed ten thousand years before Athens, Plato's home, supposedly located beyond the Straits of Gibraltar and in the Atlantic Ocean, before it faced the wrath of the gods and was sunk beneath the waves in a maelstrom of fire and fury. Similarities are beginning to arise, as you see. Especially when you consider the translation issues involved. Plato wrote his dialogues in which Atlantis features in around 300 BC, when he was told the tale by Critias, whose distant ancestor Solon had been dictated the story by Egyptian scribes three hundred years prior. Now you see the potential issues that may have arisen during the passing of the tale down generations and across languages. Here the fun begins, and some assumptions must be made. If, at some point down the line (likely at the point of translation from Egyptian to Greek), all numbers involved had been multiplied by a factor of ten (which is an easy mistake due to the nature of Egyptian script), many things begin to fall into place. The time at which the events take place go from ten thousand years before Solon's time to only one thousand years before Solon's time, which is roughly 1600 BC, a familiar date by now. The dimensions of the island also begin to line up, with it no longer being a vast continent too big to fit in the Mediterranean, now more concurrent with the size of Santorini before the eruption. One could even locate the 'Pillars of Hercules', beyond which Atlantis is supposed to lie, as being a point on Crete rather than Gibraltar. Furthermore, the shape of the island before the disaster is even similar to Plato's description of Atlantis, with the various canals and ringed islands described being similar to the ring-shaped caldera with small inlets connecting layers of lagoons and islands. And the advanced Minoan settlement of Akrotiri on the island would seem many factors richer and more advanced than the mainland Greeks of the time. It all seems too perfect. And the cherry on top? Atlantis had angered the gods and was sunk beneath the sea in a cataclysm of flame and thunder.

Sound familiar?

Now, this has been a long one, and I hope you found it as interesting as I do. Discuss below if you want. Mention how dubious some of my points are. Because some of them are. But yeah. See ya'll next week.

I remain, 

FP(Now 10% edgier!!!)