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The 1707 Eruption of Santorini

Father Tarillon was a Jesuit traveller who had settled in Santorini. The following is his account of the eruption on May 23, 1707, when he saw a new island rising from the sea in the centre of the caldera between the existing volcanic islets of Mikri and Megali Kameni.

“On May 18, two small tremors were felt on the island; however, no one paid any attention. That morning, seeing the peaks of the island over the waves, sailors thought these were the remains of some ship wrecked the previous night. So, they took their boats and went to pick up whatever was left of the “ship”. Instead, they were almost wrecked on the rocks! Full of fear, they went quickly back to the island to talk about the strange phenomenon they had just witnessed.

Panic spread throughout Santorin, as people agonized over impending explosions or foundering. But three days went by and nothing happened. Then, some of the more courageous ones decided to approach and see what was going on. They circled the volcano with their boats, inspecting it carefully. Then, seeing no apparent danger, they drew even closer and stepped on the brand-new land. As they trod around curiously, they realized they were on a white rocky mass that broke off like bread. Indeed, the colour, texture, even the taste was so similar that some said it was barley bread. But the real prize was the innumerable oysters stuck on the rocks – a rarity in Santorin. So they all started gathering as many as they could. Suddenly, they felt the rocks shuddering under their feet. Terrified, they jumped quickly onto their boats and left the tiny island. That vibration was simply a small movement of the island as it was growing; in a few days, it was six metres high and twelve metres long.

The island, however, did not grow evenly: many times, it went down and got smaller in one place, while swelling and spreading in another. One day, a huge rock emerged in the middle of the islet, about 15-metres high. I watched it carefully for four days. Then, suddenly, it sank back again and disappeared into the sea. Other rocks, though, kept sinking and rising again and again for several days, and then, finally, came out of the water and stayed there. As Mikri Kameni tossed and turned, a deep crack appeared on its peak for the very first time. Meanwhile, the bay waters kept changing colours: from bright green, to red to yellowish. A heavy smell rose from the sea depths.

On July 16, smoke arose for the first time from the new island, but not from any visible source: it spewed out of a string of black rocks that had emerged at a place where, until then, the sea was bottomless. These rocks formed two separate islets: One was called Aspronisi (White Island) and the other Mavronisi (Black Island), because of their colour. Soon, however, they came together, and the black rocks formed the centre of the island. And the thick whitish smoke kept rising.

In the night of the 19th to the 20th of July, big flames leaped out of the smoke’s heart. People in Skaros were terrified. The houses were built just half a league away, and the castle balanced on sheer cliffs rising from the sea. They expected to be blown sky-high at any moment. So, they decided to gather their belongings and leave the castle.

However, the fire was still small, hardly visible during the day as it came out of a single spot on Mavronisi. Aspronisi seemed quiet: no smoke or flames. But the other one kept growing. Huge rocks appeared as days went by. Within a month, there were four black islands. Then, suddenly, they came together in one big lump. At night, a pillar of fire rose towards the sky, and the sea frothed all around, reddish in some spots, yellow in others. The cloud of smoke spread, wrapping itself around Santorin. People gasped and choked; in order to mask the terrible stench, they burned incense and lit fires on the streets. Fortunately, this only lasted a couple of days; then, a strong southeastern wind blew the smoke away. But the smoke had already passed over the vines, burning the grapes that had started to ripen; all things brass and silver were now blackened and dull.

On July 31, the sea started boiling in two circular areas, nine and eighteen meters off the black island. There, the water was as hot as frying oil. It kept boiling for a month; day and night, dead fish were washed ashore.

On August 1, there was a deep, hollow boom, as if many cannons fired at once. And soon, two flames leapt out of the underwater furnace, rose vertically, and then died down.

On August 17, blazing fountains shot from the island, and the waters around it seethed and smoked. Fire poured from more than 60 mouths. The sea was still covered with that reddish froth. Each night, after the usual deep roars, fiery tongues leaped up from the sea depths, and millions of lights shot up to the sky, then fell back down on the glowing island like a rain of stars. In this fiery game, a strange sight came to shock people. As flames flickered in the air, a blazing tongue suddenly seemed to separate itself, long and still, lingering for a while over Skaros castle. And while the hearts of Santorin’s people pounded in their chests as they witnessed this bad sign, the tongue of fire leapt up and disappeared into the clouds.

On August 26, 1707, French traveller Aubry de la Motraye arrived on the island. He went to Skaros; nobody there. Only two men remained in the village; one was a priest. Volcanic fumes had eroded all metals, mainly silverware, which had turned pitch-black. Smoke surrounded the island, and the air was suffocating.

On September 2, there was an earthquake, accompanied by a terrible explosion. Huge incandescent rocks were hurled from the volcanic crater. Breathing was hard and sleep almost impossible from the endless booming.

On September 9, the two islets came together into one solid mass. Of the 60 craters, only four continued to spew out fire. Smoke and flames came out of the mouths with growls and whistles, like animals howling.

After September 12, the underwater turmoil seemed to quieten down a bit. The clouds of smoke turned into whirlwinds, and an endless rain of ash fell on the island.

On September 18, the explosions seem to get stronger. Enormous rocks were flung from the craters, hitting each other in the air with a terrible bang, then crashed back down on Santorin and the sea. Many times Mikri Kameni was completely covered in these molten boulders, glowing at night.

On September 21, Mikri Kameni was ablaze. Suddenly, three bolts of lightning illuminated the horizon from end to end. Then, the new island shook all over, shivered and quaked. One of the craters sank, and massive stones were thrown three miles away. Four days of calm followed, and then the wrath broke out again: non-stop explosions were so loud that two people screaming side by side could not possibly hear each other at all; folks ran to the churches; the Skaros rock see-sawed, and all house doors opened from the rumble.

The explosions never ceased until February 1708.

On February 10, the volcano finally erupted. Entire mountains sprung up from the crater, the island trembled, infernal growls made hearts stop, the sea boiled. Every couple of minutes there was an explosion. For the first time, flames were visible during the day.

This hell lingered until the 23rd of May. The new island kept spreading and rising. The big crater widened with the lava. Then the turmoil subsided.

On July 15, 1708, Tarillon decided to take a closer look at the new island. Along with some locals, he boarded a well-caulked boat. The company approached a spot where the sea was not boiling, but only smoked. The missionary leaned over the side and put his arm into the water; it wasn’t hot. The new island was 60 metres tall at its peak and more than 300 metres long, with a perimeter of about five miles. They drew closer, with the intention of disembarking, but 200 metres offshore the water was scalding. A new explosion forced them to return to Santorini.

Explosions, tremors, sea boiling, and underwater flames kept on for many years before the volcano finally settled.

A letter from Santorini (September 1712) to Tarillon, who was in Paris by then, provided new evidence:

I circled the island many times from afar, since the waters are boiling a quarter of a league offshore. While we row, someone must keep their hand in the water, since there is always the danger the hull tar melts suddenly, as has happened before, and we’ll sink.

The 1707 eruption was described by two more eye witnesses: Jesuit missionary Father Gorée and local resident Ioannis Delendas. These direct testimonies are complemented by the chronicle of French traveller Aubry de la Motraye, who visited Santorini twice, in August 1707 and in 1710. On his second trip, the volcano was still active. Flames, though not big ones, leapt out of the crater and some lava flowed down the sides. He wrote:

Fishermen told me that, braving the heat coming out of the volcano, they set foot on the islet and picked up pieces of sulphur so thin, so well-crafted by nature that human hands could have never made.

Reproduced from Municipality of Thira Official Website. Copyright: Thira (Santorini) Municipality.