Cruising through the Aegean Sea, Part 1: The cradle of Western civilization

Also known as Thera, Santorini is part of the Cycladic group of islands and of interest to the casual vacationer, historian, archeologist, geologist, art enthusiast and nature lover.

The city of Fira, capital of Santorini, with a view of the caldera. (photo credit: IRVING SPITZ)
The city of Fira, capital of Santorini, with a view of the caldera.
(photo credit: IRVING SPITZ)
Cruising through the Greek Islands is a popular excursion for those who wish to experience the abundant offerings the Aegean Sea has to offer. Patronizing the Greek company Celestyal Cruises, our trip embarked from Lavrion, a port south of Athens and headed northeast. A little over 12 hours later, we entered the Dardanelles or Hellespont, that narrow body of water which connects the Aegean to the Sea of Marmara and separates Europe from Asia.
The Dardanelles has played a significant role in history. In 480 BCE, Xerxes’s Persian army constructed pontoon bridges to cross the Dardanelles from the Asian side in an attempt to subdue the Greek city-states, but his invasion ultimately failed. About 150 years later, Alexander the Great crossed the Dardanelles in the opposite direction and carved out for himself one of the greatest empires of all time.
Just 100 years ago, during World War I, the Dardanelles was the site of the unsuccessful campaign when the Allies failed to capture the Gallipoli peninsula (situated on the northern bank of the Dardanelles) from the Ottoman Turks.
From the Dardanelles, we sailed through the Sea of Marmara and exited at the Bosporus, which flows into the Black Sea. Our first port of call was Istanbul, a city strategically situated on the Bosporus straddling both Europe and Asia.
It is not possible to do justice to this great city, formally known as Constantinople, in just one day. But we did visit two of its great wonders.
The Hagia Sophia Church, “Shrine of the Holy Wisdom of God,” is the finest example of Byzantine architecture and arguably one of mankind’s greatest ar- tistic creations. Construction was begun in 532 by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I. He had material brought from all over his empire, including columns from the Temple of Artemis in Ephesus, Baalbek in Lebanon and Delphi in Greece. More than 10,000 people were employed in its construction. The building was completed in less than six years; in comparison, it took nearly a century for medieval builders to construct Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris.
Hagia Sophia remained the world’s largest cathedral for nearly 1,000 years.
It served as the main Eastern Orthodox Church – except between 1204 and 1261, when it was temporarily converted to the Roman Catholic faith under the Latin Empire. In 1453, Constantinople was conquered by the Ottoman Turks and Hagia Sophia became a mosque. Many of the mosaics were removed or plastered over, and a mihrab and four minarets were added. It remained a mosque until 1931; today it is a museum.
The church itself was so richly decorated that Justinian proclaimed, “Solomon, I have outdone thee!” The nave is covered by a central dome, which at its maximum is 55.6 meters from floor level and rests on an arcade of 40 arched windows. One of the most dramatic mosaics depicts the Virgin on a throne with Jesus on her lap. She is flanked by two emperors, Constantine the founder of the city and Justinian l. The former presents her with a model of the city, and the latter that of Hagia Sophia.
The second site visited was the Basilica Cistern. This large subterranean structure, also commissioned by Justinian, was constructed using 336 columns arranged in 12 rows. Many of these were salvaged from ruined temples and feature fine carved capitals. In the northwest corner are two columns with the visage of Medusa carved into the base of the columns. This underground chamber is approximately 138 m. by 65 m., and is capable of holding 80,000 cubic meters of water that was delivered via aqueducts over 20 km. in length from a reservoir near the Black Sea. Today, the cistern is filled with rainwater and home to numerous freshwater carp.
From Istanbul we retraced our steps through the Dardanelles sailing south, and made a short stop at the Turkish port of Kusadasi on the coast of Asia Minor.
From here, a short drive took us to Ephesus.
In the Greek and Roman eras Ephesus was one of the largest cities of the ancient world, with a population of over 200,000. It was the site of the Temple of Artemis, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, as well as a famous library and large theater. Ephesus also had several major bath complexes and possessed one of the most advanced aqueduct systems in the ancient world.
The city and temple were destroyed by the Goths in 263 CE.
Of particular interest at the site are the Terrace Houses. The rich families of Ephesus lived here in two-storied homes that even had a heating system under the floors; there are also floor mosaics and the walls are decorated with frescoes.
We then departed from Ephesus, arriving the next morning in Santorini.
Also known as Thera, Santorini is part of the Cycladic group of islands and of interest to the casual vacationer, historian, archeologist, geologist, art enthusiast and nature lover. It is probably one of the most photographed islands in the world.
Sometime between 1600 and 1500 BCE, Santorini was the epicenter of one of the largest volcanic eruptions ever to occur. This buried the entire island beneath a layer of pumice and ash, obliterating every trace of human activity for several centuries.
When the unsupported rock that constituted the roof of the main part of the island after the volcanic eruption collapsed, it formed a large crater that was submerged by the ocean. This resulted in the caldera and present-day crescent shape of the island, with its high, steep cliffs which slope downward to the sea. Surrounding the caldera are the islands of Thirasia, Palea and Nea Kameni, which are also remnants of the volcanic eruptions.
Santorini was one of the centers of the sophisticated Bronze Age Minoan civilization, which began in about 3000 BCE and reached its peak between 2000 and 1580 BCE. The center was situated at Akrotiri, in the southern part of the island. This settlement, enveloped with lava from the volcanic eruption, was discovered in 1967.
Excavations at Akrotiri have uncovered numerous streets and squares lined with multi-level three-story buildings, standing as high as eight meters with stone staircases; scattered about the ruins are huge ceramic storage jars. The town also had a highly developed drainage system with pipes for running water and sewage. These are some of the oldest such utilities ever discovered.
No human bones have been uncovered at Akrotiri, implying that its inhabitants had some warning prior to the volcanic eruption and were able to evacuate the city.
Among the most remarkable archeological remains are the wall paintings, which have maintained their original multiple colors since they were preserved under the volcanic ash.
Today, some are displayed in the archeological museum in the island’s capital, Fira, and the remainder are in Athens. The technique used was not true fresco, since the painting was begun while the plaster was still wet and completed when the surface was dry. Consequently, paint has penetrated the plaster in only some areas but flakes off easily in others.
These paintings depict human figures and animals including lions, monkeys, antelopes, birds and fish, as well as plants and abstract patterns with geometric motifs.
Throughout its history, Santorini has been the site of repeated earthquakes; the last major one occurred in 1956, producing much devastation. Following this catastrophe, a large proportion of the population left and relocated to mainland Greece. Today, it is home to about 11,000 people; the primary industry is tourism, and every year over half a million tourists flock to the island.
Santorini has no rivers, and rain is rare. Until the early 1990s, the main source of water was from rainwater-rich cisterns. Today, it is supplied by a desalination plant.
The capital city, Fira, clings to the top of the cliff, affording spectacular views of the caldera. It can be reached from the small harbor below via a winding road, cable car or donkey, or by walking up several hundred steps. The traditional architecture of Santorini is similar to other Cyclades islands, with low-lying cubical white houses made of local stone that often hug the cliff.
Several other villages are also perched precariously on the summit of the ridge. The most picturesque is Oia, in the north of the island, also with a commanding view of the caldera. This charming village has several characteristic white churches capped with blue domes. There are cobbled marble- paved alleys with whitewashed houses and blue shutters. Many buildings are carved into the rocks.
After admiring the spectacular sunset on Santorini from Fira, we descended by cable car to the port and the ship departed for Crete, situated about 100 km. south of Santorini.
This is the largest of the Greek islands, and is steeped in mythology, history and archeology. According to Homer, the father of the Greek gods, Zeus, was born in Crete. Subsequently, Zeus appeared, disguised as a bull, to the beautiful Phoenician lady Europa, and abducted her to Crete. One of their sons was King Minos, who had a labyrinth constructed in his palace to imprison his son, the Minotaur, the half-man/half-bull. Our ship docked at the delightful port of Agios Nikolaos.
A short drive took us to Knossos, situated about 5 km. from Heraklion, Crete’s capital city. Knossos is one of Europe’s oldest and most important cities, and in prehistoric times was the center of the Minoan culture; many believe Knossos was the site of King Minos’s palace.
Excavations began in Knossos in 1900 under the English archeologist Arthur Evans and continued for 35 years. The most important monument in Knossos is the Great Palace complex, which was arranged around a central courtyard containing the royal quarters; there are also workshops, shrines, storerooms and banquet halls. This functioned as the civic, religious, economic and political center of the Minoan civilization.
At its height, several thousand people lived here. It has been suggested that the volcanic eruption in Santorini in about 1500 BCE led to a gigantic tsunami, or tidal wave, which may have destroyed Knossos and the Minoan civilization in Crete.
The walls of the palace were covered with relief sculptures and wall paintings. The decorative frescoed motifs display graceful priestesses, mythological creatures, animals – especially bulls and fish – and vegetation. Most impressive is the throne room. This chamber has a seat which was identified by Evans as a “throne”; it was constructed of alabaster, as were the benches on three sides of the room. On the wall is a fresco with griffins (a lion’s body topped with an eagle’s head); opposite the throne is a basin, probably used for ceremonial purification.
Evans reconstructed much of the palace complex with modern materials based on contemporary art and architecture, and this has come under criticism.
The frescoes shown on-site are modern reproductions. The originals are displayed in the Archeological Museum of Heraklion, which is one of the most remarkable in Europe and displays other notable items from Knossos, including the bull’s head and the snake goddess figurine among other treasures.
The remainder of our Aegean adventure with Celestyal Cruises to the islands of Rhodes, Chios, Mykonos and Delos will be covered in a subsequent article.
The trip was facilitated by Froso Zaroulea (, the PR manager of Celestyal Cruises.
The writer, an emeritus professor of medicine, writes, reviews and lectures on medical topics, music, art, history and travel ( He was recently recognized with the Sidney Ingbar Distinguished Service Award by the Endocrine Society for his contributions to the field.
Other images from this as well as other tourist sites can be seen at He may be contacted at Irving@