Santorini Ancient Thira |Archaeological Site
In the previous article we went through the history of Santorini. We talked about the “Minoan Eruption” in 1640 BC and how it destroyed all life on the island and the civilization of Akrotiri in the south side. Santorini remained uninhabited for many centuries after that.
It was in the 9th century BC that Greek Colonists (Dorians from Sparta) moved to the island and started building a new city, this time on the south east side. The city was built 360m (1181 ft) above sea level. This spot was intentionally chosen as it was not easily accessible and thus provided a naturally fortified position for the city. It was also a great lookout point.
The town Dorians built must have had about 2000 residents at the time and soon became a far-reaching trading station as proven by numerous coins found on the site. They were trading with other Greek cities like Corinth and Rhodes, but also with places outside the Greek borders such as Libya and Egypt.
The town was inhabited until 726 AD. Volcanic activity on the island probably caused the decline of the city and once again forced people to leave.
The Name Thira /Thera
At the time of the "Minoan Eruption" the island was known as “Stroggili” due to its round shape (Stroggili in Greek means round). It was later renamed to “Kallisti” that means the most beautiful one. After Dorian colonists inhabited the island it was renamed again, this time to “Thira”, which is the official name of the island until today.
The name “Thira” comes from their ruler, King “Thiras”. Naming the city after him was a way to honor him. This is the city that we now call Ancient Thira. You can spell it “Thira” or “Thera”. It is the same. In Greek, it is written "Θήρα".
Location of Ancient Thira
The city of Ancient Thira stands between the two black sand beaches of Kamari and Perissa and has beautiful views to both sides. You can see the exact location of Ancient Thira on the map below:
Looking at the map you can see that Ancient Thira is on higher ground between two steep mountain slopes. One is the highest point of the island, where the Monastery of Prophet Elias is and the other one is the mountain we call Mesa Vouno. These two mountains are connected by a ridge named “Sellada”. The ruins of Ancient Thira are right there.
How to get to Ancient Thira
Ancient Thira is accessible by car or on foot. If you are driving, you can take the road from Kamari Beach. It is a windy road, so you might find it a bit difficult.
If you plan on walking, there are hiking trails to and from the ruins, connecting Ancient Thira to Perissa Beach, or Kamari Beach, or the Monastery of Prophet Elias.
Here are the three best hiking trails to check out.
Hiking to and from ANcient Thira
Hiking Route #1: Pyrgos Village-Monastery of Prophet Elias-Ancient Thira
Hiking Route #2: Ancient Thira-Kamari Beach
Hiking Route #3: Ancient Thira-Perissa Beach
The city of Ancient Thira has a great history, but even if you are not fascinated by history, the views from up there are mesmerizing.
Ancient thira Opening Hours
Winter (1 November - 31 March 2018): 08.00 - 15.00 Tuesday - Sunday
Summer (1 April - 31 October 2018): 08.00 - 15.00 Tuesday - Sunday
Full: €4, Reduced: €2
Special ticket package: Full €14, Reduced €7
The special package 4 day ticket is for Archaelogical Sites and Museums in Santorini and it includes:
- Ancient Thira
- Archaeological Museum
- Museum of Prehistoric Thera and
- Collection of Icons and Ecclesiastical Artifacts at Pyrgos
Excavations & Findings
Excavations on the site started back in 1896 by Friedrich Hiller von Gaertringen and were later continued by N. Zapheiropoulos. Artifacts and findings from Ancient Thira can now be found in the Archaeological museum in Fira. You can see where the museum is on the map below:
The city of Ancient Thira was about 800m (2625 ft) long with one main street and smaller cobbled streets branching off the main road. Public and private houses were built on both sides of the main road. All buildings were constructed using limestone, as wood was (and still is) hard to find on the island.
When visiting Ancient Thira today, you can see the ruins of the old buildings and walk around the streets of the city. You will need about one and a half hours to see everything.
The town of Ancient thira: What you will see
Here are the highlights of Ancient Thira. I have designed a map with the points of interest along the main walking path. They are explained below. The number in the parenthesis corresponds to the pin on the map. There is information at every point, but a guided tour is recommended as it will all make more sense.
Before you enter the city, you will notice many curved rocks on your right and left. These used to be the city’s cemeteries. They were outside the city as it was considered back luck to bury the dead close to the living.
As you pass the entrance of the city you will see two Byzantine churches. They are just below the church of Saint Stefanos (1) and they belong to an Early Christian Basilica church dated back to the 4th – 5th century and dedicated to Archangel Michael.
Following the path, after about 200m (656 ft) you will see the Sanctuary Of Artemidoros (2). This sanctuary (or as we call it “Temenos”) was founded by an admiral of the Ptolemaic Fleet named Artemidoros in the 4th century. He had a dream about it and thus decided to build the sanctuary. There are inscriptions and symbols on the sanctuary. Most of them depict animals that represent Greek Gods. For example one rock has a curved dolphin, which is the symbol of Poseidon. The other one shows an eagle that stands for Zeus and a lion that symbolizes Apollo.
Keep walking along the main path and you will see steps on your right hand going up the hill. This road leads to the Ptolemaic Garrison Post (3) and the Garrison's Gymnasium (4). From inscriptions found on the site, we know that there must have been about 300 soldiers and 3 officers stationed there. At least in the beginning. Numbers probably increased afterwards and it remains unknown how that affected the city in terms of political independence. Some of the soldiers were Greek but there were also many mercenaries, mainly from Egypt.
Back on the main path and a bit further down the road, you will see the Agora (5). This would be the main square of the city. Agora means “market” in Greek. This is the north side of Agora and right after it, on you right hand side you will see three Roman Baths (6).
Again to your right, further down the road you will see some steps that lead to the Temple of Dionysus (7). Built in the 3rd century this small Doric temple was dedicated to Dionysus and was constructed using mainly the local limestone but there are also some parts from marble.
You are now in the main part of the Agora and heading to the south end. Going down the hill and on your left you can see the ruins of a small neighborhood and on the right is the Basilike Stoa (also known as “Stoa at the Agora”) (8). This was probably the administrative center of the city that served official and civic purposes. The building itself is quite imposing.
From the south end of the Agora begins the route we call “Iera Odos” which would translate into something like “Holy Street”. As you enter it, you will see a large opening that looks like a main square on the right. Further down you will find the Shrine of Egyptian Gods (9) and the Temple of Apollo (10).
In Thira, residents started worshiping Egyptian Gods Serapis, Isis and Anubis in the early 3rd c. B.C. and so the shrine was built in the first half of the 3rd c. B.C. The temple of Apollo was later replaced with a new Byzantine church built on top of it.
Keep walking on “Iera Odos” and you will see the impressive Theater (11). It was built in the 2nd century B.C and could fit around 1500 people at the time. The theater would also be used as the town’s parliament.
Behind the theatre are the Roman Baths (12) and the Church Of The Annunciation (13).
Iera Odos comes to end and then you are back on the walking path where you will find the Sanctuary of Apollo Karneios (16), Gymnasium of the Ephebes (17) and the Cave of Hermes and Hercules (20).
Apollo Karneios was God of the Dorians. There was an annual festival in his honor called “The Karneia”. This would take place in a large man-made terrace.
Gymnasium of the Ephebes was the gymnasium for teenagers. Nowadays only a few remains can be found on the east and north side. Most of the south part has collapsed on the steep slope.
The cave of Hermes and Hercules was a natural cave that was later converted into a sanctuary. This was at the heart of the gymnasium.
This is the end of the path.
Here are some photos from Ancient Thira:
Photo Credits: Santo Photo Tours
- Get a guided tour if possible. Looking at the ruins does not make a lot of sense when you don’t know what it is you are looking at. There is a very fascinating story behind this city and your guide will be able to tell you all about it. There are tours you can book that include transportation to and from the city of Ancient Thira and the cost is very reasonable. Find the one that suits you best.
- Wear comfortable shoes. Sandals might not be the way to go, especially if you hiking to get there.
- Avoid it if it’s a windy day. The sun is manageable (just don’t forget your hat), but because Ancient Thira is exposed on most sides, it tends to get really windy (I mean really really windy). So do choose a day with less wind if you can.
- Other than that, history behind this place is fascinating, as most sites in Greece (don’t want to brag but it is true) so do visit it if you are a history fan. In case you want to see artifacts recovered from the site, you can visit the Archaeological museum in Fira (it is very close to the cable car).
I have said this before, but here goes again: I am not an historian, I just read and learn as I go along so forgive me for any mistakes. I did a lot of research to put this together and learnt a lot of things as well.
I enjoyed it and hope you did as well.
PS: My dear friend John asked me to write this a long time ago. Never too late! John I truly hope you like it :)