Santorini Water Museum, Santorini, Greece
The Island of Santorini (Cyclades, Greece) as a Virtual Water Museum and the Church of Panaghia Episkopi with its Byzantine Cistern.
The island of Santorini was chosen as a virtual water museum partly because it is the most popular tourist destination in the Mediterranean and because of that, suffers from extreme water stress in the summer months. The island’s picturesque, white-washed houses, blue-domed churches and dramatic geological formations have become a magnet for mass-tourism, which has brought considerable wealth but severe water problems to the small Cycladic island. Two other factors made Santorini an ideal choice: (i) it has a very long history of continuous settlement, and (ii) it was the site of perhaps the largest volcanic eruption in history, an event that reshaped the island, covering it in a layer of volcanic ash. The ash probably buried natural springs, leaving the islanders with very few natural sources of water. Rich in silicon oxide, the ash was also found to create an impermeable surface when mixed with lime plaster, making an ideal lining for underground cisterns or reservoirs. “Thiran earth” became internationally known for its water-repellent properties, and was exported in large quantities until the government put a stop to quarrying after World War II.
Another reason for designating Santorini as a water museum is the fact that it has been continuously occupied since the Stone Age. Its remarkable Bronze Age and Classical sites have not only attracted tourists to Santorini, but demonstrated that each of the occupiers of the island was faced with the problem of managing the island’s scant water resources. The archeological record reveals a remarkable history of ingenious solutions to the problem, and a tradition of water conservation that was maintained at least until the mid-twentieth century.
The most famous archeological site on the island is the Bronze Age, Minoan town of Akrotiri, which had reached a high level of sophistication when it was buried by the volcanic eruption in about 1627 BCE. Excavations carried out in the 1960’s revealed elegant houses with frescoed walls, elaborate drainage and piping. Thermal springs may have supplied the houses with hot water, since many dwellings were found to have a double set of pipes. As at Pompeii and Herculaneum, the layer of ash that buried the town helped preserve the settlement with its three-story houses and astonishing fescoes.
Water seems to have been scarce at least from post-eruption times on Santorini. The island lies in a rain shadow between the mountains of Crete and the Peloponnese. This, combined with the small size of the island and the nature of the soil, which is largely composed of volcanic ash, as well as the high summer temperatures meant that there was very little surface water. There are also few natural springs and this encouraged the practice of storing water in underground cisterns, and of growing non-irrigated crops like vines using only the heavy dew that formed on the slopes of the volcano in the dry season. Despite this, from the 8th century on, a large city (Ancient Thira) was developed by Spartan colonists on the precipitous summit of Mesa Vouno, and the site was occupied continuously until the Byzantine period. In the 4th century BCE, the naturally-fortified site became an important naval base for Egyptian colonists. The spring of Zoodohos Pighi, half way up the mountain, seems to have been the main supply for the city, together with smaller springs, most of which have dried up. To supplement the spring, the population collected rainwater, as can be seen by the drains and many cisterns still visible on the island. Archeologists conjecture that almost every building in the city must have had a rainwater tank underneath it. The cisterns were lined, as they still are today, by “Thiran earth”.
The Byzantine Church of Panaghia Episkopi
The only surviving Byzantine church on the island of Santorini, Panaghia Episkopi, was said to have been commissioned by the Byzantine Emperor Alexios Komninos 1st (1081-1118) who apparently endowed it with a large estate where the villages of Exo Gonia, Mesa Gonia and Pyrgos now stand and extending to the monastery of St Ilias on the top of the mountain of Prophet Ilias. Building began some time in the 1100’s. In 1207, the island was conquered by the Franks during the 2nd crusade. The conquerors drove out the Orthodox bishop and built a new church to celebrate the Latin Mass. Disputes between Catholics and Orthodox about the church and its lands continued for the next century, and the church eventually became a common place of worship for both religions until it was restored to Orthodox control. The church is still used for services, and is visited regularly by tourists, not only because of the antiquity of the building itself, but because its picturesque courtyard looks over the southern coast of the island to the smaller island of Amorgos.
The church seems to have been built incorporating materials from a destroyed early Christian basilica on the same spot as well as fragments from the classical Greek city of Thira. Doric columns, capitals, and other architectural elements can be seen in the church, which contains important Byzantine frescoes. The floor-plan of the church is in the shape of a Greek cross with a dome over the crossing. Annexes and chapels were added to the structure at later periods. The church contains valuable original frescoes and copies of the two fine 17th century icons that were stolen in 1982. Doric columns, bulls’ heads and round altars all appear to have been taken from the ruins of ancient Thira situated on the mountain above the church. Some of these may have rolled down the mountainside during the frequent earthquakes that occur in the region.
According to local tradition, the cistern at Panaghia Episkopi was built at the same time as the church, but abandoned and repaired in 1801. Again, classical fragments have been incorporated into the architecture of the cistern, which is designed, as most public cisterns on the island, with intersecting arches. The absence of timber on the island meant that the arches were built with props of thick vine-stock. The walls of the cistern were lined with “Thiran earth.”
The cistern is still used for storing water and the couple who guard and take care of the church continue to use the cistern to water their plants and animals. The Santorini Water Authority made a modern door to access the cistern and it is possible to enter and view the cistern using a flashlight after obtaining permission. We have suggested that a better entrance be made in appropriate style, and that the viewing area be enlarged to accommodate visitors. Ideally a window might be made in the side wall so that visitors can see the structure of the cistern without entering the door.
Many other public squares and buildings on the island have cisterns constructed in a similar way to the cistern at the church. In most cases a central chamber was dug, after which a series of chambers were opened. The Cornell team documented a number of these chambers, climbing down into the cisterns and examining the integrity of the walls. By using the walking-map made by Laura Kenny, (see below) visitors can see where the largest and most significant cisterns are situated. In all these cases, no provision has been made for public viewing, a few visitors are aware of the existence of these remarkable structures. It is hoped that the incorporation of the cisterns into the walking trails will encourage a wider interest in them, leading either to the construction of public viewing platforms or other means of access as well as to the preservation of the viable tanks as additional storage for rainwater run-off or desalinated water.