Visit to the archaeological site of Ancient Thera
Ancient Thera is the second most important archaeological site on the island after Akrotiri. Ancient Thera was founded in the 9th century BC by Dorian colonists and inhabited up to the Byzantine period. Most of the excavations there were undertaken by German archaeologists between 1895 and 1902. Most of the excavated ancient monuments are from the Hellenistic and Roman periods.
More than 360 meters high at its peak, Mesa Vouno (which means “Inside Mountain”) rises high above the coastal settlements of Kamari and Perissa, offering visitors beautiful panoramic views of the whole region. It is important to note that Mesa Vouno is one of the few areas on Santorini that were not covered by volcanic materials. This is also apparent in the current soil morphology. The archaeological site is well organized, and we follow a specific, defined route as we walk across it. We will find significant discoveries from Ancient Thera in the big, modern Archaeological Museum of Fira.
We can reach the archaeological site by road, ascending the winding route from Kamari. Although more arduous, another route is via paths one (1) or three (3). Path (1) is a wide cobblestone path that ascends to the highest peak on the island (at 567 meters altitude) and the Monastery of the Prophet Elias, and then descends (on ancient cobblestones) to Mesa Vouno, leading to the archaeological site. The total length of the path is 4,300 meters (estimated time two hours), while the distance from the Monastery of the Prophet Elias to the archaeological site is two kilometers (estimated time 50 minutes).
Path three (3) links Kamari to Perissa, passing Ancient Thera around the middle of the route, where it joins path one (1). Starting from Kamari, the trail initially follows the wide cobbled path and ends at Ancient Thera. As we ascend, we will also pass the little church of the Life Giving Spring (Zoodochos Pigi). The distance from Kamari to the archaeological site is 1,600 meters, and the estimated climbing time is fifty minutes. From the archaeological site, the trail descends gently to the touristic Perissa (distance 1,300 meters, estimated time 35 minutes).
All the above choices lead to the same point, where there is also a snack bar (particularly useful if we have come this far on foot). A little cement road that starts here leads to the archaeological site of Ancient Thera. Below we enumerate the highlights of our visit in the order in which we encounter them when following the prescribed route.
1. Fifty meters from the entrance to the archaeological site of Ancient Thera, we will come across the Sanctuary of Aphrodite just off the little road, on our right.
2. The next monument after the Sanctuary of Aphrodite, again on our right, is the Monument of Artemidoros. Approximately two hundred fifty meters after that, we see its sanctuary. Artemidoros, the son of Apollonios, was from Perga in Pamphylia. A dream led him to settle in Thera in his old age. Here he was active founding temples and adorning the city. He was honored for this contribution with an olive branch wreath and the right to citizenship in Thera.
3. The history of Ancient Thera continues into the early Byzantine period, and here, right after the temple of Artemidoros, we find a building that testifies to that. The two-aisled vaulted church of Saint Stephen (Agios Stefanos) was built on the ruins of an early Christian basilica, probably in the middle of the 6th century AD. The basilica was three aisled, with a double narthex (entrance area) and an arch in its middle aisle. After its destruction, probably by an earthquake, the two-aisled vaulted church that survives today was built.
4. The next monument, two hundred meters from the church of Saint Stephen, is the Temenos or Sanctuary of Artemidoros. It was founded in the 3rd century BC by Artemidoros, the son of Apollonios, who carved the outdoor sanctuary out of stone himself. Epigrams and inscriptions honoring their gods and Artemidoros have been etched on rocks around the sanctuary.
5. The Exedra (Greek plural exedres; Latin exedrae) immediately after the Sanctuary of Artemidoros were three temple-like buildings of the Roman period (1st - 2nd century AD). Built in a row, they housed statues of individuals from prominent families of Thera who were honored by the city. On a raised platform of three or four tiers, they held pedestals for the statues. The inscribed bases of some of the statues survive today.
6. The Agora, meaning both forum and marketplace, was a place for the meeting and assembly of the city's citizens, and also a place for their commercial transactions. The Agora is located in the center of the city and consists of three consecutive flat, open spaces along the main road that passes through the city. Around the marketplace were important buildings like the Royal Stoa, the Temple of Dionysos, and the Exedres.
7. The Royal Stoa, Vasilki Stoa, or Royal Arcade. One of the most impressive monuments of Ancient Thera, along with the ancient theater. This was an imposing elongated building with a Doric colonnade on its long axis. It dominated the southern part of the Agora and housed the official political and administrative offices of the city. Its construction dates to the early 3rd century BC, but extensive repairs were made in the 2nd century AD, as evidenced by two built-in stone inscriptions across from the entrance.
8. Small Hellenistic Doric style temple dedicated to Dionysos (or Dionysus) in the northern part of the Agora. It dates to the 3rd century BC.
9. South Central Section of the City. Since the terrain made the southern end of the city unsuitable for habitation, it hosted places of worship. The Agora of the Gods and the Sanctuary of Apollo Karneios, the ruling deity of the Therans, were located here.
10. Sanctuary of Egyptian Gods. In the Hellenistic period, a time of great openness to new gods and sects, the cults of eastern Egyptian deities had begun to spread through Greece. In Thera, the Egyptian gods Serapis, Isis, and Anubis had begun to be worshiped by the 3rd century BC. The sanctuary was an unusual outdoor construction, a terrace made by filling in the area between natural rocky sides with soil. Two tanks next to the sanctuary provided the necessary holy water for religious needs. At that time, Thera belonged to the Ptolemies, who were also the rulers of the Hellenistic kingdom of Egypt.
11. Hellenistic sanctuary in honor of Pythian Apollo, as indicated by an inscription found carved on a column. A three aisled basilica with a double narthex (vestibule) and an arch in the middle aisle was built on top of the ruins of the temple, using materials from the ancient temple in its construction, probably in the 6th century AD. There is also evidence of a cult of the Dioscuri in the area. Next to the temple, there is an imposing building with a large colonnaded courtyard, which is probably the house of the Vasilisti, that is the headquarters of the association of members of the Ptolemaic garrison, dedicated to the worship of the Ptolemaic kings. The activities of the club were closely linked to the nearby sanctuary of the Egyptian gods.
12. Typical private residence of the Hellenistic period. It follows the typical structure of a Greek house with its introverted character, organizing the spaces around an inner rectangular courtyard with peristyles. Configured on two levels, the simple, unadorned exterior of the domicile follows the slope of the terrain.
13. Ancient Theater. One of the most imposing buildings in the ancient city, from the Hellenistic - Roman period, with beautiful views of the endless blue of the Aegean Sea. Situated close to the Agora, it was also used as a parliament. It is estimated that it was partially constructed in the 2nd century BC on the site of a preexisting simpler construction that was used for gatherings. Six staircases in a radial configuration divided the hollow into five sections with a total capacity of 1,500 people. In the 1st century AD, a Roman-style scene building was constructed, its proscenium decorated with statues of the imperial family.
14. [Roman Baths][TID 45538]. Public building with an arcade on its front side which was built during the Hellenistic period but underwent significant changes during the Roman period. The baths were constructed in the middle of the 2nd century AD and are considered public since they were located within the Agora. Of the areas usually found in baths and changing rooms, such as rooms for cold baths, sweating and massage, and hot baths, only the last has been identified with certainty.
15. House of Fortune, luck, or destiny, the Greek Tyche (called Fortuna by the Romans). One of the latest-built buildings in the city, probably a private house. Its name comes from fragments of a statuette of the goddess Tyche that were found on its ground floor.
16. Carved inscription on a column that refers to Roman emperors.
17. Cemetery of Ancient Thera. Part of the cemetery of Ancient Thera stretched along the northern slopes of the Sellada, the mountain pass that connects the hill of the Prophet Elias with Mesa Vouno. A winding cobblestone road crossed the cemetery, connecting the city with its northern seaport, Oia (present-day Kamari). The excavations of N. Zapheiropoulos (1961 - 1982) revealed the road and numerous tombs from various periods in the city's history.
Several of the descriptions of the monuments come from the explanatory descriptions posted by the Archaeological Service in Ancient Thera.