When most people think of a Greek island, their mind wanders to the blue and white hillside houses of Santorini or the party paradise Mykonos. There are, of course, hundreds of other island destinations all over Greece, but the Cyclades have become the epitome of an idyllic Greek summer getaway. These islands have a steamy history and history, millions of years in the making.
To understand the origins of the Cyclades island chain, we need to dive deep into the Earth. The geological processes that have shaped the Mediterranean region and all the continents as we know them are incredibly complex. A major element is the spread of hot magma beneath the earth’s crust, and sometimes above the surface as lava from volcanoes. The layer of the Earth just below the crust is called the mantle. In the deepest parts of the mantle there is extreme heat and in other parts there is a volatile movement of materials. Processes that occur in the deep mantle also affect what happens in the upper regions of the mantle called the asthenosphere and lithosphere. The mantle is important in Earth’s evolution and current geological processes because it makes up 84% of the planet’s volume. Over 4.5 billion years of movement and formation, water, gases and minerals have become trapped in the Earth’s mantle. These materials make their way to the surface and burst through or modify the crust by different geological processes. These processes include the movement of tectonic plates, which then shape the landscape, for example by forming new mountains or layers of oceanic crust. There are other processes like volcanic eruptions, where these materials are expelled from the mantle through the crust as hot molten rock and minerals transformed into lava.
Volcanoes can be found all over the Mediterranean, from Italy to Africa to Greece. The Cyclades Islands lie in an area known as the Aegean Volcanic Arc. This region is known to have an active tectonic plate boundary in which two plates of the Earth’s mantle constantly cause friction between them. The African plate is pushed under the Eurasian plate and this initiates a process called subduction. Subduction occurs when the contents of one tectonic plate are forced under another tectonic plate, which then creates a subduction zone in the Earth’s upper mantle. A subduction zone in the mantle causes materials that have been pushed down by a strong frictional force to heat up. These materials, including rocks, minerals and water, then rise through the crust to the surface in the form of volcanic eruptions.
This is how many islands in the Mediterranean were formed, including the Cyclades island chain. The Aegean Sea was also flooded and formed as a result of shifting plate tectonics and ruptures in the earth’s crust.
The most famous volcano in the Cyclades is certainly the one that created the island of Santorini. Today the island is shaped like a C, with the caldera of the volcano located in the middle with a small island named Nea Kameni with other smaller formations surrounding it. The importance of the Santorini volcano dates back to ancient times and the infamous civilizations it wiped out during its eruption. The Minoans were a highly civilized and extensive group with settlements throughout the Aegean Sea. When the Santorini volcano erupted around 1600 BC. BC, the main settlement of the island called Akrotiri was completely destroyed. Scientists believe residents had warning signs to evacuate as no human remains were found at the archaeological site, now a museum of the ancient city. Some have called Akrotiri the true Lost City of Atlantis because when the volcano erupted it also triggered massive tsunamis. The forces of the eruption and subsequent tsunamis also affected settlements as far as the island of Crete in the southern Aegean, more than 100 kilometers away. Thanks to scientific measurements and research, the eruption has been classified as category 7 VEI and is considered one of the most catastrophic in human history. The effects of this event have been mentioned in the records of ancient civilizations throughout the Mediterranean and beyond, including those of Egypt and even China. Indeed, the aftermath of the huge eruption left lingering particles and dust in the atmosphere, which then traveled and affected the global climate. Santorini’s volcano is still active today and its last recorded eruption was in 1950, with warning signs in the form of earthquakes.
The aftermath of such volcanic activity leaves its mark covering the landscape with volcanic ash. The cliffs of the Cyclades islands present layers of sediments with various colors and properties. Black, red and white sand beaches are exotic detours from normal tourist spots.
The active Aegean volcanic arc extends from the southern side of the Corinth Canal to the Cyclades islands and the southwestern edge of Turkey. Other Cycladic islands that are found in this fiery region include Milos, Ios, Astypalea, and Nisyros, among others. Their rocky and often white or dark colored beaches and sediments contrast with islands elsewhere in the Aegean Sea and the Mediterranean as a whole. These islands were formed by volcanic activity resulting from subduction and many have had eruptions throughout their millions of years of existence. Milos, for example, has a dormant volcano that hasn’t erupted for nearly 100,000 years. Although some eruptions were more legendary than others, the characteristics of the Cycladic islands are bound to continue to evolve through these geological processes. Volcanoes are scattered throughout the Mediterranean Sea, such as Etna in Sicily in Italy, which is one of the largest in the world.
Perhaps it is this fiery energy that makes the sheltered Cyclades such an exciting destination. They are nestled in an isolated part of the Mediterranean region, but carry a huge and important past and future. In the past, the Cyclades were home to impressive civilizations. Today, they offer the world some of the most breathtaking scenery and natural wonders. They are a mixture of the power of mother nature and also the will of humans to build their lives with beauty and culture.