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September 16, 1998
That we've broken their statues,On the Greek island of Santorini, geography is everything. The island owes its distinctive present form, the stuff of travel-poster clichés (a crescent of towering cliffs dropping into the sea, topped by whitewashed towns that spill over the precipitous faces), to an enormous volcanic eruption sometime in the latter part of the seventeenth century B.C. When the smoke had cleared and the pumice and ash had settled and cooled, a sophisticated Bronze Age civilization at Akrotiri lay buried, consigned to the realm of myth until uncovered in the 1960s. The island now looks something like a piece of fruit with a gigantic bite taken out of it. Most of the western half is gone. New, smaller islands mark the outline of what had been the western rim, and the volcano itself remains, having hardened into two black-and-red "burnt" islands in the middle of the watery caldera (the deep crater surrounding the volcano's vent). The eastern side of Santorini descends gradually from the cliffs, a dry but fertile volcanic plain.
From the monastery perched atop the mountain at Santorini's southern end, you can look north and practically read the island like a map. The towns of Thira, Imerivigli, and Oia stretch out along the island's spine, their western sides facing out over the intense blue caldera many hundreds of feet below, their eastern sides receding down into terraced vineyards and tiny clusters of farmhouses, windmills, and small chapels. What isn't obvious is the way the landscape has determined the island's cultural divide. On one side you have the densely packed hotels and shops, discos and cafés, where spectators gather on crowded terraces for the evening ritual of wine and cameras as the sun plunges dramatically into Homer's fabled western seas. On the other side are the quiet residential lanes and alleys, the enclosed porches of houses facing east, and the domes and bell towers of churches, in which wine is poured for different rituals. If one side belongs to Dionysus and his latter-day devotees, the other belongs to the Virgin.
We arrived on Santorini, my wife and I, in time for the Fifteenth of August, one of Greece's major national holidays. Properly known as the Feast of the Virgin, the date is one of the most important on the Greek Orthodox calendar. Of course, like many nominally religious holidays, it is also an occasion for secular revelry -- though in the heavily touristed islands south of the mainland such revelry is business as usual, and as far as I could tell the Feast barely registered among those who form Santorini's transient summer population.
Our last morning on the island, I got up early and took a walk through the residential side of Thira, Santorini's principal town, where we were staying. I was determined to see something of the real life of the place before we had to rush off to meet our boat back to Athens. In the past several days we had dutifully toured the island, seen the obligatory sights (the ruins of Akrotiri, the black-sand beaches at Perissa); we'd done our wine tasting and had bought our bottles of Vinsanto, the island's sweet dessert wine; we'd taken the boat out to the volcano and hiked up onto its lifeless rim in a procession of several-hundred day-pilgrims in bikinis, tanktops, and Nikes. Each night we watched the sunset from one of the cliff-top towns. We joined the stampede out to the point at Oia, where we gathered by the hundreds, in some places shoulder to shoulder; some climbed onto walls and rooftops for a better view. We strolled leisurely through the softly lit pedestrian streets, stopping in upscale shops and galleries that reminded us of Laguna and Santa Fe, feeling like a couple in a credit-card commercial. We dined well and inexpensively, drank the local wine, and -- it must be said -- enjoyed ourselves immensely, indulging in the hedonism that carried on around us late into the night.
But that last morning, with only a few hours left on the island, I woke feeling dissatisfied. There was a hollowness in my chest, a kind of creeping anxiety -- perhaps the knowledge that I'd likely never return to this island and that half of Santorini remained utterly unknown to me. I realized that the other side of Thira, the eastern side, was simply a blank spot in my mind. It might as well have been the dark side of the moon.
The sun had been up for perhaps an hour when I walked out from our hotel and wound my way up the hill into the quiet alleyways of the residential neighborhood. I quickly lost all sense of direction in the narrow lanes with their smooth whitewashed walls on either side (too narrow for any but human beings and pack animals to pass), feeling rather like a hamster in a maze. Few people were out, but those I did meet -- old men, mainly, with tanned skin and grizzled beards, some driving donkeys -- greeted me with tolerant smiles, a nod of the head, and a low "kaliméra." I worked my way up the hill to a high point where the lane opened out onto a small square and a white-domed church. The square was empty and silent, the church gated and locked.
I walked on a little farther and found a path that cut horizontally across the neighborhood's steep eastern slope, opening out onto a view over the flat rooftops descending down into the fields toward the sea. I followed it a short way and paused a moment to take in the view. Then I realized that on the porch of the house to my left, down just a few feet from the path where I was standing, a middle-aged woman was moving around watering her potted plants. Another woman came around the corner behind me, carrying bags from the markets down the hill. She greeted the woman on the porch with a single inaudible word, and continued on a few steps farther to her own house, where she entered the low gate onto a whitewashed porch with a stone bench and brightly painted flower pots. Neither of them acknowledged me, though they couldn't have helped being aware of my presence. I suddenly felt uncomfortable, standing there in the middle of their lane looking east, where the morning light reflected blindingly off the Aegean. Maybe I'd wandered too far. Maybe I was intruding. Maybe I should have just stayed down below, where I belonged.
Turning to walk back the way I'd come, I began to dread that around every curve in the alley I'd stumble into some other resident, disturbing the peace of his or her morning routine. But I got back to the square without seeing anyone.
The square was still deserted. Yet I noticed through the gate of the church that one of the smaller doors at its side stood open. I could just see, in the darkness within, a glint of a reflection off the gold of candlesticks and what looked like inlaid wooden paneling. Was that an icon in the gloom at the back? I couldn't tell. The day before had been the Feast, and all had been welcome for mass. But now the gate was locked, and all I could do was peer inside from a distance of several yards, straining my eyes.
I found my way back down to the town's center, where the noises of traffic, of the buses and taxis and the ubiquitous rented motorcycles -- the sounds of tourist money -- were just starting to rise.
Back home in the United States now, looking through our photographs of Santorini, I find dozens of picturesque shots of beautiful sunsets and whitewashed buildings clinging to the western cliffs. But there's not a single photo of the alleyways and church domes on Thira's eastern side. I'd forgotten my camera back in the hotel room that morning. Somehow it's fitting. The side of Santorini where the Virgin still holds sway will remain closed off to me -- a mystery, a blank. And perhaps that's as it should be. Perhaps that is the key to her survival.
Wen Stephenson is editorial director of Atlantic Unbound. He writes frequently on new media and culture.
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Copyright © 1998 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
Photographs by Wen Stephenson and Fiona Stephenson.
Opening quotation from C. P. Cavafy's "Ionic" (1911). Translated from the Greek by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard.