Read an Excerpt
A Shriek in the Night
Then listen, Socrates, to a tale which, though strange, is certainly true.
Autumn 1628 B.C.
Down there on earth, the course of history was shifting, shifting like sand from infinite possibilities to the shadow of a dream.
Even from a vantage point on the lunar highlands, you could have seen it without the aid of telescopes or binoculars. A black spot had appeared on the Aegean Sea, perfectly round, vast and cloudlike. It swelled on the planet below, burst up through the atmosphere and started to rain fire down upon Melos, Naxos and Crete. At its center, the island of Thera was not. Walls of water hovered around a hole more than a mile deep. The air was hotter than live steam, hotter than molten lead, hotter than iron emerging white from a furnace.
The shadow on the earth grew with extraordinary speed, slashing down ships as it sluiced into the Mediterranean. White clouds formed and vanished on its edges. In less than an hour it widened to two hundred miles, and then to four hundred miles. It rolled over Turkey and Egypt, turned day into starless night, shed some of its heat and ash and velocity, then stumbled eastward. The stain thinned over Syria and Iran, pulled itself apart into long streamers, thinned still more and spread across Asia like ink poured into a saucer of water except that this ink stain was laced with sheets of brilliant blue lightning.
Passing now into legend and mythology, lost almost beyond recall in the stream of time, was themost progressive civilization the world had ever seen.
Autumn, A.D. 1988
When I sailed into the central lagoon of Thera (or Kalliste, as the ancients called it) six days ago, the Aegean was as calm as quarry water. Four miles away, in every direction, vertical cliffs rose more than a thousand feet out of the sea. I knew that four thousand years ago those same cliffs had been the mere foothills of a mountain that had stood nearly a mile over my head. It is easy to talk about cubic miles of rock vanishing from a place, but one must actually sail into the crater to understand the size of it. I've never received such an impression, not standing on Tasman Glacier, or in the shadow of Mount Cook, or even exploring parts of the forty-thousand-mile seam that runs along the ocean basins. I expected them to be big. They were built up over thousands, even millions of years, inches at a time. It's easy to understand small changes producing large results, given a sufficiently large amount of time. But my perception of time and space bends at Thera, because the hole in the earth was dug out in a geological nanosecond, during an event so violent as to be both fascinating and beautiful, especially when viewed, in the mind's eye, from a calm sea, with nearly a quarter mile of water below and the cliffs, the edges of the explosion, appearing distant on the horizon.
Until you visit this place, a description of the eruption amounts to barely more than numbers insofar as we know them rolling off the tongue. Near 1600 B.C., a city probably two or three cities died here. The volcano kicked up block after block of multistoried apartment houses, bakeshops and storefronts, pulverized them and sank them out at sea, or hurled their dust at the stratosphere. One city, or a large portion of it, had already been buried under a blizzard of volcanic ash, on a part of the island that was not cracked open and flung about or heaved into the Aegean. The ash acted as a cushion, protecting the ruins from an explosive force exceeding 150 hydrogen bombs detonating at once. Thirty (perhaps as many as fifty) cubic miles of rock became as a vapor in the heavens, and death rolled into Turkey on the tongue of a tsunami. The wave was funneled thirty miles inland. To penetrate so far, it had to be eight hundred feet high. By today's standards, the wave would stand almost as tall as Manhattan's Chrysler Building, or twice the height of the Washington Monument.
Thera, which means "fear" is a flooded crater 150 miles southeast of Athens. To the south, the island of Crete stands between it and Africa, and divides the Mediterranean. and Aegean seas.
Thirty-six hundred years ago Thera was a round island with a peak in its center, and fast-flowing stream, and a green canopy of papyrus and palms if paintings within its buried buildings are to be believed. The island was called Kalliste then "the most beautiful" and there was a city on it, very advanced for its time. The "Kallistens" had dose connections with Crete, which was at the height of its powers. We call these People Minoans, after Minos, the king whose reign dated back to a time that was already misty and vague, and laden with legends like that of the Minotaur and the Labyrinth. At the time of the Thera upheaval, their civilization had already existed for fifteen hundred years. They'd built the worlds first navy, traded with Egypt, and gained control of the eastern Mediterranean and much of the Greek mainland. The city on Thera's south shore lacked defensive, fortike walls. The sea was its wall and the navy defended the barrier. Thera shared in Minoan power, and grew to become one of its wealthiest ports and a center of culture.