Article by Willard Manus

It's an earthly spectacle, a nocturnal rite of passage.

It begins about 6.30 PM in this famed Cycladic village of Oia (pronounced Eeyah) perched atop a thousand-foot-high slab of red volcanic rock
overlooking the Aegean Sea. Buses from all over the island arrive in the main square, disgorging hundreds of tourists who begin rushing through Oia's narrow, coiling streets, following their harried tour guides to the far western corner of the village. Some opt to sit on the patios of open-air cafes; others clamber down steep black-pebbled steps leading to the balustrades of a ruined Venetian castle, jockeying and jostling for the best positions.

Once settled, they break out their photographic arsenal-- cameras, big and small; movie and video recorders; digital camcorders; lithium batteries;
lavalier mikes and bodypacks, the works. Tripods are unpacked and snapped into place; film is loaded; viewfinders and timers prepped; zoom lenses protrude from slots once occupied by cannons and crossbows. After that, the visitors begin to wait, staring at the horizon with the intensity of becalmed mariners. The object of their scrutiny is the Greek sun, under
whose glare and heat they have suffered all day, protected by hats and scarves, layer upon layer of slimy sun block.

Now, however, the sun has gone from scourge to blessing, a force no longer to be deflected and decried but welcomed. Once upon a time the Greeks made obeisance to Helios, the sun-god; today it's the tourists who worship him, in pagan fashion of course. Slurping from plastic bottles of water and soda pop, wiping the sweat from their eyes, the tourists gaze transfixed at the sun as it begins its slow descent into the sea, turning from yellow to red behind a veil of mist.

Cameras are aimed and repositioned, shutters click and whir. And when the sun finally disappears from view, leaving behind only a huge crimson smear of sky, the tourists, as if on cue, break into applause and cheers. "Aaaah," they cry, like ecstatic lovers, "aaaahhhh!"

"What is it that makes them act like this?" wanted to know Triantaphyllos Pitsikalis, owner of the Chelidonia Hotel, where we were staying. "Haven't they ever seen a damned sunset before?"

Santorini is a starkly dramatic island, though, and that possibly accounts for the over-reaction to its sunsets. It was the home, four thousand years ago, of
an advanced society, one that was the equal of Minoan Crete (only 90km to the south). Around 1500 B.C.E. a gigantic volcanic explosion blew out the center of the island, burying all life beneath an ocean of lava and pumice.

Over the centuries, the island began to be repopulated. Historical accounts of Thira (Santorini's old name) mixed fact with legend; there are some, for example, who believe the island is Plato's lost continent of Atlantis; while others have found in it the source for the biblical parting of the Red Sea.

Today the ruins of Santorini, especially those located along Akrotiri, once the site of a prosperous and sophisticated city, draw visitors from around the
world. The island's unique landscape and its preternaturally beautiful villages, some of which (like Oia) are perched precariously on hilltops and
spill down to the sea in a profusion of tightly-packed houses blazing with vivid colors, have also helped turn Santorini into a major Aegean tourist center.
The tourists keep coming, some by plane or ferryboat from Piraeus, Rhodes and Crete, others by cruise ships that drop anchor at Thira Town. Gondola cars carry these daytrippers up to the top of the town, from where they fan out over the island by pullman bus, rented car or scooter.

Akrotiri and its archaeological treasures, the mountaintop monastery of Profitis Elias and the bustling city of Thira are the main attractions. But
when day's end comes all roads lead to Oia, where the tourists gather like lemmings to watch and cheer as the sun does its disappearing act.