“Ermoupoli is not the stereotypical fishing harbor…we were greeted by the elegant pastel architecture of a stylish capital city, with neo-classical mansions and marbled streets ….”Mick Hume , editor The Sunday Times
Syros, a town with history
Syros has been inhabited since ancient times: by Romans, Arabs, Ottoman Turks, Franks and Venetians. This is true of many Greek islands, but Syros has one major difference, its Venetian Catholic community remained intact and under the protection of Rome for over 500 years. These Greek-speaking Catholics remained neutral during the revolutionary years and Syros didn’t join the nation of Greece until 1829. Their influence locked the island into Europe and shaped a different kind of Greek island.
Kastri, a hill top settlement on the north of the island dates from the early bronze age, Cycladic civilization. It is all that remains of ancient Syros, 2800 -2300 BC. Archaeologists’ estimate over 300 people lived here. At the site they found one of the earliest potter’s wheels and metalwork, now in the Archeological museum in Hermoupoli.
Syros was home to the philosopher Pherecedes, who taught Pythagoras.What we know of Syros at this time was recorded by Homen in the Odyssey:
From the Odyssey
“There is a certain isle, called Syria, if haply thou hast
heard of it, over above Ortygia, and there are the
turning places of the sun. It is not great in compass
though a goodly isle, rich in herds, in flocks, with
plenty of corn and wine. Death never enters the land, and
no hateful sickness falls on wretched mortals. But when the tribes of man grow old in that city, then comes Apollo of
the silver bow, together Artemis, and slays them with the visitation
of his gentle shafts.”
Syros, along with all the Cycladic islands, was devastated several times in the early Middle Ages by Sicilians, Arabs, Turks and Venetians. The Byzantine Empire gradually gained control of the region, spreading the Greek language and religion, a period of peace that was disrupted in 1204 by the successful Fourth Crusade. Venetians, under Marco Sanuda took over Syros and it remained Venetian until 1522.
Ano Syros was built at this time.
The Corsair of Barbarossa, the Ottoman overlord from Constantinople (now Istanbul), took possession of Syros, but his rule was pragmatic: he allowed religious freedom and reduced taxes in return for peaceful acceptance. An agreement with Rome allowed the Catholics on the island to be subject to the Archbishop of Athens. At the same time, the Greeks established an Orthodox Church and a bishopric.
Independence and the 19th Century
Initially the Syriotis remained neutral as the Greek Revolution of 1821 exploded. Many refugees from Asia Minor, Chios, Spetses, Smyrna and other places took shelter on Syros. However in 1829 it joined the new Hellenic Kingdom. A period of re-building began as the town and island prospered. Many Catholic families altered their names to sound more Hellenic, for example Russo became Roussos, Salsa to Salsapoulos, Vuccino to Voutsinos etc. But there was no hostility as the two religious groups merged. Most of the islanders were already Greek speaking Catholics, and had been intermarrying for many years.
Ermoupoli played an important role in the new Greek State, being designated the Capital of the Cyclades. Commercial Law Courts were built, the first Post Office of Greece, the first public school. An elite society grew up opening Art Galleries, Museums, Libraries and Social Clubs.
An outbreak of cholera in 1854 saw the building of a hospital, still the only major hospital in the Cyclades. Ermoupoli was rapidly becoming the leading port of Greece. The beautiful waterside town was built in the neo-classic style with elements of the Renaissance.
Commercially, Syros also grew. Fabric manufacturing, silk weaving, ship-building, leather and iron work as well as a powerful banking system. But as sailing gave way to steam, Hermoupoli declined as a ship-building center, and the commercial port of Pireaus took over.
Until the Second World War, textiles were the main industry in Syros, but even that diminished after the war. With the generalized recovery of the Greek economy in the 1980’s Syros has returned to some prosperity as an administrative center for both the Cyclades and the Dodecanese. There is some local tourism, although Syros has never been a major tourist destination for overseas visitors.
Ermoupoli today has 7 elementary schools, 2 junior high schools, 2 high schools, 2 technical schools and the Aegean University with a department of Fine Arts and System Design, with a proposed future addition in Applied Arts and Visual Arts. The Syros Island National Airport, the Aegean casino, the frequent passenger ferry schedule and the hospital make this an all year round island for visitors.
Syros also has a British cemetery where various people are buried, including many seamen and servicemen who died in the Cyclades region, particularly during the Second World War. The numerous consulates of countries such as France, Britain, Italy, the Netherlands and Scandinavian countries bear witness to the connection of Syros with the wider European scene.