Saturday, June 3, 2023

SYROS: Grande Dame Island of Greece's Cyclades




Ninety miles southeast of Athens sits the island of Syros, the administrative center for the Cyclades, occupying an area slightly less than twice the size of Manhattan but with a population of 1,680,000 less (22,000).


Archaeological excavations place an Early Bronze Age civilization on Syros (3200-2200 B.C.E.), but according to Homer (8th-century B.C.E.), Phoenicians (1500-300 B.C.E.) were the first known inhabitants of Syros, naming the island from their words for “wealth” and “happy.” Later occupiers (including Ionians, Persians, Macedonians, Romans, Venetians, Turks, and Russians) and immigrant refugees, each seeking precisely that same prize, brought the island boom and bust times in the millennia that followed.


There were also pirates back then, roaming the Mediterranean and instilling terror in all who sailed or stood in their path.  They weren’t the romanticized Hollywood versions of the breed, but callous slaughterers, rapists, and slavers.  Innocents who lived by the sea placed their faith in castle walls and mountain fortresses for protection against their tormentors. At times defenses held. At times they did not. 


Syros’ capital city of Ermoupoli, though, stands barely two centuries old, founded essentially by refugees flocking to Syros to escape Asia Minor, the Ottoman devastation of Chios in 1822, and its victimization of other eastern Aegean islands. 


Above Ermoupoli sits the medieval upper village of Ano Syros, called Apano Chora by some and simply Chora by the locals.  It was the island’s first settlement, erected in Byzantine times to help protect its inhabitants from pirates plaguing the Aegean. Largely because of their inhabitants’ respective origins, medieval Ano Syros and 19th-century Ermoupoli differed in architecture, religion, culture, and general way of life. 


Ano Syros’s mostly Catholic roots and centuries-old ways and trades stood in stark contrast to what the flood of new Orthodox refugees brought to the island.  Anxious to establish the cosmopolitan, cultured, and sophisticated lifestyles they’d been forced to leave behind, in a matter of decades they’d turned Ermoupoli from a comparatively unpopulated seaside into Greece’s leading mercantile capital. But by far the most visibly evident difference between the two adjoining locales lay in their respective architectures. 


Ano Syros lay out upon a hillside in amphitheater fashion, made up of largely one- and two-story whitewashed traditional Cycladic-style stone structures fitted with utilitarian, form-follows-function modifications, such as half-doors—split horizontally and vertically—allowing fresh air and easy communication with neighbors, second-floor balcony doors built without a balcony for much the same purpose, unfenced courtyards open to the lanes, and other practical alterations, such as slicing away corners to allow laden donkeys and carts to pass by unobstructed. 



Down by the harbor lay Ermoupoli’s very different world of wide streets, majestic neo-classical public buildings, commercial structures, private residences, churches, marble statues, and elaborate mansions of those refugees who’d brought prosperity to the island. They included merchants, bankers, shipowners, and industrialists, who, within a decade, helped turn Ermoupoli into Greece’s largest urban center of its time, and the birthplace of Greece’s first industrial efforts, including iron works, textiles, flour mills, and tanneries.


The great wealth and civic dedication of many of Syros’s new citizenry brought with it unparalleled infrastructure and cultural development, including water supply and drainage systems, a street plan, a pier, shipbuilding facilities that once were the busiest in Greece, harborside warehouses, a quarantine station, an opera theater house, Greece’s first high school, and an exquisite collection of marble-adorned neoclassical buildings ranging from the simple to palatial. The most dominant by far being Ermoupoli’s town hall, a striking football field-size neoclassical beauty built between 1876 and 1898 facing upon an even larger town square.

It came as no surprise that in choosing a name for their new town, the inhabitants chose to name it after Hermes, the god of commerce.


But Syros’s great aristocratic run as Greece’s 19th-century shipbuilding and repair center ended at the close of that century with the proliferation of railroads, the opening of the Corinth Canal, and the harbor and shipyards at Athens’ port city of Piraeus—all driven by the determination and wealth of other capitalists possessing different visions of the future.


World War II ushered in a brutal Italian occupation of the isle, bringing famine and poverty, sharp discord between Catholic and Orthodox islanders, and death to 8,000 of its people.  But perhaps the single most significant factor in bringing Syros to its knees, was a Titanic-like tragedy during Easter Week 1945 that wiped out virtually all the island’s leadership class. 


On May 2, 1945, a one-time Norwegian whaler turned mine sweeper, given to the Greek navy in 1943 for continued service as a minesweeper, sailed out of Piraeus for Syros, Chios, and Samos.  By May 1945 the Sperchios operated more as a civilian cargo and ferry boat than military vessel, given the toll the Greek ferry fleet had suffered during the still-live war.  The badly overloaded Sperchios sailed that evening with goods destined for its ports of call and passengers anxious to return home from business dealings in Athens. Most were headed to Syros.


Though enemy warships no longer presented the concern they once did, there still were minefields to contend with, and as the Sperchios worked its way back and forth through those fields, its captain made a sudden turn, capsizing the ship, and sending most on board to their death.


Among the dead were many from Syros’s most influential, successful families, including its most powerful clan: the Ladopoulos family, which had led the island’s finance, business, industry, shipping, politics, charity, and social life. 


The sinking of the Sperchios brought great mourning to many on Syros and soured the future for all. Without leadership, businesses began to fail, bankruptcies followed, banks foreclosed, buildings emptied and fell to ruin.  Some said the island still hadn’t recovered and point to grand commercial and residential structures once owned by those fabled families that have been allowed to crumble.


Others said things began to turn around for Syros in the early 1980s with the revival of Ermoupoli’s shipyards, and that a recent change in ownership of the shipyards promised even more jobs for the island's twenty-two thousand residents, supplementing those existing in agriculture and in support of the island’s role as the administrative center of the Cyclades.


The massive tourism influx that fired the development of many of the Cyclades, such as Mykonos and Santorini, has not (yet) changed Syros’ laid-back atmosphere—a blessing some say—and visitors looking for a more culture-oriented, family-friendly Cycladic experience now flock to this Grande Dame of the Cyclades to enjoy its Venice-like vibe—sans canals and plus steps.


At least that’s how I see it. And why my next Chief Inspector Andreas Kaldis novel (#13)–coming in February 2024 from Severn House–is set there.




  1. Thanks for the history and the tour, Jeff. Looking forward to lucky #13!

  2. Very interesting history. Thank you for this intro to #13.

  3. Thanks, EVKA and Tottie. I'm looking forward to it I work on #14! Ever onward.

  4. Somehow I thought Syros was going to be featuring in the next book. I'm also looking forward to it!

  5. Your posts make me want to visit Greece--for now I'll have to make do with your books (and yes, eínai kai aftó polý kaló!)