The capital of the Cyclades
The name Syros was given by the first inhabitants of the island, the Phoenicians. There are two versions about the name: According to the first, it comes from the word “Usyra” -meaning “happy”-, while according to the second, it comes from “Syr” which means rock. Homer calls it “Syria”, while in the 17th century it is also referred to as the island of the Pope: “L’isola del Papa”, due to the catholic doctrine of its inhabitants.
Syros covers a surface of 84 square km. Its highest peak is Pirgos at an altitude of 431 meters. The northern part of Syros is called Ano Mera, it is mainly mountainous and underpopulated, while it has been declared as a Significant Area for Birds in Greece.
Mount Siriggas has been incorporated into the network of protected areas “Natura 2000”.
The colorful 19th-century city of Ermoupolis and Ano Syros, a typical Cycladic village, are built on twin peaks -one Orthodox, the other Catholic, the heritage of Venetian occupation.
The presence of a catholic community which coexists with the orthodox one, has always characterized life on the island.
Ano Syros is the birth place of Markos Vamvakaris, a pioneer in the folk music of rebetiko.
No other city presents such a uniform architectural image, as Ermoupolis. At the crossroads of East and West the main port of the newly formed Greek state and the Eastern Mediterranean, with contacts and influences from European centers, European architects found suitable ground to implement their ideas. They created public buildings and mansions by combining the European neoclassical and romantic style.
Findings at Chalandriani on the northeastern part of the island (tombs, figurines, pots, utensils), revealed the existence of a settlement there since 2800 B.C., the second period of the early Cycladic civilization. Mid 6th century B.C., there were two major towns, one at the location where Ermoupolis is situated (Psariana) and the second in Galissas. During the 5th-4th century B.C., Syros belonged to the Athenian alliance. It reached its peak after the 2nd century B.C., as a shipping center. During the following centuries, the island declined since it was ravaged by pirates. In the 8th century A.C. reconstruction begun. The Venetians occupied Syros in 1207 and introduced Catholicism. In 1566 it was occupied by the Ottomans, but due to the Catholic community, it was protected by the Pope during the period of Ottoman Greece. In 1617 the Sultan’s fleet destroyed Syros.
In 1821 and the following years refugees from the islands of Chios, Psara, Asia Miror, Rhodes, Crete, Samos settled here raising the population, changing the character of the society and influencing all aspects: trade, shipping, culture, reconstruction. In 1830 the harbor became the center of transit trade in the hole East Mediterranean, the shipyards pioneered in the reconstruction of the Greek merchant fleet. There was an abundance of factories producing and exporting clothes, machinery, leathers, whereas a strong financial system was implemented.
The city was at its peak – “a huge construction site” as Athenian travelers described Ermoupolis and then acquired its cosmopolitan “aura”. At the same time, culture flourished: Theatrical and music cultural clubs, music cafes, Italian troupes presenting operas, 4-5 newspapers and rich publishing activity, public and private high level schools were part of this golden era. Prosperity was expressed also by the construction of emblematic public buildings and impressive villas that we admire to this day.
What goes up must come down, as they say. The Asia Minor catastrophe brought a new, large wave of refugees to the city and several industrialists left for Athens. The crisis of 1929-1931 and the restrictions of foreign exchange and trade policy affected the industry. Ermoupolis, the capital of the Cyclades, started searching for its new “identity”. At the end of the interwar period many factories closed, the port declined, the Customs were deserted and unemployment rose sharply. The Italian occupation troops landed on Syros in May 1941 and in 1943 it came under German jurisdiction. Syros experienced the worst famine of the occupation period…Between 1951-1971, 20% of the population emigrated, the textile factories closed and Neorio remained the only employer.
Fortunately, the improvement of the economy and the standard of living in Greece, revived domestic tourism and from the 1980s it also benefited Syros, although Neorio was closed. However, it reopened in 1994 and today is a robust company.
Ermoupolis joined various European programs, gained momentum due to the courts located here and the University of the Aegean. Some years ago, the Municipality and private individuals started renovating the mansions at Vaporia or in the villages and financed the construction of new buildings. As the seat of the South Aegean Region, it absorbed funds from European programs, created museums and exhibition venues and welcomed international tourism.
In recent years development continues, as businessmen from Syros, other parts of Greece and abroad, open restaurants and hotels in Ermoupolis and the coastal settlements, as well as shops. Many old villas have been transformed into places of hospitality that exude the glow of the urban past of the city. The cultural life is intense and interesting all year round.