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History of Syros Island

It seems likely that the first inhabitants of Syros were Phoenicians. The most notable trace of their occupation is the name of the island which is derived either from the Phoenician "usyra" or "usura" meaning happy or from "syr" meaning rock. Together with the fact that the pretty tourist resort of Dellagratsia is also known as Finikas (Phoenix), we can assume that the first inhabitants of Syros were Phoenicians.

The Ionians were the next colonists. In the 6th century BC. Peresydes, philosopher and teacher of Pythagoras, was born on Syros. Two caves on the island bear his name today. During the Persian Wars Syros gave tribute and was forced to fight against the Greeks. From the time of the 4th Crusade until 1566 the island belonged to the duchy of Naxos.

In the 13th century Syros, like all the Cyclades, was taken by the Venetians, who spread Roman Catholicism there. Even today many of the Syrians are Catholics. It was at this time that the medieval city of Ano (Upper) Syros was built. The island flourished and even when it was taken by the Turks (1537) it retained numerous privileges thanks to the influence of its Catholic inhabitants and also because the "Capitulation" agreed between Fransois I and the Sultan. Religious institutions established by the Latins and were placed under the protection of France.

The Capuchins were the first to arrive in 1633, followed by the Jesuits, the Ursulines and the Lazarists of St. Vincent de Paul. The religious "Houses" dispensed justice and organized schools and hospitals. In 1717 the botanist Tournefort wrote that Syros, then called Syra, was the most Catholic island in the archipelago with 6.200 Roman Catholic as against 12 Orthodox families. Nowadays Syros still has many Roman Catholics.

When the War of Independence broke out, Syros remained neutral but provided refugees with shelter and also supplied money. Syra had always been a focal point of the shipping routes between Athens, Constantinople, Alexandria and the other ports of the Levant and in the aftermath of Greek independence the island's importance grew.

Starting in 1821 thousands of Greeks, who were driven out of Chios and other Aegean islands by the Turks, found refuge on the then uninhabited shores of Syra Bay. Gradually a new town developed; it was placed under the patronage of Hermes, the god of commerce and called Ermoupolis (Ermoupoli). Totally Greek, it grew rapidly and by 1828 it already numbered 15.000 inhabitants. At one time there was even a possibility of it becoming the capital of the newly established Greek kingdom. In fact, Ermoupolis flourished until the end of the century.

Maritime trade, ship yards, textile workshops, tanneries, the production of wrought iron and ships' prows all enriched the cosmopolitan inhabitants. The town acquired the appearance which it has to a large extent retained: foreign architects such as Chabeau (French), Ziller, (German) contributed to the construction of public buildings, elegant houses with wrought iron balconies and the handsome villas in Vaporia where the ship owners, bankers and rich merchants lived. The establishment of schools, printing presses, newspapers and even a literary circle sustained a high level of intellectual activity. A flourishing social life was expressed in the Carnival, theater or opera, concerts and balls.

The opening of the Corinth canal in 1893 dealt Ermoupolis a serious blow and it was supplanted by Pireaus. There was renewed activity in the port after the World War II when Goulandris, a shipping magnate, built the Neorion floating dock. From the entrance of the bay there is an arresting view of the setting of the town with its white houses spread up and down the steep slopes and divided into distinct districts: on the waterfront, Ermoupolis, built in the 19th century, the administrative and commercial center; above, on two hills divided by a valley, Ano Syros (on the left), the old Roman Catholic town dating from the 13th century and Vrondado (on the right), where the Orthodox live, which was built in the 19th century as an offshoot of Ermoupolis.