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Echoes of Fickle Gods: Safe Haven on the Island of Syros

Written and photographed by Stephen Osmond

Continuously inhabited for over four thousand years and home to one of the oldest Cycladic societies, the island of Syros is comfortably removed from the hustle of international tourism.

man is washed ashore from the sea. Sole survivor of a terrible shipwreck, he owes his life to a miracle: He has been rescued by a dolphin and carried to safety. But he is now alone on a deserted, rock-strewn island. The harsh landscape offers respite only from the raging ocean and winds. He finds a cave near the water's edge and takes shelter. Here, he will live out the rest of his days.
        Kiranos became the legendary first citizen of the Aegean island of Syros (locals usually say Syra). His origins remain unknown, but his character is still remembered. Humble, wise, and virtuous, the cave dweller gained such great respect from the island's other occupants that he was recognized as their ruler and king.
A Franciscan monastery dominates the hillside of Ermoúpolis' harbor.
A Franciscan monastery dominates the hillside of Ermoúpolis' harbor.

        Whether Kiranos was the actual first inhabitant of the island or not, the acknowledged founder of one of Greece's oldest pre-Hellenic communities was evidently different from any and all others. Whatever the truth behind the myth, archaeology places the first inhabitation of the island at the end of the Neolithic era and beginning of the Bronze Age (approximately 4000 b.c.).
        Between the years 2800 and 2300 b.c., a thriving civilization of fishermen, farmers, and cattlemen emerged. There is also evidence of some organized fortifications. Nonetheless, Syra's unique society declined around 2000 b.c. as it was gradually absorbed into the arising Cretan (Minoan) and Mycenaean cultures. During the Classical and Hellenistic eras, Syros boasted a sophisticated culture, with a stratified class structure, a parliament similar to the Athenian model, a mint and an infirmary. It remained an active port and important trading center until the first century b.c., eventually falling under Roman rule.
        Considering the antiquity of its society, the wealth of archaeological finds uncovered within its shores, and its persisting reputation as a business center and the "capital of the Cyclades," it is perhaps surprising that Syros is often overlooked. Today, it is considered off the beaten track. Cruise ships and foreign visitors largely pass it by and tourism is almost exclusively Greek domestic business. Syros has none of the artsy cachet of a Mykonos, no fabulous ruins to tempt the photographer, and no noisy nightlife to attract the crowds.
        Despite a decline from its eminence during the Cycladic period, Syros maintained an orderly social structure and was an active center of trade throughout the Classic and Hellenistic eras. Homer refers to Syrii (Syra) as ruled by Ktissios Ormenides, the father of the shepherd narrator of the legend of Ulysses. Syros' port was important through the first century b.c. and the beginning of the Roman occupation, which ended in the fourth century a.d.
        Around this time, most of Syros' population converted to Christianity. During the island's Byzantine era the population was victimized by piracy, and Saracens and Arabs left their mark. The continual hostilities seemed likely to doom Syros to oblivion and cultural introversion, and the Byzantine era ended with the island under Venetian control. Catholicism was established on the island, and today around 30 percent of the island's population is Catholic (compared to the 97 percent majority of Greeks who are Orthodox).
        In 1537 Syros was seized by the Turks. Some form of local government was preserved, and a monastic Catholic order was present around the middle 1600s. In 1771 the Cyclades were overtaken by Russia during the Russian-Turkish War, but Syros was eventually recaptured by the Turks. Greek refugees from other parts of Turkey began to make their way to the island, particularly during the Greek war of independence, when atrocities on Chios and other islands forced them to flee. In 1828 an independent Greek state was established and Syros became the financial and political center of the Cyclades.
        Syros entered its modern "golden age" during the period from 1835 to 1885. Ermoœpolis became the hub for shipbuilding and international trade. There was a considerable amount of new construction on the island. Syros' prosperity grew out of shipping, farming, and a variety of small industries such as textiles, tanning, and soap making. Among the most important developments were the establishment of a chamber of commerce, a branch of the national bank, and an insurance agency. More than four-fifths of Greek shipping in the second half of the nineteenth century was built in Ermoœpolis, and over five thousand ships were registered on the island. By 1858 Syros had become a key marketplace for the eastern Mediterranean, and Ermoœpolis was a major importer and distributor of Western industrial products.
        A buoyant Syros also became an educational and publishing center, even providing materials supporting some liberal political movements such as the Cretan revolt, which was bloodily suppressed in 1862. The island reached its peak population of around thirty-two thousand in 1889, and prior to 1922, it served as a homeland for persecuted Greek refugees fleeing Turkish oppression. Then, as the twentieth century dawned, Syros' strong economy faded. It was soon eclipsed by developments elsewhere. The island's factories closed and population decreased during the interwar years. During World War II its economic and social life sank. In 1941 famine hit the island. Occupied by the Nazis, Syros suffered bombardment. Arguably, no other rural Greek setting endured so much.
        Today, though Syros has no prospect of returning to its past glories, its socioeconomic position has recovered somewhat, and the standard of living compares reasonably with that of the rest of Greece.
But the island remains of interest, having provided a historic cornerstone in the emergence of ancient Greece, the classical precursor of the Western world.

Safety from the storm

came to Syros by chance, none too happily, forced by bad weather into the safe haven of the island's sheltered harbor. I was aboard the small cruise ship Callisto when close to forty MPH winds and eight- to ten-foot waves made T¡nos, our intended destination, impossible to reach. As Callisto turned back and headed into the calmer waters of Syros' harbor, disappointment and frustration set in. It was pleasant to be out of the bucking sea, but this was not what I had hoped for. I had cruised the Aegean many years ago, visiting wonderful destinations in a large vessel that was about as exciting to travel aboard as an interstate bus. This luxurious vacation held the promise of a dream coming true. Now nature's casual trickery seemed determined to spoil everything.
        Built in 1964 but recently refurbished, Callisto is an elegantly appointed 164-foot, twin-engine vessel with just nineteen cabins, a large lounge, and first-class dining room. One quickly gets to know all other passengers, officers, and crew. This was just the second voyage of the refitted boat, and the crew's pride in their vessel was evident. The ship's name means, appropriately enough, "beautiful one," and the whole concept of cruising aboard Callisto emphasizes conviviality, personal service, and gently understated elegance.
        Before setting sail, the captain briefed everyone on safety procedures, weather conditions, and our planned itinerary. He explained that the itinerary was subject to change if conditions were rough and emphasized that the safety and comfort of the passengers were the ship's first concerns. Leaving harbor in bright sunshine and smooth waters, one felt secure in the complete assurance of the modern, affluent world. Then, as I idled on deck, nature firmly reasserted itself.
        The sudden arrival of the bad weather was impressive. Earlier in the day we had visited the ancient temple of Artemis on the southern coast, which was built in the sixth century b.c. and rebuilt in the fifth century a.d. Its beauty is slightly marred by nineteenth-century graffiti, most famously by the signature of the English Romantic poet Lord Byron. Here sailors would attempt to appease the god of the sea to ensure their safety before setting out on journeys in what must have been quite primitive vessels.
        I had visited the temple with the indifferent curiosity of a casual tourist. But now, as the seas rose up around Callisto, I found myself in awe of those seafaring adventurers. I had begun to understand why the supernatural was characterized by the ancient Greek pantheon of often pitiless, contradictory, and temperamental gods, all of whom should be individually placated. Common sense would dictate that none of nature's forces be left unattended or offended by inadvertent omission.
        I recalled a conversation I'd had at the Parthenon in Athens, a couple of days earlier. I'd asked my guide Chrisoula if any beliefs or practices relating to the ancient deities persisted in modern Greece. Was anything incorporated into Greek culture today? "Not at all," she said quite emphatically. "Nothing, according to most people. Well, except maybe in the most isolated places."
        Greek children no longer studied mythology so much, she added. She thought this regrettable because it reflected the fact that the study of classical Greek had largely been dropped (it used to be taught as a second national language). As a result, she believed, the standards of the modern Greek language were declining.
        Chrisoula continued by explaining that Greek character is liberal, progressive, tolerant, and not hidebound by tradition. Athens in particular is cosmopolitan and diverse. Nevertheless, she added, even though some places, such as Mykonos, have gained renown as hedonistic tourism destinations, most rural areas and the islands tended to be more traditional in outlook. She also thought that many popular practices, such as processions and local traditions, reflected similar practices maintained in ancient times, although she wasn't quite sure how. Finally she recalled that she had seen the father of one Olympic athlete say on television that he prayed to the gods for his daughter's success, and that others had thanked the gods for one islander's athletic success in the last Olympics.
        As Callisto headed for the safety of Syros' harbor, I felt I had gained some small insight. I've often observed a certain paradox--a passion for life in the moment tempered by a degree of almost ironic fatalism--in Greek character, if one can generalize such a thing. Though Athens is a comfortable inland city set in a natural basin protected by encircling mountains. Greek culture was born on the arid islands of the Aegean. For communities living on those islands the ocean's cruel vagaries must have been, and indeed--as the heaving waves surrounding Callisto demonstrated--must remain, a daily concern.
        Survival would have to be based on interdependence. The seeds of Athenian democracy are found not in the growth of an urban society but in the cooperation and resilience needed for a life that played few favorites. Indeed, the origins of our modern society likely predate even the glories of Hellenism. They are found in the simple but uncertain conditions of life that the first communities faced. Human authority would be constantly overthrown. People had to be pragmatic and adaptable, able to enjoy and endure the paradox of nature's harsh bounty, the fickle generosity and impulsive anger of the gods.

Nine square miles of antiquity

he Cycladic was the first of Greece's three ancient civilizations. According to myth, the islands of the Cyclades were formed from the girdle of Leto, one of Zeus' amorous conquests. Hunted by the vengeful Hera, Zeus' lawful wife and partner, Leto wandered to all corners of the ocean, from Crete to what is now Delos. Having been impregnated by Zeus, she needed to find land where she could give birth to her children (Apollo and Artemis, the light of the sun and moon).
The temple of Artemis in the southern Greek mainland.  Syra, though the site of one of the earliest Greek societies, has no comparable ruins.
The temple of Artemis in the southern Greek mainland. Syra, though the site of one of the earliest Greek societies, has no comparable ruins.

        Long before, the nymph Asteria--having rejected Zeus' advances--had been turned into an extremely hot and barren rock. It drifted, with no fixed location, hidden--even submerged--in the sea. Zeus revealed the place's location to Leto, and she settled upon it. Four great columns then emerged to secure the island's position. From here Leto threw her girdle and formed the islands of the Cyclades (from cyclos or circle), with Delos at the center. The islands are very dry and rocky and enjoy only a few rainy days each year. One can speculate that the myth and, perhaps, the term "threw her girdle" are metaphors for volcanic activity. (Syros is composed of volcanic and marine sedimentary rocks, and the island of Santorini is one of only two active volcanoes in Greece.) Protected by Zeus, Delos grew fertile. It became and remains something of a protected sanctuary. The Cyclades attracted settlers from the mainland, Asia Minor, the Middle East, and other parts of the eastern Mediterranean world.
        Though little more than nine square miles in size, Syros is the eleventh biggest of the Cycladic islands and currently has one of the larger populations, at a little under twenty thousand. Its steep mountainsides form a natural amphitheater that shelters the harbor of Ermoœpolis (Hermoœpoulis). The town's population of thirteen thousand almost doubles during the domestic tourism season. A small university annex is located here, as is a navy base, and there are active shipyards and dry docks. There is a scattering of hotels, a casino, and a small airfield. One sees many people getting around the town's narrow streets on ubiquitous motorbikes.
Unlike the sheltered southern harbor, the eastern shoreline of Ermoúpolis is exposed to winds and storms.
Unlike the sheltered southern harbor, the eastern shoreline of Ermoúpolis is exposed to winds and storms.

        The hillsides above the harbor are dominated by a monastery and two churches, one Orthodox and the other Catholic. One oddity is that, because of limited land available, burial on Syros is strictly governed. You may rent space for the deceased for three years, but then the remains must be dug up and either kept in a box or interred in the preferred church. Syrans are not allowed to cremate their dead. After the three-year period, if you are rich, you (that is, your executor) can buy a nice graveyard space and be "buried for life," a local guide informed me.
        Those six or seven thousand folk living outside Ermoœpolis can be found in villages and farms scattered across the island's rocky hillsides. My first day on the island, we drove up to Anyo Syra, a village of around a thousand people, for lunch. The arid soil was cut into terraces and fields divided by nominal stone walls. Virtually no livestock was visible. There were vineyards, pistachio trees, and greenhouses for tomatoes, potatoes, and cabbage. Turkish delight is an island speciality, made from a boiled syrup that congeals into a jelly. (The actual recipe is closely guarded, I'm told.)
        Lunch was splendid, but the town was little more than a drab if sun-drenched square formed by the restaurant, a couple of shops and a tourist stall, and the perimeters of some farm properties. "There's nothing here," I thought. "I've come a long way to arrive at nowhere."
        Far from it. How many places have been continuously inhabited for six thousand years? The gods give a harsh bounty, and Syros' wealth lies in its history, not its surface appearance. I realized this during the afternoon, when I wandered around the Syros Archaeological Museum in Ermoœpolis. Though very small, it displays finds from different eras, with the most important collection dating from the latter half of the third millennium b.c. Fortifications, tombs, houses, pottery, and metalworking shops uncovered on Chalandriani, a steep hill on the eastern coast of the island, are considered evidence of one of the most important Early Cycladic civilizations. The bulk of these finds were taken to the National Archaeological Museum in Athens. Still, I think I felt a greater sense of awe looking at the fragments and shards retained in Syros' tiny museum than I did when visiting the Athens collection.

Every gift has a story

f the museum houses physical evidence of the island's long inhabitation, it is the Syros chapter of the Lyceum Club of Greek Women that preserves its culture and folk heritage. Founded in 1915, the Syros club aims to preserve national and local tradition and to protect and advance the rights of Greek women and children. The club's main headquarters is a dance studio on a corner of the first main street that runs parallel to the seafront road. More than three hundred members, children and adults, participate in the club's traditional folk dance troupes and supporting musical groups. Each summer the troupes perform their dances publicly, on the square in front of the municipal offices, and many troupes have presented their dances across Greece and even internationally. Sadly, the foul weather prevented many members of the troupe that had been invited to perform for Callisto's guests from reaching the island.
Altar of the Orthodox Cathedral of the Transfiguration.
Altar of the Orthodox Cathedral of the Transfiguration.

        Stored above the studio is a collection of costumes, instruments, traditional toys, and folk crafts and objects (such as a little boat that is sailed annually during a harbor-blessing ceremony). The collection is impressive--some Syran customs, festivals, costumes, toys, and games appear to be unique--but cannot be properly displayed there. It is a major goal for the club to find and finance a suitable site for a folklore-historical museum.
        It is in the shipyards and churches that the island's essential character is encountered. For me, this moment came during a visit to the Orthodox Cathedral of the Transfiguration. Tourists nearly always intrude into churches like this, viewing them essentially as historical curiosities to be tramped through and photographed. Our presence is usually tolerated, though sometimes it must cause frustration and despair to those who preserve the sanctity of the site.
        The first cathedral to be established on Syros, the Transfiguration was built in 1824 by people who had fled persecution in Asia Minor. No larger than a small church, the structure was created to celebrate their survival. The effort was wholeheartedly supported (emotionally, financially, and practically) by the people of Syros. They filled the interior with ornate gilt and paintings and studded the blue ceiling with golden stars. Glass lamps, lit by candles, date from the first year of the cathedral's existence. All the icons on the altar screen were made of silver and then redone in gold, and wooden parts were covered in gold plate. Almost all the contents were donated, and "every donation has a story," our guide explained. The use of silver and gold in donated objects was an important public symbol of a family's wealth and well-being, as well as a token of faith.
Eugenia Gripari has cleaned and cared for the cathedral for seventy years.
Eugenia Gripari has cleaned and cared for the cathedral for seventy years.

        As Callisto's passengers toured the cathedral, a tiny old lady in a faded dress followed me about, gently whispering corrections as our guide tried to explain the different aspects of the church. Terribly thin, she had white hair, dark brown skin, angular bone structure, and deep-set eyes. She had a big smile but no front teeth. Her name was Eugenia Gripari and she was eighty-seven years old. She had worked, cleaning and caring for the cathedral, since she was eighteen and was determined to continue to do so until the last days of her life. She exuded an air of utter contentment and peacefulness.
        I felt a little chastened and awestruck as we talked. By comparison, everyone aboard the cruise ship had so much--material possessions, opportunities, education, experiences of international travel, and more--but I don't know if I have ever felt the assurance, fulfillment, and sense of self-worth that seemed to characterize Gripari. She followed us toward the gate but made no attempt to leave the cathedral grounds. I would not exchange my life's experience for hers, not for any price, but it is curious to me how our gods reveal themselves to us. Logically, there can be but one supreme being, but each of us encounters something personally unique. Even within a culture or faith, no two of us are called to the same experience--except perhaps in the creation of a family--spiritually or circumstantially. Indeed, it seems that fate is often wildly unjust and capricious. On Syros, briefly, I somehow touched both particular and universal facets of the ongoing human experience and for a moment shared safe haven from life's fickle storms.

Stephen Osmond is associate senior editor of the Culture section.

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