The history of Syros begins in the 3rd millennium BC with the fortified settlements of Chalandriani and Kastri in the north of the island. These are among the most significant Early Cycladic Period settlements, with excavations at Kastri revealing a highly organized Bronze Age society with advanced metal-working skills, and more than 600 graves unearthed between Kastri and the present-day settlement of Chalandriani. Remains from both sites are exhibited in the Archaeological Museum of Syros, as well as the National Archaeological Museum and Museum of Cycladic Art in Athens.
In the millennium that followed, the Phoenicians, Minoans and Mycenaeans all settled on the island, followed by the Ionians. And there are traces of settlements and rural areas in various parts from the 7th century BC, during which time Homer referred in the Odyssey to the island of ‘Sirii’ near Delos. He also called it a “dipolis” meaning a location of two cities, which were Posidonia and Finiki.
Classical-period Syros and Pherecydes
In the Classical period (5th-4th century BC), Syros joined the Athenian Alliance, with its own currency and administration, and from the 4th century BC the Cyclades islands fell under Macedonian rule. During the Hellenistic period that followed, we can witness the recovery of Syros through the architectural remains of a temple dedicated to the Cabeiri (a cult associated with that of Hephaestus) in Galissas and remains in northern Syros that indicate the existence of a sanctuary dedicated to Asclepius.
Other important historical landmarks include the Cave of Pherecydes, named after the 6th century BC philosopher and astronomer considered one of the greatest scientists of antiquity. Pherecydes was born in Syros and taught in Samos, where one of his students was Pythagoras. He is said to have spent much of his time in Syros living in a cave that can be visited today, between Richopos and Platy Vouni, near Ano Syros. As well as being a great philosopher, Pherecydes was the inventor of the first solar clock, known as the Heliotropion of Pherecydes.
From Roman times to self-governance
The history of Syros continues with the island’s Roman occupation (324-184 BC), when the capital was located on the site of today’s Ermoupoli (the city of Hermes, the god of commerce). Copper coins from these times have been found and silver coins from the 2nd century AD show commercial development.
The Byzantine period was marked by the threat of piracy in the Aegean, resulting in the abandonment of islands such as Syros. However, traces of settlements indicate that the island was not completely deserted.
At the beginning of the 13th century, after the capture of Constantinople by the Crusaders (1204), Syros became part of the Duchy of the Aegean (or Duchy of Naxos), founded by the Venetian admiral Marcos Sanoudos.
This is when the Catholic settlement of Ano Syros was established (which included the small Orthodox Church of St Nicholas of the Poor). Catholicism spread on the island, but Greek remained the main language. During the three and a half centuries that followed, Syros experienced a feudal-type system. And in the 15th century, the Duchy of the Aegean became a protectorate of Venice, eventually passing into the hands of Barbarossa and the Ottoman Empire in 1537.
The Ottoman history of Syros was characterized by the reduction of taxes, the freedom of religion and the establishment of both Capuchin monks and Jesuit communities, who also left their mark. Syros suffered from the plague in 1728, but a period of economic growth was established as the island moved towards self-governance. The population doubled to 4,000 inhabitants and there were significant developments in trade and shipping.
Refugees and cultural awakening
During the Greek Revolution of 1821, Syros retained a neutral stance and certain privileges. The destruction of Chios in 1822 and the persecution of Greeks on the islands of Samos, Rhodes, Psara and Kasos, as well as Smyrna and Kydonia (Aivali) in Asia Minor, led to a massive wave of Greek refugees arriving in Syros. These new residents contributed to the rapid development of the island and built Orthodox churches, like the Church of the Transfiguration (the oldest church in Ermoupoli) in 1824.
In 1823, the first hospital in Greece was established in Syros and in 1833 Ermoupolis became the capital of the Cyclades. The island’s economy continued to grow and wealthy migrants built many of the mansions in districts like Vaporia. Likewise, Ano Syros began its transformation into the jewel we enjoy today.
By 1889, Syros had more than 20,000 inhabitants and Ermoupoli emerged as a local superpower, engaged in manufacturing, agriculture, shipping and construction. Intellectual freedoms saw the establishment of a high school in 1833 (from which the great Greek statesman Eleftherios Venizelos graduated), the first district court in 1834, the first chamber of commerce and printing house, the first shipping company in 1857 and the first motorized industries, such as the textiles and tanneries. The Apollon Theater was built in 1864 in the style of La Scala in Milan, sealing Syros’ position as a cultural landmark in the Aegean.
Decline and rebirth in the 20th century
As the balance of economic and political power in Greece shifted towards Athens and Piraeus in the early 20th century, Syros began to lose its status. The opening of the Corinth Canal and the development of steam navigation led to the decline of the shipping trade in Syros. And the occupation of Greece by the Germans in 1941 brought economic devastation to the region. The postwar years saw limited agricultural production and, as factories closed, the island’s population dwindled.
Slowly, however, trades were re-established and the University of the Aegean opened its Department of Product & Systems Design Engineering in Ermoupoli in 2000. With the growth of tourism, the island’s spiritual and artistic tradition has taken root once again. The exceptional architecture of public and private buildings and the rich history of Syros have given settlements like Ermoupoli and Ano Syros the air of an open-air museum, now welcoming hundreds of thousands of visitors every year.
A brief history of Syros
- 3rd millennium BC: Establishment of Early Cycladic Period Kastri and Chalandriani
- 2nd millennium BC: Influence of Phoenicians, Minoans and Mycenaeans
- 6th century BC: Birth of philosopher Pherecydes
- 5th-4th century BC: Syros joins the Athenian League
- 1204: Catholic settlement of Ano Syros established by Venetians
- 1820s: Refugees arrive from Asia Minor and neighbouring islands
- 1833: Ermoupoli made capital of the Cyclades
- 1864: Apollon Theater built in Ermoupoli
- 1889: Population reaches 22,000
- 1905: Rebetiko composer Markos born in Ano Syros