The spacious, marble-surfaced elegance of Syros's Neoclassical port, Ermoupolis, is in vivid contrast to the usual labyrinthine streets and low houses of a Cycladic chora. The citadel of Kastri, dating from the 3rd millennium BC, is impressive not merely for the specialist. The remote promontory of Grammata, with its dozens of votive inscriptions scratched on the rocks by mariners, is one of the strangest and most evocative ancient sights in the Cyclades.
Recent archaeological surveys have identified three Neolithic sites from the 5th millennium BC on Syros in the southern half of the island (at Talanta, at Atsiganokastro near Finikas, and on the east side of the Bay of Vari). The strategic location of the island on important maritime routes gave rise to prosperous centres on Syros in the Early Bronze Age, this time in the north of the island – the most famous and remarkable of which is the fortified citadel at Kastrí in the north, which directly superseded the older (Early Cycladic II) settlement nearby at Chalandrianí, in c. 2300 BC. Eumaeus, in Book XV of the Odyssey speaks of his island homeland, ‘Syríe', not far from Ortygia (Delos) as fertile, rich in wine and cattle, and abundant in wheat, markedly different from what we see today. It was the birthplace in the early 6th century BC of Pherecydes, one of the earliest philosophers of the Greek world, who is cited by Diogenes Laertius as possibly the mentor of Pythagoras. Syros was captured by Samians in the 6th century BC. It allied with the Persians during the Persian wars, but subsequently participated in the First and Second Athenian Leagues. Very little physically remains of the ancient city of Syros, beyond vestiges visible in the area of Psariana just west of the harbour. Recent archaeological work, however, has uncovered a substantial settlement of the Archaic and Classical periods to the south of Galissas, on the west coast of the island. The (mostly Hellenistic) coinage of Syros displays images of the cult of the Cabiri, whose sanctuary has been provisionally identified near the village of Alithini, in the hills to the northwest of the port.
Throughout the Middle Ages the island was known by the name “Souda”. Following its inclusion in the Duchy of Naxos, created by Marco Sanudo in the aftermath of the taking of Constantinople in the 4th Crusade of 1204, a Venetian and Genoese population settled on Syros, on the steep hill to the northwest of the harbour – today's Ano Syros. This gave rise to a Roman Catholic population which predominated on the island well into the 19th century, and survives today as an appreciable proportion of the total number of islanders. Syros was taken in 1537 by Khaireddin Barbarossa for the Ottoman Sultan, and concessions negotiated with Sultan Murat III in 1579 allowed it some measure of autonomy. In 1633 Capuchin monks settled on the island; in 1640 the island appealed directly to the French king, Louis XIII, for protection against the Turks; and in the early 18th century a Jesuit community also established itself in Ano Syros. After the First Russo-Turkish War, Syros and Andros were given by Sultan Abdul Hamid I to his favourite niece, Sah Sultana. The freedom and autonomy the two islands subsequently enjoyed allowed them to build merchant fleets and to increase their importance as maritime commercial centres. For this reason Syros tried to maintain its neutrality during the Greek War of Independence in 1821. Refugees from Chios and Psará founded and planned the new city of Ermoupolis around the port, and built it into the premier industrial centre of Greece and the second city in importance after Athens (which it exceeded in productivity even so). With the wealth generated from commerce and shipping, the city was embellished with fine, marble residences, churches and public buildings in the second half of the 19th century. Ermoupolis was a planned neoclassical city, and its inhabitants were Orthodox, in contrast to the traditional, mediaeval ‘kastro' of Ano Syros (Upper Syros), home to the Roman Catholic community. In the late 19th century, faced with the rising importance of the port of Piraeus, Ermoupolis responded by moving into industrial production - leather, iron, and cotton especially, thanks to its close ties to Manchester. But the beginning of the 20th century saw the erosion of these industries: the last and largest factories were closed by the mid-1930s. Syros was occupied by the Italians in 1941, and by the Germans from 1943; it was badly bombarded in 1944. After the War it lost 20% of its population through emigration. Since 1980, though, the island has adapted rapidly to new economic reality. After a brief closure, the shipyards – symbolically, the island's most important employer – re-opened in 1994; small industries have returned and tourism (predominantly domestic) now supplements a hesitantly growing economy.
The church of the Koimisis – according to a topography of the ancient city suggested by the 19th century scholar, Klon Stephanos – stands over the site of the agora and prytaneion of ancient Syros. Seats from the ancient theatre have also been found and conserved in the basement of the building on the corner of Kleisthénous and Kosmás Streets; a small section of the ancient fortification wall is also visible in the base of the wall at the southeast corner of the Stadium of the High School on Paramani Street. The continuation of Proiou Street approximately three blocks to the southwest of the church of the Koimisis passes through the line of the ancient walls at would have been the ancient city's southern gateway.
Info: McGilchrist's Greek Islands
(From McGilchrist’s Greek Islands, © Nigel McGilchrist 2010, excerpted with his gracious permission. Click for the books)