The ferry sails, solidly, steadily southeast, with the long line of south Attica shadowing our progress, seeing us off grudgingly, the white dots of villages and towns clustered here and there along the coast seeming to peek at us from behind their blinds and shutters, out of envy – we are leaving – and mocking us too – we will have to come back, and all too soon. As we pass the fingertip of Cape Sounio into the Aegean proper, the sun is behind us, and the sea is turning from joyful and bright Attic blue to a deeper darker inky version. There is the promise of wine dark seas ahead of us, as we move into the evening, leaving the sunset at our backs. We, my mother and I that is, are going to Syros, and I have foregone my usual seat on the aft deck – coffee, book, cigarettes, people-watching – for the warmth and safety of the airline seats inside, in deference to her comfort.
This is a voyage I have taken many times, not just to Syros but to many other islands too, in the Cyclades and beyond. It is one of my very favourite journeys because it inspires me to think of many things beyond the everyday, knowing these waters have been sailed back and forth, to and from, ancient and modern, for business, pleasure and war, my own included. But apart from the pleasure of the journey itself, the destination of Syros is an ideal place for a weekend visit for my mother: far enough away to feel like a real island (almost four hours at sea), near enough to be there in time for dinner. There is so much history and variety there to keep us busy and happy until the ferry comes around the end of the breakwater on Sunday afternoon to take us back Attica, hooking its long finger to enfold us back into its grasp, tight in the sweaty palm of Athens.
The conversation has already turned towards shipping, and emissions (just in case you thought that this was something only talked about within the industry). Thankfully being at sea, on board a ship, moving under the power of hydrocarbons, actually helps to explain the problem of what fuels shipping will use (we don’t know) to move people and cargo around the world, and how small the problem of shipping is compared with everything else that needs energy in one form or the other, especially with an energy thirsty Athens as a backdrop.
Syros is an important place for Greece in general and Greek shipping in particular, but it’s a bit of a shame that it doesn’t feature heavily in ancient times. In fact it was only when the Venetians definitively conquered the island in 1204 that it started to be something a little more than all the other Cycladic islands it was just one of. Remaining under Venetian control until 1522, during which time Ano Syros was founded, the majority of the population were Roman Catholic, even though, uniquely, they maintained the Greek language. After the Ottomans took control, the Orthodox Church established a presence on the island, whilst the Catholic population of the island came under the protection of France and the Holy See. To this day a sizeable Greek Roman Catholic population exists, together with its neighbour Tinos.
At the end of the 18th and the start of the 19th Century, the Aegean became freer from piracy and more favourable to trade, and in fact took a neutral stance during the Greek War of Independence, leading many Greek refugees from either side of the conflict in Chios, Spetses, Asia Minor, Psara, Smyrni and Kassos to settle there, and in fact it is around this time that the capital of the island, Ermoupoli, was built. In 1827 it became part of the First Hellenic Republic. It is at this time that the island burst in activity, partly due to its central location in the Cyclades, but also as a centre of commerce and trade, with a Commercial Court of Law, insurance brokers, leading to Ermoupoli becoming the leading port of Greece, together with shipbuilding and banking.
Ermoupoli as a port went into a decline in the second half of the nineteenth century, but still exerted a pull over the disparate islands of the Aegean, and their budding shipowners. The legacy of Syros was essential in the development of shipowners from Kassos, Oinousses and Ikaria rivalling the powerhouses of Andros and Kefallonia. It was the Piraeus, before Piraeus started to become a little bit more than a small city on the outskirts of Athens.
I think that this is why I find the place so attractive. It is the capital of the Cyclades, with a proper hospital, a working administration, a University, and is alive and occupied all year round, not just reliant on Tourism from May to October. And although the old merchants’ houses around the port are a little melancholy now, you can still see the pulleys and lofts, the attic and lower storage rooms of those merchants that traded goods all around that part of the world and beyond. The shipowners’ houses on Vaporia, overlooking the port, also speak of the families that came from, but also came to, Syros to be part of the action. It is a good place to spend a couple of days and think about many things, as well as shipping.
Syros reminds us that trade carries on when the world changes, that even when foreign powers invade and take control, the little wheels of commerce keep turning. And sometimes it is those little wheels that move us to better times, as people, ideas and freedom as well as cargo moves along the trade routes. Just because Syros may no longer be as important to shipping as it was, it is worth studying its pattern of development for lessons that may still be relevant today.
Domenikos Theotokopoulos was born in Crete around 1541, whilst the island was still under control of the Venetians, and become an icon painter. When he was around twenty years old, he went to Venice to study under Tiziano Vecelli (Titian) and then moved to Rome, where his career path got a little lost, criticising Michelangelo’s artistic developments probably didn’t help him much. He wound up in Toledo, Spain, and there produced many of the works that mark him as an artistic genius, ahead of his time.
On Syros, in the Cathedral of the Dormition of the Holy Virgin is a painting, only recently attributed to him, most likely painted in Crete before he left for Venice, called the Dormition of the Virgin, or Η Κοίμηση της Θεοτόκου. That the painting was found in the church of the same name, and painted by the artist who (almost) has the same name, is interesting enough. The fact that the artist is better known as El Greco is a curious coincidence. It is thought that the painting came to Syros during the time of the Greek Revolution, the time the church and port were being built.
Without the well-travelled El Greco, you arguably don’t get Goya or Picasso, at least not in the same way. Without Syros you don’t get London Greeks, a host of other shipping companies, and ship sale and purchase, at least not in the same way. Many owners, whilst not from Syros themselves, benefitted hugely from the culture on the island. A brief read of the history of Rethymnis and Kulukundis will convince you of this. A stop to see the busts of the Rethymnis brothers, benefactors of the (Orthodox) Church of St Nicholas, will give you pause for thought.
I hope to learn more over the next couple of days, as well as eat and drink well. But it is this food for thought, amongst the alleys and streets, the buildings and churches, along the quaysides and shipyard that I am most looking forward to, especially as I have a willing audience in my long suffering mother. You can stop reading my blog at any time after all, she has to listen.