Brief history of Syros

 

Syros in Greek is: Σύρος  in which -

-         Σ and ς is the letter sigma, pronounced like the s in sister;

-         Υ υ is the letter upsilon, pronounced like an umlaut or the first e in sewer

-         Ρ ρ is the letter Rho, pronounced like a rolling Scottish r

-         Ο ο is omicron, pronounced like o in ostrich

Note the stress accent over the [vowel of the] first syllable. So it sounds something like SEW-rrros. (In passing, I wonder whether the letter Y is used in the English names Syros, Syra, Kyklades, Cyclades because it looks like the upper case upsilon.)

Syros is the most central island and the administrative capital of the Cyclades (or Kyklades) group of islands, south-east of Athens in the Aegean Sea.

 

Until 1204 AD the Cyclades were part of the Byzantine Empire, the Greek-speaking Roman Empire ruled from Constantinople. The Byzantine Empire was founded in 330 AD by the Emperor Constantine I when he moved the imperial capital from Rome to Byzantium and renamed it Constantinople. Under Constantine, Christianity became the preferred (though not the only permitted) religion.

 

In 1204 Venice persuaded the leaders of the Fourth Crusade to attack and destroy their commercial rival, Byzantium or Constantinople. Constantinople was retaken in 1261 and the Empire survived, but in a much weakened and unstable condition. By the treaty of partition that followed the conquest of Constantinople, the Cyclades were awarded to Venice. But Venice had no wish to subdue and administer these outlandish places itself, so the Doge’s nephew Marco Sanudo was allowed to govern all of the Cyclades as his personal fiefdom. He introduced junior members of his family to rule in Syra. Under their rule the Cyclades became Catholic, although most of the inhabitants were ethnic Greeks. He founded the Cathedral of St. George in the town of Ano Syros, built on a hill overlooking the main bay.

 

The whole of the Aegean fell to the Turkish Ottoman in the 15th century (Constantinople fell in 1453) but the Cyclades were allowed a surprising amount of religious freedom. Syros has a very different history and character from the rest of the Cyclades. Most of the islands reverted to Greek Orthodox after the Turks routed the Byzantines but Syra remained almost entirely Catholic until Greece became independent in 1821. They retained the Greek language. The population of the island was only 500 at the end of the 15th century

 

The Capuchin monks built a convent and a church on Syros in the 17th century. Marco Sanudo and his descendants didn’t protect their citizens from piracy, so the monks appealed to Louis XIII for protection. He responded and the French flag was flown from the convent buildings. As a result of French protection the population of the island grew to several thousand by 1700. A high proportion were Catholic descendants of the original Venetian or Genoese settlers. They built their homes around the medieval acropolis of Ano Syros. The much smaller number of Greek Orthodox citizens built their homes on the second, lower hill of Vrondado (near Anastasi), also overlooking the bay. As your ferry enters the port, you will see the hill of Ano Syros on your left and that of Vrondado on the right. Here is a nice view of these two hills.

 

Until 1800, these were the only inhabited areas. Before then, there was no proper harbour, only a wide bay sheltered from the east by a long natural breakwater. When the Greek War of Independence from the Ottoman Empire broke out in 1821, there were about 5000 Catholics on the island, and hardly any Orthodox. They didn’t join the War because they were already in effect (if not in fact) independent of Turkey, being still protected by the French. However, they did give refuge to Christian Greeks from Chios and Psara (two islands just off the west coast of Turkey, near Izmir), Crete, Rhodes, Smyrna (present-day Izmir), Spetses, Psara, Aivali, Kydonia, Kassos, Asia Minor and other parts of Greece. In 1981, about 40-45% of the island’s population of 20,000 were Catholic.

With the foundation of the Greek State the Catholic population of the island were Hellenized and changed their Latin family names to Greek. The family name Vuccino to Voutsinos, Russo to Roussos, Vacondio to Vakondios, Daleggio to Dalezios, Salsa to Salsapoulos, Freri to Freris just to mention a few. However, there was no problem of integration between the old residents of Syros, mostly Roman Catholics and the newly arrived refugees, mostly Greek Orthodox. The island returned to peace and tranquility. Syros became known as a cross-roads in the Aegean and as an international commercial center linking Western Europe and the Mediterranean Sea to the East. In 1824 the first Orthodox Church Metamorphosis and the largest Greek Sanatorium was constructed.

I believe the refugees were mostly Orthodox, not Catholic, so they would have had Greek, not Latin, names. The refugees, particularly the Chians, were great traders and businessmen. Most were mariners and tradesmen. Recognizing the absence of a port, they established the fine new city of Hermoupolis (Ermoupolis) on the bay.

 

When the War of Independence ended, most of the refugees returned home. However, the Chians remained because Chios remained part of Turkey for another 90 years. Hermoupolis rapidly became the first free port zone of Greece. It was the largest Greek port for most of the 19th century, much bigger than Piraeus, the port of Athens, and was the biggest shipyard in the eastern Mediterranean. In a part of the town called Vaporia former steamer captains built their elegant homes; it has a very French atmosphere.

 

Today, there are 103 churches and chapels on Syros, divided as follows:

 

Hermoupolis

Ano Syros

Ano Meria

Rest of island

Catholic

2

10

18

56

Orthodox

10

3

3

2

 

The Catholics of Syros are not of Frankish (i.e. Latin) origin, but are natives who converted progressively to Catholicism between the 14th and 18th centuries.

 

Birth records were recorded in the City Hall of Ano Syros for the period 1880 to 1931, after which were recorded at Hermoupolis.

 

References:

§           “The Companion Guide to the Greek Islands”, Ernle Bradford, 6th edition, 1998

§            “To whom do you belong? Catholic and Orthodox name in Syros (Greece)” by Olga Sapkidis, chapter 5 (pages 73-88) in the book “Name and Social Structure – Examples from Southeast Europe”, Edited by Paul H Stahl, East European Monographs, No. DVI, Boulder, 1998. ISBN 0-88033-404-5.