3. Syros (Syra): Capital of the Cyclades

VC’s arrival in Syros

After his visit to the island of Kea (Keos), VC was forced to return to Pireaus in order to take a boat that would carry him to the island of Syros (Syra). These days, particularly in the high season, ferries operate between the different island groups, however, at that time, the ferries were very Athens-centric; the routes reflected the flow of the local people from their island home to Athens and back.

I RETURNED to Athens and after another night journey found myself at anchor in a blue harbour rustling with light, under a city of white houses that rose in two pyramids into a painted sky.

Syros from the harbour
Syros from the harbour

Syros Miaouli Square Copyright inAid All rights reserved www.inaid.comIts main street carried me from the water’s edge into a Square laid with white marble, as large almost as the Piazetta of St. Marc … with its palm trees, its marble stairs …

Miaouli Square bandstand… and bandstand …

Miaouli statue… and its statue of Miaoulis the great Admiral.

Church of the Christometamorphosis

The Church of the Transfiguration of Christ the Saviour, or the Church of the Metamorphosis, is the most important Orthodox church in the island. It is closely associated with the Greek refugees from Chios and Asia Minor who settled in Syros. The christening of the ‘City of Hermes’, Ermoupolis, was proclaimed in the nave of the Church in 1825.

In this church the Refugees of Chios driven by fire and slaughter from their homes a century ago, held their first assemblies; here in its precincts they slept and herded together till they could build themselves the new and beautiful city of which they dreamt; being familiar with such things.

The church of the Transfiguraton of Christ the Saviour
The church of the Transfiguraton of Christ the Saviour

I found my way by hazard, for I knew nothing of Syra, to the Church of the Christometamorphosis, the Cathedral of the island

The pebbled mosaic courtyard of the church
The pebbled mosaic courtyard of the church

. . . crossing its black and white mosaic court where trees and flowers grow, I became lost in the mystic ritual of a Byzantine world. It was a jewelled affair, as simple as it was splendid; as rich as it was ceremonial and beautiful

The white tempelon
The white tempelon and the silver and gold icons

There was gold everywhere; upon the fluted pillars of marble, the white tempelon, the door that closed upon the altar; silver mingled with gold upon the ikons of Christ and the Virgin, most richly wrought and carved by skilled hands.

Crystal chandeliers
Crystal chandeliers and silver lamps

Under the galleries where women sat, were tables laden with gilt candlesticks and reliquaries; with seats of carved walnut wood for the churchwardens. Crystal chandeliers and silver lamps, their yellow candles flickering in the wind, hung from the roof.

The pulpit
The pulpit

The pulpit was of white and gold, and like a tulip springing from its slender stalk of green marble.

The episcopal chair
The episcopal chair

An Archimandrite delivered a sermon seated in the Episcopal chair; a lofty seat that was carved and overlaid with gold.

The Latin City

The Catholic hill and the Orthodox hill
The Latin hill and the Greek hill
Ano Syros - the Latin city
Ano Syros – the Latin hill topped by the Catholic cathedral of Agios Giorgios

I climbed this morning of my arrival, up the stairs that like a Via Sacra, mount through the Latin town to its summit, to the old Catholic Cathedral of the days of Louis the XII.

The Catholic Church of Agios Giorgios
The Catholic Church of Agios Giorgios
The causeway spanning the gorge of the torrent
The causeway spanning the gorge of the torrent

These stairs begin at the great arched causeway, which spans the gorge of the torrent of Syra and marks the limits of the Catholic city, distinguishing it from the new Hermoupolis.

The Greek cathedral of Anastasi Sotiros
Vrontadho – the Greek hill topped by the Orthodox cathedral of Anastasi Sotiros

. . . the rival Greek city, with its gaily coloured houses rising to an apex in the blue dome of St. Anastasias on its own Orthodox and separate hill;

The sea, the town and the breakwater
The sea, the town and the breakwater

From the porch of a small church, I looked out upon the sea, and ships in sail, and the descending town, and a breakwater that caught the waves

View from the Catholic cathedral
View from the Catholic cathedral

There was an entrancing view from this lofty place that is like a Castle on its hill, over the clustering walls and pocket-gardens of the city, to the cypress-shaded cemeteries of all the Christian faiths; Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant; which lie together in the valley.

The fountain and church of Agios Athanasios

Mount Pyrgos and the ravine
Mount Pyrgos and the ravine

VC’s walk continued on past Ano Syros following the ravine to whose side clings the church of Agios Athanasios, sitting above a fountain from which water can still be drawn. The fountain and the church are in a delightful setting.

The church of Agios Athanasios
The church of Agios Athanasios

The ravine and the stream come down from Mount Pyrgos and, just before the church, a track descends and rises on the opposite side leading eventually to the stunningly beautiful church and former monastery of Agia Paraskevi, visited by VC the next morning.

The fountain
The fountain today
The fountain in 1843 from a painting by Etienne Rey
The fountain in 1843 from a painting by Etienne Rey

Of a more austere beauty was the outlook towards Pyrgos, the summit of the island, whose ravines descending past the Latin Cathedral, fall to the ancient fountain, to which from time immemorial all those who live here have gone for water. Very little rain falls in Syra.

The ancient track to the fountain
The ancient track to the fountain

Along this pathway which has the hall-mark of ages upon it, an old Papa in his black gown and hat was walking slowly, carrying his loaf of bread; and here women from the lower town crept slowly up with their amphorae to fill them at the fountain. Here was a track older than Menelaus or Agamemnon; worn by the footsteps of unrecorded generations of men.

VC came this way again some days later on his return from visiting Grammata and Chalandriani, but it seems he mistook the name of the chapel for another, Anastasi Sotiros, which is the Orthodox church atop the ‘Greek’ hill of Syros.

Evening had fallen as I rode past the chapel of St. Anastasius, and the spring that from the days of Eumaeus and before his time, served the needs of Syra; to which the women of Syra, like the daughter of Arybas still come to wash their linen and replenish their water-pots.

The campanile and courtyard of Agios Athanasios
The campanile and courtyard of Agios Athanasios

The chapel is new. It marks the triumph of the Orthodox church over its rival in the Latin town. It has been built with a daring grace over high arches of masonry whose roots are in the dark ravine. It has a slight campanile of white marble and a paved courtyard under trees. Its quiet beauty contrasts with its environment, that was once as wild and solitary as that of the ravines about Chalandriani.

The description of the chapel is quite clearly that of Agios Athanasios, with the exception of the sentence, “It marks the triumph of the Orthodox church over its rival in the Latin town”, which actually IS talking about Anastasi Sotiros. However, “It has a slight campanile of white marble and a paved courtyard under trees” certainly describes better Agios Athanasios.

Agia Paraskevi

The white gate of Agia Paraskevi
The white gate of Agia Paraskevi

Next morning I climbed to the summit of the island. The hillside grew wild and stern above the inhabited cities, and Pyrgos the summit was still afar off when we came to a white gateway,

"A place made beautiful by the hand of man"
“A place made beautiful by the hand of man”

and through this were carried into a place made beautiful by the hand of man; called Hagia Paraskévi.

"so enticing a spot"
“so enticing a spot”

The late Archbishop Methodios had a residence here which is still in the possession of his family. But the place looks like a monastery, and is all but uninhabited. As no one had told me of it, you can imagine my pleasure at lighting upon so enticing a spot

Archbishop Methodios
Archbishop Methodios

The place is certainly inhabited now and is immaculately maintained – a veritable oasis on the otherwise barren hillside.

The church, named after the saint Agia Paraskevi, was built in 1600 and was renovated in 1792. At the time of its further expansion to approximately its current form in 1873, it was owned by the family of Andreas Pipinos, a naval hero of the Greek War of Independence. In 1884, the family gave the house, the church and the grounds to Archbishop Methodios, after whose death in 1903, they passed to his nephews. Some years later, financial problems forced the nephews to auction off the property and it was bought by a local Syros man who later sold it to a Hydra ship owner.

Today, the entire complex, including the church, is owned by Athanasios Martinos, a Syros businesman and philanthropist. In a sense, Methodios still has a residence here – Mr. Martinos tells me that his body is buried in the chapel beneath the loggia in the courtyard. This chapel, ‘All Saints‘ (Αγίων Πάντων), also holds the remains of those lost when the ship ‘Enoumia’ caught fire in 1876, as well as the tomb of one of the Pipinos family, Eleni.

The church itself is still in use and the church and its surrounds can be visited every day between the hours of 09:00-13:00 and 17:00-19:00, however, do telephone before setting off on the hike up there – 693 222 6470. If you’re in Syros on July 26th, you must visit the Panegyris festival held at the church to celebrate the feast day of the saint – a major event in the island’s calendar.

The Church of Agia Paraskevi with its marble court
The church of Agia Paraskevi with its marble court

. . . in the centre of its wide court of blue and grey marble there stood a chapel with a melon-shaped dome and cross above it; windows painted in amber with blue borders under the eaves

The open loggia
The open loggia

. . . and an open Loggia with stone seats that disclosed through its columns a view of the city and the sea below . . . which you can imagine as a Common-room in which monks might partake of coffee after their meals

The view of the city and the sea below
The view of the city and the sea below
The marble door to the crypt
The marble door to the crypt

. . . there is a crypt entered by a marble door,

The cloister beneath the loggia
The cloister beneath the loggia

and a cloister open to the sea and laid with a black and white pebbled floor under a screen of vines, with minute gardens contained in white boundaries as in Moorish houses, each a bed of carnations, hollyhocks or roses; while two cypresses stand sentry at the chapel door.

Inside the church
Inside the chapel
The ante-chapel of the church
The ante-chapel of the church

The Church was locked, but in its ante-chapel there were tapers burning, a gold iconostasis and paintings on wood enclosed in glass cases, of which one of St. George and the Dragon was Persian in its design. Elaborate Russian engravings showing Christ enthroned, the Last Judgment, and the tortures of the damned, hung upon the walls. This was a strange and mysterious place, which took my mind away from the pagan beauty of the world outside

The campanile and the marble well-head
The campanile and the marble well-head

Beside it was a white separate campanile hung with bells and a marble well-head inscribed in Greek letters. Here was a Piazza designed for easy folk to pass their days in.

Although VC tells us “no one had told me of it, you can imagine my pleasure at lighting upon so enticing a spot”, one wonders whether VC was conciously following in the footsteps of Theodore Bent, who visited the house and took coffee with Methodios in 1884.

Bent writes: On a subsequent occasion I paid a visit to the Archbishop of Syra, Methodios by name, a man of great liberal culture and enlightenment, who does all he can to combat the almost heathenish beliefs of the Greek peasantry. He has a large house, and wears a fine enamel, set in diamonds, and was very friendly, telling us as we sipped our coffee that he had seen our party returning on muleback from an expedition into the island, and added that we had called to his mind Christ’s entry into Jerusalem.

The cemeteries of Ermoupoli

Coming soon . . .

The Papa of St. Anargyris

When V. C. Scott O’Connor visited Syros in 1927/8, one of the excursions he made was to the west of the island to Posidonia, then known as Della Grazia. By chance, en route, he came across the church of Agioi Anargyroi at Ano Manna. In talking with the priest and his wife,  VC learned the story of their son, a war hero honoured by Greece and the community of Syros.

Syra is the only island of the Cyclades which has a cab and a road upon which it can travel. One carried me to Della Grazia … but I had other experiences by the way.

A Persian Wheel on the road to Agioi Anargyroi in 1840
A Persian Wheel on the road to Agioi Anargyroi in 1840

The road first passed up a valley full of reeds and market-gardens watered by Persian wheels, under the new buildings of the American Refugee School.

The Persian Wheels are gone, however, the impressive remains of one can be seen at Posidonia.

Approaching the Church of Agioi Anargyroi
Approaching the Church of Agioi Anargyroi

Then it climbed the bare hills under the Aegean sky. At Mana I found a handsome church dedicated to St. Anargyris, and into this I went.

VC names the church as St. Anargyris, however, the church is dedicated to the two saints, Saint Damian and Saint Cosmas, and its correct name is Sts. Anargyris (Agioi Anargyroi).

Inside the church of Agioi Anargyroi
Inside the church of Agioi Anargyroi
An icon by Chypris of Syra in St.Anargyris
An icon by Chypris
An icon by Chypris of Syra
An icon by Chypris

The best of its ikons were painted by Chypris of Syra

Beside it on a terrace raised above the marble court was the Papa’s house, to which he conducted me. It was a simple place made beautiful by occupation.

The Papas' house
The Papas’ house
Geraniums along the wall of the Papas' house
Geraniums along the wall of the Papas’ house

There was a patch of corn beside it sown by his own hand; a pine tree, an almond, and some vines; geraniums along the garden wall, and at the doors of the house lavender, and bushes of white marguerite

Ioannis Chalkias the pilot hero who died for Greece
Ioannis Chalkias the pilot hero who died for Greece

… [the Papa’s wife] told me that she was the mother of nine children, of whom seven had died; and at this she grew sorrowful and related an affecting tale of their eldest son, who had joined the English Flying-Corps and was killed at the Dardanelles.

Orphans – the Syra Refugee Orphanage

VC’s relates how Syros had been a place of refuge for others fleeing conflict and persecution for over a century at the time of his visit. The Greek War of Independence against the Ottoman Empire in 1821 sent waves of refugees across the Aegean. In particular the Turkish massacre of the inhabitants of the island of Chios created over 20,000 displaced Chiotes. Many of these refugees settled permanently in Syros and were followed by Greeks from Crete and other parts of the Ottoman-controlled Greek world.

Once again, a century or so later, just a few years before VC’s visit, Syros opened its doors to those fleeing the the Greek Genocide, genocide in Armenia, the burning of the city of Smyrna during the 1919-1922 war between Greece and Turkey, and those displaced by the subsequent exchange of populations between the 2 countries.

As in 1821 so in our own day some part of the human wreckage came ashore at Syra; this time under the care of an American Relief Committee, which collected 3000 children, orphans, or those separated from their parents in the horrible débâcle… These children are now being brought up, fed, clothed, and lodged at the American Near East Relief Mission (NER), in vast buildings which seem likely to become the nucleus of yet a third city.

The Syra Orphanage
The Syra Orphanage
Building the Syra Orphanage
Building the Syra Orphanage
Mr. and Mrs. George White in Syra
Mr. and Mrs. George White in Syra

VC writes in detail about meeting the staff of the NER and includes in the book a ‘Note’ written by the Director of the NER’s Syra Orphanage, Mr. George White. The orphanage was built on land donated by the Greek government and many of the older boys worked on its building. Mr. White describes the building of the orphanage, its ethos and its day-to-day operation.

… when Mr. White, the permanent head, and his wife, had returned from their vacation in America, I found that a ship-load of dolls, with hair appropriately both blonde and dark, and blue and brown eyes that shut and opened, had arrived as her gift; and that one of these had been placed at the foot of each of four hundred immaculate beds, to the delight of a small child escaped from a bloody massacre.

Children with the dolls brought from America by Mrs. White
Children with the dolls brought from America by Mrs. White

From the photograph, it can be seen that the dolls obviously brought great joy into the children’s lives. Mr. Alexis Athanasiou, the Vice-Mayor of Syros, told me a touching story. Some years ago, when work was being carried out on the ex-Orphanage buildings, workmen discovered a number of dolls under the floorboards of the building. One wonders whether these adored dolls were placed there for safe-keeping by the children and then forgotten about, or left behind, as the children grew older or were moved to other locations.

In the event, the NER Orphanage did not become “the nucleus of yet a third city” and the history of exactly what became of it is somewhat clouded. Mr. Athanasiou believes that it continued as an orphanage until the late 1930s when it reverted to the Greek government as part of the military camp of today; by then, the children it had saved from indescribable horrors had become young men and women with, hopefully, bright and happy futures ahead of them.

Many of today’s inhabitants of Syros are unaware of the existence or location of the former orphanage. A blog post describes searching for the building and finally locating it on the outskirts of Ermoupoli. It’s now enclosed in an area occupied by the Greek army and access to it is forbidden. It’s in a semi-derelict condition but is still recognisable by reference to contemporary photos.

The Near East Relief Mission is still in existence as an aid agency today under the name Near East Foundation and continues its work in other arenas. Part of its ‘museum’ website features the Syros Orphanage.

As a footnote, 90 years on, history has repeated itself yet again with the Syrian refugee crisis, and, once again, the Greek people have welcomed, with open arms, those souls fleeing conflict and persecution.

VC’s travels in Syros

Join the adventure

Join the adventure – become a contributor to this website and help us track down further information and photographs related to VC’s travels in the Cyclades. You can create a blog post describing your findings, your adventure, relevant people you met etc. You can upload photographs attached to your blog post. Your blog post will available for all visitors to the site to view and comment on. If your post contains key information, we’ll include it in this main page, and include an accreditation to you. You don’t have to stick to the items below, anything relevant to VC, the book and his journeys, and Greece, its history, its people and its customs, will all be welcome.

Research and contribute to this websiteVC’s photographs in Ano Syros

These photographs were taken by VC in Ano Syros and on the road to the fountain. Do you have a keen eye? Do you recognise these locations? If so, please upload a photograph and a description of the location and, ideally, the GPS coordinates to a blog post.

An Island Thoroughfare
An Island Thoroughfare
Syra - A Street in the Latin City
Syra – A Street in the Latin City
Syra - The Water Carriers
Syra – The Water Carriers

Research and contribute to this websiteThe summit of Mount Pyrgos

Every time I had paused to look back, the same lovely view of Syra and its isles had met my eyes; but at the saddle which marks the watershed of the island I looked upon another and a different scene. The grey mountains ran steeply down to the western sea, which still untouched by the rays of the morning sun, lay far below me, asleep. A hamlet clung to it there where mountain and water met, and a small harbour sheltered from the winds. Scattered over the bare wild spaces of the island were lonely stavloi, and more lonely than these, a shrine with a dome and a white enclosing wall.

Until now I had seen but one thing at a time, but as I climbed, the whole of this Western sea and the islands abroad upon its surface were disclosed to my vision; and from the summit of Pyrgos, the complete circumference of Syra lay visible about me; the sea enclosing all. The Cyclades spread away to the horizon.

Did you climb to the summit? Share your expereience and the photographs of the stunning scenery by uploading to a blog post.

Research and contribute to this websiteThe French hospital

On his way back from visiting the summit of Mount Pyrgos, VC passed by the French hospital before reaching the cemeteries in Ayiou Georgiou Street.

I came to the French hospital whose open door disclosed a restrained interior, its white well within, enclosed in a circle of sunflowers.

Do you know where the French hospital was? Is it still there? Details and, hopefully, photographs can be uploaded to a blog post.

Research and contribute to this websiteThe cemetery of the Catholic nuns

On his way to Chalandriani, VC mentions passing the cemetery of the Catholic nuns.

My way lay past the Cathedral of St. George, and the humble cemetery of the Catholic Nuns where they lie dead within rude walls and iron bars. The hard mountains tower above it, the deep gorges fall from it to the sea.

Do you know where the cemetery is? Is it part of the Catholic cemetery in the lower town in Ayiou Georgiou Street? Details and, hopefully, photographs can be uploaded to a blog post.

Research and contribute to this websiteGrammata

Low down where its pedestals are washed by the waves is a strange place called Grammata, where Hercules is said to have conjured the North Wind, and mariners for generations made their vows and offerings for a safe voyage. Their names and their vows survive on the wind-and-the-wave-beaten rock. A long strip of marble runs out into the sea, offering at once a shelter for ships and a post of observation. Prayers are there written, farewells to friends, gratitude for favours granted, laments and mourning for the dead. Some of these are Pagan, some Christian; some are very old, some as recent as the Roman Empire.

Have you been to Grammata? Details and, hopefully, photographs can be uploaded to a blog post.

Research and contribute to this websiteChalandriani

After Gramatta, VC continued on to the ancient site of Chalandriani.

Continuing upon my way I came at last to the prehistoric graves of Chalandriani; exposed upon the hill-side, empty, and mingled with the wild brushwood and flocks of slowly-moving sheep. These graves were upon the outskirts of the citadel, which rose defiantly from the sea across a narrow ravine. The site of this primitive Acropolis is of a daring beauty; it satisfies all one’s expectations of an eyrie by the sea.

Upon the crest of the rock and indistinguishable a little way off, there survive the grey traces of aged walls and bastions; the outlines of a central tower.

Are you going to Chalandriani? Why not take some piccies of what VC described above and upload them to a blog post?

Graves of Dead Men Looking out to Sea
Graves of Dead Men Looking out to Sea

Maybe you can take a photograph from where VC took this one and upload it to a blog post.