When approaching a port in the Cycladic Islands, travelers anticipate a collection of cubic white houses, amphitheatrically arranged between a blue sky and a curved harbor lined with lazy cafes. The Port of Ermoupolis, on the island of Syros, differs from this stereotype.
The striking neoclassical appearance of Ermoupolis takes visitors by surprise, as does the Neorion Shipyard, which is so dominating, that all the houses seem to withdraw from it, in the direction of two characteristic hilltops, situated side by side, like twins. Some travelers seem to panic over the “otherness”, “Let’s get out of here!” forgetting that the Queen of the Cyclades might be offended, an old nickname for Ermoupolis, the capital of the Cyclades.
Once the leading port of Greece – famous for its buildings, wealth and cultural life – Ermoupolis today is a somewhat fading acquaintance. Well-kept mansions in pastel shades alternate with neighbors in decay, the shells of empty factory halls attract only pigeons.
There are signs of revival, as abandoned houses are slowly but surely restored to the dream mansions they originally were, thereby re-establishing the main asset of Syros: Ermoupolis’ architectural design. It’s indeed exceptional, whereas neighboring islands are stronger on beaches and archeology.
Strategically situated on the seaway between east and west, Syros has always been exposed to the moods of the Aegean. Certain waves kept coming back, like the crushing waves of pirates.
In 1207, a Venetian wave hit Syros, led by Marco Sanudo who annexed the island to the Duchy of Naxos, a feudal rule to last for centuries. Ermoupolis did not exist yet, merely its predecessor, Ano Syros, a medieval village occupying the left hilltop.
A Turkish wave eventually relieved the burdens, through freedom of worship, self-government and economic progress based on trading and shipping, rather than on agriculture.
Waves of Immigration
Greek striving for independence made the Turks shift from cooperation to persecution and massacres. In the 1821 War of Independence, Syros maintained neutrality and was thus a natural destination for waves of refugees from the coast of Asia Minor and islands close to it, in particular Chios and Psara.
Those were active people, many of them merchants, shipbuilders and other qualified craftsmen.
They brought along a wave of enterprise and creativity, which unfolded in the construction of a new town, Ermoupolis, named after Hermes, the god of commerce and profit.
The immigrant wave was expected to abandon Syros as soon as market conditions proved better elsewhere. However, these entrepreneurs made Ermoupolis their base, appreciating the free trade, without any interference. They were able to supply whatever the customers asked for: food, ammunition, even loot of war, or an occasional troup of slaves. When the war was over, the dynamic merchants adroitly shifted from war goods to traditional types of transit trade.
Well-padded wallets and quieter times made the merchants receptive to the more aesthetic side of life, as a suitable way of expressing their own status and promoting their city, by means of architecture, for example. While the first simple houses had been a mix of eastern and western features, a wave of Italian Renaissance now contributed to what became Ermoupolis’ special monument: the Neoclassical architecture. It left its stamp on the layout of main streets, squares, public buildings, private residences, two- or three-storied houses with narrow fronts, windows densely set, ornamentation in marble and balconies of wrought iron.
Merchants and sea captains usually preferred a sea front location. Vaporia, meaning ship, was a favorite. It consisted of mansions hanging onto or perched on the cliffs above the sea, away from the smoke and noise of the factories. The grandest building of all, the mid-town City Hall by Ernst Ziller, was not begun until 1876. It influenced the general building style toward plastered surfaces instead of masonry, less marble, but with decorations such as colonettes and statues made of terracotta, front doors often richly decorated.
Luxury homes were not enough for the upper classes of Ermoupolis, though. They were anxious to place their town at the forefront, welcoming any wave of refinement and modern thinking that came along. These novel ideas manifested themselves in Ermoupolis as schools, the first banks, an interest in literature, cafes chantants and social clubs, Italian opera companies performing at the Apollo Theater and several newspapers competing to bring the latest developments and fashion trends to an increasingly cosmopolitan city.
Waves of Emigration
The population of Ermoupolis soared to 20,000 in 1850. The wave of growth gradually began to subside. A shift from sail ships to steamships meant further possibilities for the merchants, as suppliers of coal, but that could not compensate for the severe reduction in transit trade. Piraeus, suffering from growing pains, superseded Ermoupolis as the leading port. Cotton and textile production afforded a temporary wave of recovery at the end of the century. The cosmopolitan star was fading, nevertheless. In the wake of fleeing factory owners, a talented workforce drifted toward Athens and Piraeus.
A Presidential Decree from 1976 ensures Ermoupolis a harmonious development in building, both new and restored. Some consider the harbor an example of disharmony, terminated on one side by fine low buildings, on the other by the Neorion Shipyard. With its shining metal and steel muscles, the shipyard has in a way its own aesthetics. Being the leading workplace, it acts as an indispensable pacemaker for the old Queen. A growing hotel capacity, an Aegean Casino and funds from the European Union are not sufficient to keep the Queen floating.
Waves of elegance once swept through Ermoupolis and much of it remains, in the abandoned houses that still radiate beauty and clearly have a future potential.
It’s a quiet elegance immortalized in an extraordinary book: Ermoupolis – Syros: A Historical Tour, another project funded by the Union.
It takes you via maps, pictures and texts to every building worth mentioning, district by district.
You get to know house owners and the distinguished Hellas Club, where gentlemen joined in illegal gambling. The old repertoire of the Apollo Theater is revived and so are the whereabouts of the prostitutes.
Ermoupolis should at least be viewed from three angles. The shells of enormous factory halls await you behind Neorion, so does a cozy fishing and small boat marina. Back in town, Venizelou Street points straight to the majestic entrance of the City Hall on Miaouli Square. At Vaporia, to the right, sea captain mansions regain their former glory, patches of which are reflected on the wavelets down below. The only thing missing is a huge wave of promotion, strong enough to send those reflections across the Aegean – an invitation for potential visitors to join the next tourist wave.