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The island of Symi, Greece.
The history of a Greek island to 1948, a very rough guide

symi greece koukoumasI remember my history master at school telling me that ‘History should be fun,’ an expression that I never did understand at the time. It wasn’t much fun learning about wars and conflicts, dates and deaths and I rather sided with Voltaire, ‘History is nothing more than a tableau of crimes and misfortunes.’

            I wrote a short history of Symi in my previous book and thought that would be that, but it turned out that people actually liked it and asked me to do it again. I groaned inwardly and started researching. Then I remembered that ‘History should be fun’ and thought I’d try and point out places, on Symi, that still exist so that, if you’re here, you can see the island’s history as well as read about it.

This summary of Symi’s history has been put together from a variety of sources. (To see image titles, put your pointer over the image.) In the main I have distilled the information from the internet and existing and out of print guide books, though some of these don’t actually agree with each other on certain points. I have also added in some ‘facts’ as told to me by various people over the years. I don’t mean to imply that I’m a history-gossip junkie or anything, but I've been on walks with, and chatted to, people who know more about Symi than I do, and have no reason to doubt that what they told me was true. I am also indebted to Mike from Yialos who passed on to me pages of notes, copies of old newspaper articles and other research work that was carried out by Dr Ewen Clark several years ago. Dr Clark has since passed away but he left behind this interesting collection, which includes copies of the island newspaper from the early 1990’s, his own notes, and articles from British and Greek magazines dating back to 1958.

            I have two favourite publications among Dr Clark’s notes. ‘No welcome for the enemy’ by John Doody, published in something called The Wide World, October 1958, tells the story (apparently true) of a lone German soldier who came to Symi, during World War II, in search of food. The island was, at the time occupied by the Allies and the only way he could get fed was by getting himself captured. It’s an interesting, and humorous read.

            He stepped forward, stopped a soldier, and started to say “Ich…” but the Englishman was in a hurry and said “Sorry mate, ask somebody else.”
symi greece wine presses
            My second favourite publication in the stack of papers is the ‘Postal history of the Aegean Islands Italian Military Post Offices (1897 – 1943)’ in which Symi gets seven mentions in the index on pages ranging from 31 to page 233. The book only has 79 pages, which may explain why the post is often delayed. Needless to say I haven’t read all of this enthralling tome, but there is some interesting history in it. (And some fascinating images of stamps that would no doubt cause mayhem at a convention of philatelists but which, frankly, leave me rather mystified.) We are told, for example that Symi was first occupied by the Italians on 19th May 1912.

            Both of these publications, and the other notes that Mr Clark had made for a guide book, articles he had written for the newspapers on Rhodes, Symi and possibly elsewhere, and all of his research material will be given to the Symi Museum, so that they are, hopefully, not forgotten.

            But I am getting ahead of myself. Let’s move forward to the past and have a quick look at the known history of Symi. (I should remind you that I cobbled together this rough outline from the various guide books and notes at my disposal, but I am indebted to Nicholas Shum, and others, for offering some corrections and notes, some of which are quoted here.)
Ancient times
I’ll name that Island in…
It seems like many people have had a go at coming up with a name for what we now call Symi, or Simi. Some have even given us reasons for the names:
Syme was thus named after the wife of Glaucus, the first inhabitant of the island, according to Eustathius of Thessalonica.
Elkoussa, according to Strabo, Ptolemaeus and Aelianus.
Scimmia, from the ancient Greek mimo, meaning monkey, according to Pliny.
Symi derives from simeia or mimo according to Cristoforo Buondelmonti, a 15th century Italian traveller, who may have got the idea from Pliny.

The monkey references come about because that is what Zeus turned Prometheus into after he stole fire from the gods and gave it to man. And, at that time, man was living on Symi. You could conclude from this myth that early man first came to Symi, possibly from nearby Asia Minor, bringing fire with him to the island.

symi greece castroRemains of ‘Pelasgic’ walls exist on the acropolis, (Casto/Kastro, left) previously occupied by the Carians before they abandoned it. (The Carians were also a rather woolly bunch, but not quite as much so as the Pelasgians. They certainly did have a period of hegemony here, there is some archaeological evidence from Rhodes. One of their important cult centres was at Mylasa, present day Milas, just north of Bodrum. They post dated the putative Pelasgians.)

The name Pelasgians (Ancient Greek: Πελασγοί, Pelasgoí, singular Πελασγός, Pelasgós) was used by some ancient Greek writers to refer to populations that preceded the Hellenes in Greece. Pelasgian is a term used by historians to refer to the pre-Greek inhabitants of Asia Minor and the Aegean islands.  Nobody really knows very much about them or even what language they spoke.  Ethnically they may have been precursors of the people we currently understand to be Greek, or they may have been something else completely and may have disappeared altogether. (Interestingly, it is clear that the Carians were not Greek speakers.)  

Generally speaking, any really old stuff that doesn't have any clues to link it to a definite group, such as the Minoans or the Hellenes, tends to be attributed to the Pelasgians.  symi greece, stone circle

Homer mentions Symi in The Iliad. (II, 671 -675)

Nireus from Symi brings three ships
Nireus the son of Aglaea by Charopus,
Nireus, in beauty, if Peleus’s son was not there
Would be the handsomest of all the Danaans,
But he was not battle-hardened and had only a few men

The civilisation of Mycenae…
“…dates from 1600 BC to 1100 BC approximately, reaching its peak between 1400 BC and 1200 BC. History testifies the Myceneans as being successful warriors and having a social scale and archaeology provides interesting details about this ancient civilisation.” Thanks to, I couldn’t have put it better myself. Believe me, I tried.

Mycenaean remains have been found on the acropolis of Symi. What we now refer to as the Castro.

11th century BC
It is known that the Dorians lived on the island at around this time. The Greek speaking Dorians originated from north and north-western Greece, Macedonia and Epirus. They pushed south through central Greece, the Peloponnese and then into the Aegean islands. (This is important. The Symiots of today are indubitably descendents of Dorian Greeks. Symiaka, the local dialect, preserves many Doric forms and, as such is studied by linguists. Standard formal Greek tends to be based on the ancient Attic dialect of Athens and Attica.)
480 BC
Symi gives Xerxes 30 ships, according to Herodotus. Or 40, according to Diodorus, and he says that these were donated by three islands. After the battle of Salamis in 480 BC, Symi was under the control of the Athenian League (nothing to do with football) and was used as an arsenal (still nothing to do with football) and a station for military forces. After the defeat, in 411BC of an Athenian fleet by the Spartans in a naval battle off Symi during the Peloponnesian War, a ‘trophy’ was erected on Symi. It has been suggested that this is explains the stone circle at the top of the line of windmills. This, however, is also disputed. As is the fact that the Athenian League, the arsenal and the trophy had anything to do with football.

378 BC
Symi took part in the second Athenian League. The Second Athenian Empire or Confederacy as it was also called was a maritime confederation of Aegean city-states from 378 BC to 355 BC. It was headed by Athens primarily for self-defence against the growth of Sparta and secondly, the Persian Empire.

340 BC
Symi, together with Athens and other Greek cities, pushed King Philip of Macedonia to raise the siege of Byzantium. I don’t mean they actually put their shoulders to him and heaved him along, I mean they pressured him into doing something about raising the siege

Early Christian times
Evidence of the Roman occupation can be seen at Nimborios (Emborios) in the form of a Roman floor mosaic and the early Christian Basilica. symi greece catacombs Nimborio

The original basilica was a vast structure which now has on its ground plan two much smaller successor churches plus the mosaic which was almost certainly part of the floor of the basilica.

The Romans were the major power here from the 1st century BC ‘till the mid 4th century when they split their empire between the western section, (Rome) and the eastern, (Byzantium).  More evidence can be found at the Symi Folk Museum, upper Horio in the parish of Agia Triatha. (Or Triada, depending on your personal taste for writing, in English, the Greek letter Delta.) These artefacts, including pedestals and sculptures, have been collected from all around the island.

Byzantine times
And if you are on Symi: As you approach the Castro, stop at the bottom of the final slope and look to the old walls. Here you will see the last remaining evidence of a Byzantine wall. This consists of large, dark grey boulders that start on a slope; by the time they reach the top of the wall though they are flat.

Constantinople was conquered by the Franks.
Meanwhile, the governor of Rhodes, one Leon Gavalos, made himself ‘Caesar’ and created an independent state that included Symi. Something we’d all like to be able to do I am sure.
‘Good morning dear, what are you doing today?’
‘Thought I’d make myself Caesar actually.’
‘That sounds like hard work dear, pass the toast would you?’
‘Well, no one else has the title so I may as well. Think I’ll include that nice little island in my empire too, the one you like to go to for your holidays. Any more tea in the pot?’

But twenty years later a Byzantine fleet captured Rhodes and they also took Symi while they were about it. The island thus came under the jurisdiction of the Nicaean Empire. The Empire of Nicaea was the largest of the states founded by refugees from the Byzantine Empire after Constantinople was conquered during the Fourth Crusade. It lasted from 1204 to 1261.

            I am getting the impression that there are a lot of displaced people sailing around the Aegean at this point, all staking claims to islands as quickly as possible, in case someone else has their eye on the same piece of real estate. This trend continued over time and the practice of grabbing the best spot in the Aegean can still be seen on beaches, and around swimming pools, where a similar scramble for the sun beds happens to this day.

Symi became part of the Byzantine Empire, again.
            Well, I wish someone would make up their mind as to who is going to have it.

Rhodes and surrounding islands, including Symi, are ‘given’ to Del Cavo of Genoa
            ‘Happy birthday Del Cavo my old mate. I got you this gift…’
            ‘Oh you shouldn’t have.’
            ‘That’s what the islanders said. But there you go.’   

The island is given to Andronicus Palaeologus and his brother.
            ‘Hi boys, how’s it going?’
            ‘Hello Del Cavo, what’s up?’
            ‘Well, I got this island for my birthday a few years back and I really can’t be done with it any more. I don’t suppose you’d like it would you?’
            ‘Why not, never had an island of our own before. What’s it like in the winter?’

Rhodes Greece Knights of St John palace1309 to 1522
Knights of St. John
Now, at last, we can settle down for a bit, well, for 213 years, and even those years were not always very settling ones for Symi.

Evidence of the occupation of the Knights of St John can be seen on ‘the iron gate’, the original entrance to the Castro fortification. You will see here the coat of arms, on a marble plaque, of the Grand Master D’Amboise (1503 to 1512) and, on the blue and white church inside the Castro grounds, stone plaques showing the coat of arms of the hospitaller order and those of other Grand Masters. (This order was and remains the Knights of St John. They were later associated with Malta in much the same way as they were with Rhodes.  Their seat is now in Rome. But this is being picky; they do these days tend to be referred to as the SMOM, Sovereign Military Order of Malta.)

1460, 1485, 1504
Symi is repeatedly attacked by the Turks, and defended. A situation which, I am pleased to report, doesn’t happen these days. In fact our neighbours across the water are welcomed with open arms. And people visiting or living on Symi can pop across and do some shopping at the Saturday market; a popular day trip if you are here in the summer.

Ottoman Empire
One day in 1522 Symi found itself under Ottoman rule but, unlike other islands, it received special status and enjoyed autonomy and self-government.  (Thanks to the island’s decision to abandon the knights and surrender separately)
During this time the main business of the island was ship building. (And, since ancient times, wine production - hence the presence of foreign wine merchants resident on the island in the 17th and 18th centuries. It was probably as significant, if not more so, than ship building. Symiots were also great merchant traders and of course sponge fishing took place in local waters.) But Symi also gained its ‘special status’ from providing the mainland with sponges and bread.

And from now on the island’s history is better documented, so expect a lot of dates:

symi mansion house floor18th century
1750 – The building that now houses the Folk Museum was built as a private house.
1765 – 1821 The ‘Museum of the Symiot Land’ flourished. (Meaning, of course, a place where the muses were cultivated.) This was a school situated at Ag. Marina on the outskirts of the village, not on the beach of the same name, much to the annoyance of its pupils. They were doubtless even more frustrated by the fact that this was a boarding school and they were required to stay there throughout the week, with their homes in view across the valley. (Other pupils came from places other than Symi.)
1775 – Symi had an Ottoman overseer on the island, being paid by the islanders. He had no particular responsibility on the island and was only really there ‘for show’. Money for old rope if you ask me.

19th century
1815 – Symi had 50 large sailing ships and 50 fishing ships.
1821 – The Greek War of Independence happened
Whoa! That was a bit of a sweeping statement.
Actually the Greek War of Independence started on 25th March 1821 and finished, if you like, on 22nd March 1829, when the modern Greek state was created. The revolt came about because people were pretty feed up with 400 years of Ottoman rule and fancied having their own country back thank you very much.

            There are many stories, and heroes of this conflict that are worthy of more than my flippancy, and there are many books about the subject if you are interested to learn more. I’m simply not up to the task of distilling this crucial period of Greek history into a few light paragraphs.

1863 – The Skafandro (the mechanical sponge diving machine and suit) was introduced to the island; ‘naked’ diving though continued. And before you get excited, ‘naked’ diving involved this:

The diver jumped in, holding the bell stone to which a rope was attached which played out from the diving boat above, the weight of the bell stone dragging him down to the bottom. One could hold the stone with arms outstretched and plane down. When he had gathered the sponges and run out of air he yanked sharply on the rope to signal to his minders on the boat to pull him up as fast as possible. He did not let go of the stone. This was essential as he would not have had the time or the energy or, at depth, the bouyancy to simply “float” to the surface. The sponges were stuffed into a net bag held open by an iron hoop tied to his waist. That, for what it was worth, was his only item of apparel.  

I advise you to visit the folk museum, where you can see some original bell stones, but no naked divers, and ask the curator. Don’t miss the Nautical Museum in Yialos either (at the back of the main square), and any of the sponge sellers will happily give you an interesting account of the sponge diving history of Symi. They will even more happily sell you a sponge.

1869 – Turkey restricted Symi’s privileges this year, raised taxes and abolished its free port status. I get the impression that someone upset someone important around now.
1872 - The first ‘reading room’ of the Aegean was founded on Symi, the ‘Aigli’.
1874 - The reading room produced its own periodical.
1885 - Turkish rulers introduced censuses for goods and property. There were violent reactions. However, trade flourished and large mansion houses were built. As were more churches; Roukouniotis and Panormitis, among others, were in their heyday.

20th century
1903 – The ‘Protocol of London’ stated that Symi, and other Dodecanese islands, would remain outside the borders of the Greek State.
1929 – Symi had 14 Skafandra, 10 caiques with ‘naked’ divers and 20 “gagaves” (A gagava was a sea bottom trawl, a large net held open and on the bottom by a frame, the bottom of which was a heavy iron bar with sockets at each end to take the rest of the frame which was of wood. The heavy bar would rip the sponges off the sandy bottom which would end up in the bag. They were large; there is a 6 metre bottom bar outside the nautical museum. Very eco- friendly, I am sure.)  

Italian Occupation 1912 to 1942
Evidence that the Italians occupied the islands is well documented; there are extensive archives. Not least of all by the fact that many, older local people speak Italian – the learning and speaking of the language was made compulsory in Symi schools in the 1930’s.
1912 – 19th May the island was occupied by the Italians. (A Sunday, in case you were wondering.)
The occupation attempted to ‘strip the Greeks of their Hellenism and cut them off from the Christian Church.’ Steam ships replaced sailing ships and sailors were forced to leave to find work elsewhere. Sponge fishing declined and people emigrated.
Obviously that didn’t all happen on the same day, but over a period of time.

Here’s just one interesting statistic, taken from one of the volumes of ΤΑ ΣΥΜΑΙΚΑ: During the period 1912 to 1917, 15,000 people left the island for good. That is approximately the current population of Symi leaving every year for five years.

symi greece panormitis1942 to 1945 2nd World War
The monastery at Panormitis (left) became a centre for espionage.
1944 – 11th October, the abbot, the clerk of the monastery and a solider were executed for their roles in espionage activities. A monument now stands on the spot, near Panagia Strateri on the Panormitis-Symi road.
Symi was badly bombed during the war.
1944 – 24th September, German forces destroyed the Megali Panagia of the Castro.

There are various stories about this catastrophic event. I have been told by a man who was there and saw the explosion that: a German officer sympathetic to the islanders knew about the action to come and spread the word among the local villagers. That evening everyone left their houses, apart from one old lady who refused to leave. She had put up with so much over the previous years and occupations (Turkish, Italian and German) and she simply would not go. She was the only person who died.

Some other accounts state it was the Allied forces who caused the explosion, and that more people perished in the explosion but there is no space here to go into what probably happened.

1945 to 1947
Between WWII and the incorporation of the Dodecanese into Greece.
1945 – May 8th. The surrender of the Dodecanese to the Allied forces was carried out, the treaty signed, at the house of Kampsopoulou. This building is now the Katerinettes Restaurant, on the harbour front in Yialos. Along the quay you can see the memorial plaque at the war monument. It translates, “This day freedom whispered to me, cease twelve islands from your sorrow.”  A church service and parade are held on May 8th every year to commemorate this treaty.

1947 – 31st March. The caretaking English authorities handed over the island to the Greek military authorities.
1948 – 7th March. The British flag was lowered and the Greek one was raised on the island.

As I said, that’s a very brief run down of some of the main events and dates. For such a small island Symi has a large amount of history. You can see it as you walk the harbour or the village, through the hills and the valleys. Look out for dates and inscriptions above doorways, for example, and check the bookshops for copies of the official guidebooks.

This text can also be found in Carry On Up The Kali Strata, more thoughts from a Greek island by James Collins. Click the pic for more details:

symi greece book by local author

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