My taxi driver in the Cycladic island of Syros is a bearlike character called Stelios. He gives me a bearlike hug; maybe this is because I call him “Emperor”, as a tribute to his family name, Palaiologos. It was the Palaiologi dynasty that were of course the last Byzantine emperors before the fall of Constantinople and there is no reason to suppose that the Syros family of that name are not their direct descendants.
I am surprised to discover that Stelios could be Catholic. Indeed, some of the Imperial Palaiologi themselves became Catholics, no doubt in part because it enhanced their prestige with Rome when they sought help against the Ottomans. Thomas, the Despot of Morea (in effect the modern Peloponnese) and brother of the last Byzantine Emperor Constantine XI Palaiologos, may have been one such convert; he married a woman who was born Catholic.
The Roman heritage sits easily now in Syros. For 600 years until the early 19th century, the island had been almost entirely Catholic and indeed earned the title “the Pope’s Island”. Even until very recently, Syros – plus neighbouring Andros, Naxos, Mykonos and Tinos – were home to some 50 per cent of Greece’s Catholics. Numbers have swelled considerably since 1990 with immigration from Eastern Europe, Poland in particular, and the Philippines, but Catholics still represent less than two per cent of the Greek population.
Catholicism arrived in the Cyclades with the Venetian invaders, led by Marco Sanudo, following the sacking of Constantinople in the Fourth Crusade in 1204. Even following the Ottoman control of the Aegean, Syros was permitted by them to remain under the protection of the French.
Until the end of the 18th century, most of the population was concentrated on the hill of Ano Syros, one of the two hills that dominate what is now the main town, Ermoupoli, which can claim to be the prettiest harbour town in all of Greece. The inhabitants lived on the hill because they still had to be wary of the raids from Barbary pirates, seeking slaves to sell into the Arab and North African markets. The threat continued until the Congress of Vienna in 1815 and many of the pirate bases were eliminated.
The pinnacle of the hill is the Cathedral of St George; there had been a church there since about 1200, but the modern cathedral was built in the first half of the 1830s, soon after Greece had eventually gained its long-awaited independence from the Ottoman Empire. The cathedral and its immediate surroundings are accessible only on foot via narrow steps and passageways; the contrasting coolness of its haven-like interiors impress as a real sanctuary, reminiscent of the cathedrals in Mexico City but without the massed pilgrims.
The development that would transform Ermoupoli and the island was the Chios massacre of 1822. Chios is a large Aegean island close to the Turkish coast. It became a battleground in the nascent Greek revolt against the Ottomans, whose troops landed on the island and killed or enslaved up to three-quarters of the whole population of about 120,000. Chios’s merchants had grown wealthy and influential in the Aegean on the back of the mastic plant trade. Of the Chiots that survived and were driven out, many decided to move to Syros. These island refugees were Orthodox and led the building of the 19th-century town with its imposing civic square and even a near replica of La Scala for an opera house, which remains a cultural centre and hosts a July opera festival.
Ermoupoli became a leading port and shipbuilding centre. Its port would remain the most important in Greece, until the completion of the Corinth Canal in 1893 diverted much shipping direct to Athens’ Piraeus.
The new construction was now at harbourside as the pirate threat had all but evaporated and it was on the peak of Vrondados Hill, the twin to Ano Syros, that the Orthodox Church of the Resurrection was built.
The two imposing churches on the two hills, one Catholic and one Orthodox, stand as a physical proclamation of the two strands of Christianity living today in harmony. They are one community in most respects, often entwined through intermarriage. But the two traditions that have grown in parallel since the Great Schism are individually valued by their respective adherents. I met the delightful and interesting Josif Printezis, Archbishop of Naxos, Tinos, Andros and Mykonos and head of the Catholic Church in the Cyclades in his Tinos residence. He is a native of Syros, born in a small village on the southern tip of the island, although he trained as a priest in Boston, USA. He expressed himself proud that the two Churches coexist so well. “We have the same beliefs and ambitions, but we respect each others’ history and are entitled to jealously guard our own traditions,” he said.
It is the buildings of the Chiot construction era that are today sought after as flats, houses and even small hotels for the foreign property buyers that are arriving in increasing numbers on this island, hitherto little known outside Greece itself. The attraction is that it remains true to the various strands of its heritage. It has managed to do so by never allowing an airport large enough to accommodate international airliners. The visitors to Syros come by boat or small plane only – they have to really want to visit. And when they do so, they seem to want to stay. I first came 40 years ago and will continue to do so, god willing – Θεου θελοντος.
Bill Colegrave is the author of Scraps of Wool: A Journey Through the Golden Age of Travel Writing, published by Unbound
This article first appeared in the November 2021 issue of the Catholic Herald. Subscribe today.
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