The Phoenicians were among the first inhabitants of Syros and the ones who eventually named the island. There are two possible explanations of the word Syros: either it comes from the word “Ousoura” or “Ousyra”, which in Phoenician means happy, or from the word “Syr” which means rock. Syros is also mentioned by Homer with the name Syrii.
There are signs of inhabitance of Syros in the 3rd millennium B.C. in the regions of Halandriani and Kastri. Findings indicate that there must have been a laboratory of metalwork on the island, which had commercial relations with Asia Minor. During the 2nd millennium B.C. the island was occupied by the Phoenicians, Cretans and Mycenaeans, while in the beginning of the 1st millennium B.C. by the Ionians. The Ionians were the ones who built Ermoupoli, the island’s capital till nowadays.
The period between 3,000 B.C. and 1900 B.C. is characterized as the period of the Cycladic civilization or Syros/Keros civilization, due to the fact that the culture developed in these two islands was the dominant culture at that time. Apart from valuable grave offerings discovered recently and the famous Syrian reflectors, Syros is also mentioned by Homer in Odyssey as a land of prosperity.
In the 6th century B.C., Syros was occupied by the Samians and many Samos’ inhabitants moved to the island. At that time, the important physician and philosopher Pherecydis was born in Syros and some years later he went to Samos and became the teacher of Pythagoras. Pherecydis invented the first sundial and two caves of Syros are named after him.
Ancient settlements were located in Galissas on the hill of Agia Pakou and on the west of Ermoupoli, whereas many agricultural settlements of the Ancient Period are dispersed across the island.
Classical / Hellenistic Times
During the Classical Period Syros was a peaceful island that did not play an important role in the territories of Ancient Greece. It was a member of the Athenian Alliance and was autonomous, but had to pay subjection taxes to Athens. In 338 B.C., the Heronia Battle led the whole Cyclades complex under the Sovereignty of the Macedonians.
Syros totally changes during the Hellenistic Period as it becomes gravely more important. This is when the ancient theatre must have been built, whereas there are ruins of an ancient temple devoted to Asclepius in Grammata and findings in Alithini that indicate the existence of a temple devoted to Kaviri. During the Hellenistic Times, bronze coins are used for commercial transactions in Syros.
Roman & Byzantine Times
During the Roman period, Ermoupoli was the Island’s capital which had its own currency. In the beginning of the Roman Times (2nd century B.C.), silver coins were minted on the island, which was powerful and prosperous.
In the Byzantine Times, the pirates that dominated the Aegean Sea attacked the island and made its inhabitants move towards the inland. However, Syros was not abandoned. It was an island of Christians governed by the General, and later by the Duke of the Aegean region.
In 1204 Syros became a territory of the Venetians, which tried to impose a feudist system without succeeding. Syros was still attacked by pirates, although it was protected by the West due to the fact that the majority of inhabitants became Catholics and the Catholic Church was politically and economically powerful at that time. Only a small part of the Syriots remained Orthodox and they belonged to the parish of “Saint Nicholas the Poor”.
The Ottoman Period
In 1579, the notorious pirate Barbarossa attacked Syros and occupied it on behalf of the Ottomans. Syros enjoyed many privileges like low taxes, no inhabitance of janissaries and religious liberty. Capuchins and Jesuits inhabited the island in the 17th and 18th century respectively.
In 1728 the island was hit by plague, but right after that it started recovering both in terms of economic and political aspect. In 1779 it was offered by the Sultan Abdul Hamit to the first of his nieces, Sah Soultana, which allowed an autonomous local government elected by the inhabitants. Between 1750 and 1820 the island’s population was doubled with inhabitants being concentrated in Ano Syros. Piracy was limited and the port of Ermoupoli became a very important commercial port. The Syriots were mostly occupied with wine commerce and shipping.
The Greek Revolution
During the Greek Revolution in 1821, the Syriots were mostly neutral and did not participate in battles. Many inhabitants from other islands and mostly from Chios, which was destroyed in 1822, moved to Syros and created a new population comprising of Syriots, and former inhabitants of Chios, Psara, Samos, Rhodes, Kasos, Hydra and Smyrna. The new inhabitants organized settlements around Ano Syros and named them after their region of origin (Vrontado named after the homonymous villages in Chios, Psariana, Hydreika). This is how Syros became an island with a large population and a very important port (due to the needs of that population). In 1823, Ermoupoli’s hospital is the first hospital founded in Greece! The Neorio shipyard was constructed in 1826 and has played a very important role in the Greek shipping history ever since, whereas in 1860 Ermoupoli was the number one commercial port in Greece.
Syros became part of Greece in 1830, along with the other Cycladic islands. Arts and cultural expression were very important in the everyday life on the island.
In the beginning of the 20th century, many Syriots left the islands and decided to live in Piraeus and Athens which were under huge development. Syros went through a very difficult phase during the 2nd World War and specifically during the Italian/German occupation. Inhabitants suffered from hunger and they were buried in tombs instead of individual graves. At the end of the War, many important buildings and the shipyard were bombarded and destroyed.
Right after the War, Syros tried to recover with the development of wooden shipbuilding and agriculture. However, the population was in continuous decline since 1920 and in 1971 there were only 13.500 inhabitants on the island.
Starting 1990, the touristic development of Syros began thanks to the historic buildings of Ermoupoli and the rich culture of the island. Today, it is a prosperous island based on tourism and agriculture, while it also hosts the administrative headquarters of the Cycladic islands as well as a hospital and a university. Syros is the capital of the Cyclades.