ALIMNIA An unusual bargain underpins the recent history of Symi and the impressive beauty of its port which unfolds be fore the arriving visitor. By maintaining a guaranteed supply of high-quality sponges to the harem of the Otto man Sultan’s court, the islanders of Symi gained in return a substantial measure of self-government under the long period of Turkish dominion. They were such talented sailors and renowned shipbuilders that they were also en trusted with making and manning the fast skiffs which carried official post between the Sublime Porte and the Ottoman fleet. This was a calculated and realistic compromise on the part of a small Greek community, living on a dry, rocky, infertile island closed in on two sides by the Turkish mainland. It allowed them to continue doing the two things which they did uniquely well: the fishing of sponges and the building of fast boats. As a result, tiny Symi prospered remarkably in the 18th and 19th centuries and became in proportion to its population one of the richest ports of the Aegean: in the process it also became one of the most beautiful, as the harmonious amphitheatre of neoclassical mansions grew and grew around the slopes of its harbour. This was Greek resourcefulness and pragmatism combined at their best. Today Symi lives by tourism: in the summer the day trips from Rhodes can seem to engulf the town; but in the evenings and early mornings the island regains its tranquillity and enchantment. A visit to Symi might ideally have three quite different aspects: the leisurely exploration of the harbour and old-town areas; the discovery of the mountainous interior; and a journey by boat around the island’s deeply indented coast. The first, which can all be done by foot, would include the stately streets and waterfronts of the port and the old town; the island’s two museums—the Nautical Museum for its memorabilia of sponge-fishing practices and ship-building and the Archaeological Museum for its evocation of the is land’s history and architecture; the castle, built over the ancient acropolis; the churches, many with fine pebble mosaic forecourts figuring mermaids and sirens; and the houses and grander mansions that line the ‘Kali Strata’ (the ‘fair’ or ‘beautiful street’) which unites the upper and lower towns. Close to this area are the remains of Ancient Syme: the imposing, circular, stone podium of ‘Pontikokastro’, which was probably a victory monument mentioned by Thucydides; the enigmatic remains at ‘Drakou’ which may be part of a Hellenistic farm, or possibly a chthonic sanctuary; and the Late Roman or Early Christian mosaics at Nimboreio, found within the remains of an early church. The interior of the island is as rugged as the town is urbane. Sometimes it is just pure rock, some times wooded with cedar and fir; it is dotted with painted churches and fortified monasteries. The remains of dozens of Byzantine wine-presses, now ruined, are mute evidence of the island’s flourishing trade in wine. But much of Symi can still only be reached by sea: its many pebbled shores with pellucid water and shoreside chapels or monasteries—Aghia Marina, the Panaghia on Nimos, Aghios Aimilianos and, most famous of them all, the monastery of St Michael the Archangel Panormiis, dedicated to one of the most important patron saints of the Aegean world and its mariners. Nor should any boat journey miss, if possible, the uninhabited island of Sesklia, with its shear waters and seals and shaded shores.

Symi Island is part of the Dodecanese Island Group, Greece.

Symi Island is part of the Dodecanese Island Group, Greece.

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