A pleasantly unreal air is imparted by the symmetry and uniformity of the houses in Gialos—most of which date from c. 1830–1910—arranged in a mounting repetition of rectangles and triangles punctuated by pilasters and protruding balconies. The pediments are often characterised by a central circular aperture which allowed air to pass under the roof, cooling the high-ceilinged rooms below. Many of these have now been blocked; some are highly decorative. Characteristic, too, are the thin detached cornices above the windows which keep rainwater on the walls from the window below. A typical large mansion would consist of five levels: a rock cut cistern, at the lowest level; cool rooms for storage at ground or lower ground level; the main floor with entrance and symmetrical plan; the upper floor, with the central balcony, sup ported on stone volutes, and with wrought-iron railing; and finally the hipped, pedimented roof for ventilation. The colour of Symi has undoubtedly changed in recent times. Although strictly controlled by the municipality, the synthetic colours and textures used today (especially a common, custard yellow) are different from the tempera washes used before which were simply pigmented with Attic earth and other iron-oxide colours. These may still be seen on some of the abandoned houses in Chorio: their colours are generally darker and richer. A marine blue was more widely used than today, because of its believed property of averting the evil eye. The commercial and shopping centre of Gialos is a grid of narrow streets in the area between the end of the harbour and the elegant Metropolitan Church of Aghios Ioannis Prodromos (1838). The church stands in an area entirely paved with black and white chochlakia (pebble mosaic) work: it incorporates several ancient fragments found on the site—an inscription in the northwest corner; a curious eroded grave stele by the north door; and part of a draped figure, high up in the north wall. The ornate bell-tower built in marble (with some concrete repairs) stands at the end of a long raised avenue, punctuated by two pairs of exceptional cypress trees, male (as tall as the bell-tower) and female. In the tower’s west face is the decorated pediment of a Hellenistic marble tomb. Note also the impressive ship’s mast which has been planted in the forecourt and dedicated here as a votive offering: this was a frequent practice on Symi and several other churches in Chorio possess similar trophies. A little way to the north is the open area behind the stone bridge which was, until World War II, the island’s main boatyard and dry-dock. The dignified and unostentatious Demarcheion stands on its north side; at the western end is the Nautical Museum (open daily 11–2.30, summer only) in a more extravagant architectural style. It contains a small collection of memorabilia of the island’s maritime history and of its sponge-divers. SPONGE DIVING: riches to tragedy The underwater sloping shores of the Dodecanese Islands are—or were—a garden for sponges: particularly fertile were the waters of the southern and western coasts of Symi. In Antiquity these were harvested: there are references to sponges in Book X of the Odyssey and in Aeschylus’s Agamemnon (l.1329): Herodotus (VIII.7–8) furthermore tells of the deeds of a certain Scyllias, ‘the most accomplished diver of his day’—he is not mentioned as being specifically a sponge-diver, but he is evidence of the primary skill necessary for sponge-diving amongst Ancient Greeks. The natural abundance of sponges in the waters around Symi and Rhodes and Kalymnos fostered a trade in them from earliest times which was jealously guarded. It was natural that, as the Ottoman Turks increased their grip on the Aegean and its trades in the 16th century, Symi should have sent a preventive deputation to the Sultan in Istanbul in 1522 offering voluntary submission and pleading in exchange for the freedom to continue their skills and trade without hindrance. The deputation brought gifts amongst which were some particularly fine sponges. Suleiman assented; the Symiots succeeded in earning themselves notable freedoms, and amongst the requirements made in return for the freedom of trading in sponges was a yearly tithe of the very fin est examples to be sent to the Palace in Istanbul for use in the Harem. Symi and her exclusive trade were to prosper enormously on the strength of this agreement as her divers spread out further and further into Ottoman-controlled waters in the Eastern Mediterranean, even as far as the North African coast. Charles Sonnini, writing about the area for Louis XVI at the end of the 18th century, noted that the ‘inhabitants of Symi are the most daring and most experienced divers in the world’. The process was slow and dangerous however: the skin divers clung to a perforated diving stone (often a valuable family heirloom) which helped them sink swiftly to the seabed. Two ropes were attached, one to keep the diver in the vicinity of the stone, the other for hauling the stone and the attached net or basket back to the surface afterwards. The diver worked for as long as his lungs would permit—at most three minutes—to cut and basket the sponges in the area of his stone. Then he would loosen himself and swim to the surface, to rest and repeat the process. Others on board would clean, process and store the catch. This labo rious and specialised technique meant that sponges remained an expensive luxury item. The nature of the trade also changed the balance of Symiot society: the sponge fleets would leave in the spring, not to return until October. Husbandry and the hard work of the cultivation of the land fell to the women who stayed behind: and not just during the summer, but all through the year, because, as Charles Newton ob served as early as 1850, the men made enough money from the season’s stock of sponges to consider them selves exempt from anything but leisure during the winter reprieve. In 1819 the sealed diving suit was invented: this allowed the diver to see clearly underwater, to plumb previously unimaginable depths and to stay below the surface for far longer periods. The diver’s yield increased hugely; what was once his skill now be came an industrial production. This brought huge wealth to Symi: between 1850 and 1900, the grand houses were built and the town became one of the richest per capita in the Aegean. Sponges were ex ported all over Europe and to America. The divers went down deeper and deeper with ever more sophisticated suits (the skaphandro) and, in the process, began to exhaust the sponge-beds. But the tragedy in the end was not primarily that of the sponges, but of the divers. Little was understood as yet of the deleterious effects of deep-water pressure on the human body and, most of all, of the crippling effect of rising too swiftly to the surface. A neurological condition known as Nitrogen Narcosis can set in at depths around 70m and below. Nitrogen traces in the pumped air begin to saturate the blood under pressure; they further compound the problem by forming bubbles in the bloodstream if the ascent through decreasing pressure is not slow and controlled. None of this was properly understood; all that the divers and the sailors saw were the horrid symptoms—the paralysis, the sometimes slow or swift death—that this began to wreak amongst their number. Profit urged them on, in albeit declining numbers, almost until the Second World War, taking what appears to have been an agonising human toll. Today the trade is virtually over in Symi: sponges are now harvested in a different manner, and in different parts of the world—sometimes even by the descendants of Symi ot emigres in Florida or in Australia. Beneath the radiant exterior that Symi presents today it is easy to see the prosperity—harder to sense the tragedy that sponge fishing latterly brought to the island. A short distance along the north quay of the harbour, known as Mouraghio, is a war memorial carved into the rock face, which roughly copies the famous trimolia re lief to Agesander at the foot of the steps to the acropolis of Lindos (see pp. 201–203), but bears here an added inscription which reads: ‘Today freedom spoke to me secretly. Cease, twelve Islands, from being downcast! 8th May 1945’. It commemorates the event which took place a little further along the quay in the Kampsopoulou Mansion (now the Hotel Les Catherinettes) on that date, in which the Germans formally surrendered the Dodecanese Islands to the Allies. Set back from the seaward end of the Mouraghio quay, facing the free-standing clock tower (1881), is the former Colonial Governorate Building of the Italian occupation—the only construction on the island in the characteristic and heavily accented, architectural style of Italy’s colonies in the Dodecanese during the Fascist period. On the point, just east of here, is a small bronze statue of a young boy fishing known as the Michalaki (‘Little Michael’), by a local Symiot sculptor, Costantinos Balsamis. It is light and whimsical by comparison with Tom bros’s much heavier, Unknown Sailor of 40 years earlier, which is placed in a similar context on Andros. The road continues into the next inlet of Charani, dominated by the modern church of the Evangelistria on the hill above and known also as the ‘Bay of N.O.S.’ after the acronym for the Symi Naval Club which is further along the shore. This is the area of the present-day boatyards. As on Skiathos, in spite of the deforestation of the island which has left the industry without the local source of its primary material, the yards continue a small-scale production at the hands of a number of dedicated artesans. This is all that remains of a millennial tradition of building the finest and fastest boats in the Aegean.

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


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

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