Symi, the most beautiful of the Greek Dodecanese islands

Symi, the most beautiful of the Greek Dodecanese islands

I like to visit the Greek island of Symi regularly, which is not difficult as it is quite close to the Turkish Riviera. Looking at the map, you will see a long peninsula with the ancient city of Cnidus at its tip and another to the south with the ancient trireme naval base of Loryma near its tip. These geographical features of Symi are not unlike the points of a crab’s claw about to grip a small pearl.

‘MS Odysseus’ cruises between small islands before entering a strikingly beautiful harbour. Although what you see is not ancient, but largely built in the 19th century, it is a very fine example of a small town of exquisitely designed and maintained domestic architecture. It is a rare and memorable experience to explore its streets and the old, house-lined quayside with its restaurants, shops and churches.

As a base for shipbuiding in 1300 BC, Symi was famous in the Trojan wars for building the fastest ships.  In the Iliad, Homer refers to Nireus, King of Symi, who it is said led a small fleet with warriors in support of the Trojans. The most handsome of the Greeks after Achilles, he was killed beneath the walls of Troy.

The island came under Turkish rule from 1522-1912 when Italy took possession of the Dodecanese islands. See the Italianate Adminstration and Police Station building near the clock tower. It was handed back to Greece in 1945 at the end of the 2nd World War.

Although the island was always rich from ancient times, being one of the main centres for sponge fishing, it lost its Greek independence when the Ottoman Turks took over in 1522. The Turks levied taxes which were paid in sponges, but the captains and owners of sponge-diving boats and the merchants who sold them onto larger merchant sailing ships became extremely rich and built the beautiful bulidings surrounding the harbour, particularly after the adoption of the fully enclosed diving suit about 1863.

The style of the houses is unique to this area, and I will analyse this in another blog. In the 19th century under Turkish rule, even long after the War of Greek Independence, the Symi style made a strong political statement, using architectural design to proclaim to all visitors, ‘we are Greek’.