What is a natural sponge and why was it so valuable?

Image: Symi harbour

Since antiquity the Turkish coast and the nearby Greek islands, the Dodecanese, have been famous for sponge fishing. The demand was very great and the prices were high. The Symiots were regarded as the finest divers. In a season a Symiot captain could earn a fortune, hence the beautiful houses along the waterfront, the fine churches, schools and taverns.

As the harbour was deep enough for the largest merchant sailing ships to enter the volume of trade with the Levant, Rhodes, Athens, Smyrna and Constantinople grew fast. Taxes to the Ottoman Turks were even paid in sponges from the early 16th century until 1912 when Italy took over.

Wealth and fine architecture go together when the populace is educated, as it was by the priests of the Orthodox Christian Church, and a uniquely beautiful and harmonious style was evolved.

A natural sponge is the skeleton of a creature which is attached to the sea bottom and brought up by divers from depths of 5 to 30 fathoms (rarely). By 1863 Augustus Siebe’s enclosed diving suit was used in Symi allowing divers to descend to great depths for indefinite periods.  By 1890, Symi was the wealthiest seaport for its size in the Mediterranean, until the area was ‘fished out.’