This is an excerpt from the book Travels through History : 9 Greek Islands , newly available on Amazon.
In Homer’s Iliad Symi is mentioned as the domain of King Nireus, who fought in the Trojan War on the side of the Greeks and Thucydides writes that during the Peloponnesian War there was a Battle of Syme near the island in January, 411 BC, in which an unspecified number of Spartan ships defeated a squadron of Athenian vessels. Little else is known of the island until the 14th century, but archaeological evidence indicates it was continuously inhabited, and ruins of citadels suggest it was an important location.
Like many Greek Islands, Symi was first part of the Roman Empire and then the Byzantine Empire. However, unlike many Greek Islands, Symi was conquered by the Knights of St. John in 1373. This conquest fuelled by the Knights’ interest in shipping and commerce, launched what was to be a period of several centuries of prosperity for Symi, as its location made it an important waypoint for trade until the advent of steam-powered shipping in the 19th century.
The island was conquered in 1522 by the Ottomans (along with Rhodes) but it was allowed to retain many of its privileges, so the prosperity continued virtually uninterrupted. Symi was noted for its sponges which provided much of its wealth. It attained the height of its prosperity in the mid-19th century, which is why so many of the mansions covering the slopes of Symi Town date from that period.
Although Symiots took part in the Greek War of Independence of 1821–1829, Symi was left out of the new Greek state when its borders were drawn up and so remained under Ottoman rule. Symi, along with the rest of the Dodecanese, changed hands several times in the 20th century: in 1912 the Dodecanese declared independence from the Ottomans as the Federation of the Dodecanese Islands, though they were almost immediately occupied by Italy. The island was formally ceded to Italy in 1923, and on 12 October 1943 it was occupied by the Nazis. At the end of World War II, the surrender of German forces in the region took place on Symi and the island was subject to several years of occupation by the British. Symi finally became part of Greece in 1948.
Arriving at Symi Town is the loveliest way to begin any visit to a Greek Island. The bay has low hills on all sides and on those hills are stacked differently coloured ochre Italianate mansions, each one a slightly shade to its neighbour. The slope of the hills means these mansions appear in neat rows above one another, leaving the visitor spellbound by the man-made beauty. Added to this are lines of sail boats, small ferries, and large yachts bobbing rhythmically on the swell by the quay.
The wealth of Symi has been based on sponge diving and shipbuilding. Indeed just over a hundred years ago, these two industries meant more people lived in Symi Town than lived in nearby Rhodes Town. Symi has always been famed for its shipbuilding and legend has it that Symi provided 3 ships for the Greeks in the Trojan War. Nowadays tourism is the main earner, with enough expats staying on the island to allow some businesses to remain open all year round. Some of the houses built in the last two centuries have fallen into disrepair and the more you explore, the more ruins you will find.
If you’d like to read more, the book Travels through History : 9 Greek Islands is newly available on Amazon.