SYMI – facts and questions

SYMI – facts and questions about development in population, production and living conditions. ed. 3, 2019

Over the centuries, Symi gained wealth by agriculture, shipbuilding, seafaring, sponge fishing. At the end of the 19th century between 22.000 and 30.000 inhabitants (different figures have been provided) earned their living in the island.

How many in each of the trades? Unknown. Role distribution between genders? Unknown. We can see by the size of ruined houses on the waterfront and along the Kali Strata that a number of very wealthy families have dominated parts of the society. But what of the other economic classes?

Today’s view of the landscape reveals large areas of terraced mountains-slopes, where wheat, wine, olive trees and other produce can have been cultivated. The mills in Chorio tell about large scale grain-milling, probably to deliver the flour for biscuit-baking to support long distance sponge-fishing. But biscuits has not been the only meals for the sponge fishermen! Did the islanders supply salted or dried or fresh meat for their ships crews? If not – who else?

Very many wine press stones are found around Symi, and texts tell about the famous sweet and strong white wine of Symi. For which market was it produced? And when did that industry die out?

Did the farming people live up near the fields? How many? Or – did they normally live down on the coast and walk to the fileds to work the terasses?

So – did the Symiots produce all their basic foodstuff? Or did they import smaller or larger parts of it? From where?

Which were the trade-and-exchange-relations between Symiots and the (greek-ottoman) people on the Asia Minor coast?

The famous Symi shipbuilding industry called for timber. Did the shipbuliding industry decrease because of lack of timber because of deforestation? Or because of iron replacing the role of timber in shipbuilding? If de-forestation – in which periods?

How was production and society organised? Were the mills owned by single millers, or was the mill-industry organised on a collective basis? Were the trade ships and sponge ships owned by single ship owners or by an island-community? The fine sponges delivered to the Sultan, as part of the sultan Suleiman the Great’s privilege – were they collected by a divers’ organisation, or were they bought by the island community from individual sponge-shippers?

We know about the emigration and de-population, which started/accelerated after the Italian occupation in 1912. All the texts I have found say “After the Italian occupation, the population declined”.

The occupation seems to me a poor explanation.

Were the subsistence possibilities severed by a break in trade relations to the coast-people of Asia Minor because of the occupation? Because of ethnic cleansing during World War I and the following years (the 1923 “population exchange”). Which parts of the island industries declined in which periods? What has been the effect of change in seafaring technology, including the reduction in crews and change of commercial trade routes?

When did population stabilisation occur? When did the growth in tourist industry occur?

Such questions apply to other Dodecanese islands as well – the decline in population in Kastellorizo is an impressive example.

My 34 years as a faithful Symi-visitor have raised quite some “Why”-questions, which have not yet been answered by texts I have been able to find.

I will be grateful to those who will help me to find answers to the questions. References in Danish, English, Deutsch will be fine. Greek will be at challenge for me and Google Translator!

I assume that other Symi-friends would like to have access to such answers as well – and I intend to make such answers available – elaborating on the above article – on this homepage and wherever other people may like to reproduce them.

Lately I was tempted to put up the question: has the Greek-Turkish divide made it be too “politically inconvenient” for history-writers to say: Symi’s and other Dodekanese islands were rich due to our relations to the Ottoman Empire – and we became poor, when we were conquered out of those relations and into the West European (Italian) system in 1912. That question may carry a bit of an analogy to the present situation, dominated by “Merkel-ian” austerity.

Viggo Jonasen

retired lecturer 0045 61712219