Seat of the local administration and capital to the whole of the Cyclades as well as the island itself, Hermoupolis is a town of great standing, retaining and promoting the prestige of its glorious past. Its history unfolds through labyrinthine alleyways, its traditional villages combining Medieval and Cycladic architecture, Orthodox and Catholic churches. Latticework coasts, the shimmering blue of the Aegean and the stunning natural landscape all contribute to a fairy tale visage.
Easter on Syros is a unique experience. Here, at the “heart” of the Aegean, lies one of the few corners of the world where two different Christian communities, Orthodox and Catholic, always celebrate the most important date in the Christian calendar simultaneously, symbolizing the concord and solidarity that exists between them.
The housewives of Syros begin preparations by baking Easter cookies; a kind of brioche called tsoureki and traditional sweet pie with cheese made from goat’s milk. In every neighbourhood, wonderful aromas emanate from kitchen ovens and waft out onto the breeze.
The majestic temple of Agios Nikolaos holds sway over the entire district of Vaporia. There, in an atmosphere of spiritual uplifting, the famed choir chants the Hymn of Kassiani.
Besides offering the deeply moving experience of Holy Week itself, Easter on Syros is an opportunity to get to know one of the most beautiful islands in Greece. In spring the island is daubed in resplendent green hues and the fragrance of chamomile and sage accompany you everywhere.
In the Orthodox churches of the city, after the reading from the Twelve Gospels of the Passion, girls are entrusted with the task of decorating the Holy Bier with lemon tree flowers, lilacs, violets and lilies. In Catholic churches, the decoration of the Holy Bier takes place in the morning of Good Friday.
The Orthodox Holy Biers of the temples of Agios Nikolaos, Kimisi tis Theotokou and Metamorphosi tou Sotiros (the primary church of the island) are carried around the picturesque narrow streets of the town and processions of the faithful holding lit candles pour in from every side of the city. The people following the Orthodox Biers also carry robes, sponges and dice aloft on long poles to symbolize the passions of Christ.
The three processions of the Holy Biers finally converge in Miaouli Square in front of the Town Hall where common prayer takes place and hymns are sung by the choir of Agios Nikolaos, accompanied by the city’s marching band. The Holy Bier of the catholic church of Evaggelistria is set in place before the arrival of the orthodox processions and the union of all the followers and their sacred charges is truly a sight to behold!
Away from the crowds, if you are looking for tranquility and that divine sense of serenity that this festival can bring, walk up to the only Orthodox monastery on the island, that of Agia Varvara, over Kini. The service starts early in the afternoon and the Holy Bier is carried outside the monastery, around the mountain footpaths surrounded by flowers in full bloom.
Another special experience is the procession of the Holy Bier in Ano Syros, performed by two Catholic parishes, those of St George’s Cathedral and St Sebastian’s Church.
These processions make their way along freshly whitewashed alleyways. In front of the Bier, a man holds a cross with a wreath of flowers and white strips of cloth, while other people trail the bier holding poles suspending objects – representing every moment from the arrest to the Crucifixion of Christ; the thirty pieces of silver, the holy sponge, the crown of thorns, the red robe. Following on behind is the icon of the grieving figure of the Holy Virgin. As the procession passes outside the houses, the residents bedew the Holy Bier with flowers and perfume while the choir chants the Good Friday hymns.
In the morning the church bells ring out the First Resurrection. The priests scatter lemon tree leaves and the faithful strike the pews in the church to make a commotion, which, according to tradition, wards off evil spirits.
As Saturday turns into Sunday and the Resurrection is proclaimed, the skies are bejeweled by spectacular firework displays. The pyrotechnic performances launched from the Hill of the Ressurection and that of Ano Syros are simply sensational and can be viewed from all over the island.
Later at the family dinner table, as well as in taverns, traditional magiritsa soup and roast lamb with potatoes in lemon sauce are served. This is also the time to see if you can crack the ends of each other’s dyed red, boiled eggs!
In the neighbourhoods of Hermoupolis and the beautiful villages of Syros, the air is filled with the smells of lamb or kid on the spit and kokoretsi, a delicious meat meze!
On Sunday afternoon, in Metamorphosi Church of Hermoupolis, the Vespers of Agape (love) are sung, followed by the evangelical message of the Resurrection, read in 12 languages.
Near the temple of Kimisi tis Theotokou, home to the famed icon of the Virgin Mary by Dominikos Theotokopoulos (aka El Greco), they burn an effigy of Judas made out of flammable materials. This is a custom that started 80 years ago and has carried on to this day.
Easter is the best opportunity to get to know the “other” Syros, its quieter, more contemplative persona, the island of the two Churches, of love and solidarity.
Both Cycladic and urban, famous and yet unexplored, Syros, the island of coexistence, harmony and creativity, can provide the very best Greece has to offer…