Symi: looking back, connections and a bit of history.

Those who followed my ramblings while I was in Greece may remember photos of a flower which we found growing in profusion on the last walking day on Symi at the beginning of October.   I had no idea what it was and no idea how to find out as it was stranger than anything I had seen before.

Previously unidentified, now known to be ‘Biarum marmarisense’

Pushing up through the rocks and powder-dry soil

Fortunately a friend of mine in Cardiff took on the challenge of identifying it.  It doesn’t seem to have a common name in English but its Latin name is Biarum marmarisense.   ‘Biarum’ because it’s related to Arum lilies, which indeed it looks like, and ‘marmarisense’ because it’s native to South West Turkey where lies the town of Marmaris.

Hardly surprising then that it’s found on Symi which is about the width of the Bristol Channel from Turkey and shares the same arid limestone mountainous landscape.

An arid limestone landscape, Biarum marmarisense, and presumably other flowers, are not the only things which the west coast of Turkey and Symi have in common.

For a start there is a 400-year history of occupation by the Ottomans, Symi becoming part of that Empire in 1522.  It gained much wealth during that time as the ‘By Royal Appointment’ supplier of sponges to the Turkish Court, and it also developed a reputation for the quality of its shipbuilding. Though active in the Greek War of Independence in 1821 Symi remained under Ottoman control until eventually declaring independence in 1912, just in time to be occupied by the Italians who retained it until 1943 when they were pushed out by the Germans.  Though all this time Greek in language, culture and religion the island only became part of the Greek State in 1948 as part of the settlement at the end of Second World War.

Ottoman occupation apart, there is a shared fauna as well as flora. When I rented a place on Symi in 2010 I had a regular visit from a Turkish Gecko which was clearly raising a family in the walls of the house as, after the initial sighting, youngsters started to put in an appearance.

Turkish Gecko on my doorstep in August 2010

One of the youngsters a few weeks later

I don’t know whether there is any hard evidence for this but Symi may be linked to the Turkish mainland in another way.  Though it is often said that Symi has no surface water that is not correct.  I know at least 4 permanent ponds with water levels which don’t drop significantly even in the severe drought of summer.  Symi is basically a great lump of limestone and so at least some of the winter rains will go through the rock and into underground strata.  Certainly there are freshwater springs which are increasingly being tapped and piped to provide water for a growing tourist population and to feed the increasing demand from local population for washing machines and showers.

Permanent pond at the edge of the deserted village of Gria in the mountains behind Pedi Bay

The level of abstraction is to my mind unsustainable but that is a separate issue and may be partly to blame for the increasing number of dead trees.  However, the issue here is that because Symi has a common limestone geology with the Turkish mainland it is possible that some of the ponds and springs on Symi might be risings from underground sinks in Turkey.  It is not infeasible given the geology and the distances involved. Both the mountains and the rainfall in Turkey are significantly higher than on Symi so there may well be enough volume of water and enough ‘head’ to make this possible and may explain why the ponds do not dry up.  I have heard this hypothesis advanced for the permanence of some of the springs in Tilos which is even further from the mainland.

Standing close to one of the small permanent ponds at the back of the beach at Nanou, the Turkish coast just across the channel.

Perhaps I should try to follow up the canoe trip under the Sahara with a canoe trip from Turkey to Symi under the Aegean.  If you haven’t read about the Sahara trip, published in the ‘Canoeist’ magazine in April 1988, it’s here.

Why am I looking back to Symi?  It’s a lot more cheerful than the weather in Grey Britain at the moment.

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