The Cyclades are said to have been inhabited since at least 7000 BC. Around 3000 BC there emerged a cohesive Cycladic civilisation that was bound together by seagoing commerce and exchange. During the Early Cycladic period (3000–2000 BC), the tiny but distinctive Cycladic marble figurines, mainly stylised representations of the naked female form, were sculpted. Recent discoveries on Keros, an uninhabited island near Koufonisia in the Small Cyclades, indicate that the island was a possible pilgrimage site where figurines that had been broken up as part of rituals were deposited.
In the Middle Cycladic period (2000–1500 BC), many of the islands were occupied by the Minoans, who probably branched out from Crete. At Akrotiri, on Santorini, a Minoan town has been excavated, and artefacts from the site have all the distinctive beauty of those from Crete’s Minoan palaces. At the beginning of the Late Cycladic period (1500–1100 BC), the archipelago came under the influence of the Mycenaeans of the Peloponnese, who were supplanted by northern Dorians in the 8th century BC.
By the mid-5th century BC the Cyclades were part of a fully fledged Athenian empire. In the Hellenistic era (323–146 BC), they were governed by Egypt’s Ptolemaic dynasties, and later by the Macedonians. In 146 BC the islands became a Roman province, and lucrative trade links were established with many parts of the Mediterranean.
The division of the Roman Empire in AD 395 resulted in the Cyclades being ruled from Byzantium (Constantinople), but after the fall of Byzantium in 1204, they came under a Venetian authority that doled out the islands to opportunistic aristocrats. The most powerful of these was Marco Sanudo (the self-styled Venetian Duke of Naxos), who acquired a dozen of the larger islands – including Naxos, Paros, Ios, Sifnos, Milos, Amorgos and Folegandros – introducing a Venetian gloss that survives to this day in island architecture.
The Cyclades came under Turkish rule in 1537, although the empire had difficulty in managing, let alone protecting, such scattered dependencies. Cycladic coastal settlements suffered frequent pirate raids, a scourge that led to many villages being relocated to hidden inland sites. They survive as the ‘Horas’ (capitals, also often written as 'Chora') that are such an attractive feature of the islands today. Ottoman neglect, piracy and shortages of food and water often led to wholesale depopulation of more remote islands, and in 1563 only five islands were still inhabited.
The Cyclades played a minimal part in the Greek War of Independence, but became havens for people fleeing from other islands where insurrections against the Turks had led to massacres and persecution. Italian forces occupied the Cyclades during WWII. After the war, the islands emerged more economically deprived than ever. Many islanders lived in deep poverty, while many more gave up the struggle and headed to the mainland, or to America and Australia, in search of work.
The tourism boom that began in the 1970s revived the fortunes of the Cyclades. The challenge remains, however, of finding alternative and sustainable economies that will not mar the beauty and appeal of these remarkable islands.