Tuesday, 21 July 2015


I visited Rhodes with a school party several years ago. This is a report.

Originally there were three ancient Greek cities on Rhodes: Kamiros, Ialyssos and Lindos (the third being the only one we visited, and the only one with significant archaeological remains from the classical period), but in 408 BC the three came together and built the new city of Rhodes on the northern tip of the island. It soon became a great trading centre, with a population much bigger than today.
Everyone knows about the Colossus of Rhodes; a gigantic statue of the sun-god Helios; one of the “Seven wonders of the world”, though no-one knows what it looked like, or even exactly where it stood, though imaginative Renaissance drawings of it straddling the harbour are highly improbable. It was erected to commemorate Rhodes’s survival in a siege by Demetrios in 304 B.C. in the wars that followed the death of Alexander the Great. It was said to be 35 metres tall, made all of bronze, the work of the sculptor Chares of Lindos, but it survived no more than 70 years before collapsing in an earthquake in 227 B.C. To the Romans, and indeed to most Greeks, it would be known only as the monstrous ruins which lay untouched on the site for more than eight hundred years.
Rhodes attempted to remain neutral in the wars between the Hellenistic states and the rising power of Rome, but in 164 B.C. became a “permanent ally” of Rome, and its independence was effectively at an end. It was for centuries a centre of learning, famous for its schools of philosophy, rhetoric and science: Cicero studied there, and Tiberius, the future Roman Emperor, spent several years studying on the island. But the artistic glory of Rhodes never recovered from when in 44 B.C. it was pillaged by Cassius (famous as one of the assassins of Julius Caesar) who stole most of its treasures and slaughtered many of the inhabitants.
For centuries Rhodes was contested between the Byzantine Empire and the Arabs. It was in the seventh century A.D., during a period of Moslem occupation, that the remains of the Colossus were finally removed by the Arabs and sold to a Jewish scrap-metal dealer. It is said that 125 tons of bronze were taken away, loaded onto 900 camels. Today no trace remains.
Rhodes town today bears little remembrance of classical times. It is far more redolent of the Middle Ages, because for 200 years it was the centre of the Knights of the Hospital of St. John of Jerusalem, an order of fighting monks left over from the Crusades. The Grand Master of the Hospitallers, Foulkes de Villaret, bought the island in 1309 and turned it into a base against Islamic forces.  The Old Town of Rhodes is still encircled by vast ramparts and a triple moat built by the Hospitallers, 

enclosed within which is a real rabbit-warren of tiny alleyways and heavy stone buildings. Some of the main streets have arches over them. 

Only a few parts have been taken over by tourist shops; the rest can scarcely have been changed for centuries. The most famous street is the Hippoton, where the Knights lived, 

with each “tongue”, or nationality, of the Order having its own “inn”, marked by distinctive coats of arms.

In 1522 the forces of Suleiman the Magnificent, the greatest of the Ottoman Sultans, launched an attack on Rhodes. A stout defence reduced the Hospitallers to just 180 knights, at which stage they surrendered and were allowed to withdraw to their new base of Malta, though many of the native Rhodians were slaughtered. The Turks then ruled Rhodes for the next four centuries, and their era is marked by the occasional mosque and derelict burial ground.

The population of Rhodes was mostly Greek, but it was not joined with the newly-created Greek state in the 19th century. Instead in 1912 Rhodes was seized by the Italians in a war with the disintegrating Turkish Empire (as was Libya at the same time). Much of old district, particularly the Palace of the Grand Masters, was aggressively restored by Mussolini during the period of Italian occupation.

 I found a plaque commemorating restoration work done “in the 13th year of the Fascist Era”. According to our guide, the locals still hate the Italians even more than they do the Turks, which must be something of a record for Greeks anywhere.
There used to be a large Jewish colony in Rhodes, dating back to the earliest years of the Christian era, and Mussolini ignored them as long as he ruled. But when the Germans took over in 1943 after Mussolini’s overthrow, all the Rhodian Jews were rounded up and sent to Auschwitz. The train journeys across the Balkans took so long that most of them were dead of starvation before they arrived.
In 1947 Rhodes was at long last reunited with Greece.

We stayed at Faliriki, a popular resort on the east coast. Our hotel was mostly occupied by middle-aged Germans, who insisted on wearing the most unsuitably brief bathing costumes. Most of the island looked typical of rural Greece: very rugged and barren (though with lots of wild flowers in spring), some primitive little villages and towns with brightly painted walls, and the ubiquitous reinforced concrete skeletons of partially built hotels and apartments. As well as visiting Rhodes town, we had a day in Lindos, now a little seaside town with steep cobbled streets nestling beneath a towering acropolis. This was converted into an impregnable fortress by the Hospitaller Knights,

 but still contains parts of a classical temple to Athene and propylaea. These were swathed in scaffolding for our visit, but there was a fine view from the top.

Our trip coincided with the Greek Easter, and on the Saturday evening we went into the cathedral in Rhodes town for the service. This proved very strange. There was an incomprehensible and interminable litany chanted amidst deep gloom, during which more and more people pushed their way in with little sign of reverence. At 11.45 pm the archbishop and other priests suddenly emerged from behind the iconostasis, presumably to proclaim the Risen Christ, because the chandeliers suddenly blazed, lights were transmitted from candle to candle, and everyone processed out to the square, where the service resumed under a canopy. Precisely at midnight rocket flares were launched, fireworks were set off, the police band struck up, and all the ships in the harbour sounded their hooters. I believe the service continued, though of course nobody could now hear a word.
On the last night we staged a fancy dress party. The Germans in the hotel had annoyed us by complaining about the noise, and one of the boys decided to disguise himself as Hitler. With a false moustache and carefully combed hair he managed a remarkable resemblance: so much so that he lost his nerve at the last moment and had to cross the foyer pretending to read a newspaper close to his face. This was the only disappointing moment on our holiday.

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