Rhodes – The Island of the Knights

Today’s guest post is an excerpt from the new travel book “Rhodes —The Island of the Knights” by Richard Clark.

Rhodes – The Island of the Knights

With a fair wind, the island of Rhodes is but half a day’s voyage by ferry from Piraeus. Athens’ seaport lies some 250 miles to the north west of this jewelled island that nestles little more than a stone’s throw away from Asia and the Turkish coast. At 11 miles from the natural homeland of the old Ottoman Empire, Rhodes, the largest of the Dodecanese archipelago, has for millennia been subject to the push and pull of the tides of political fortune in this south-eastern corner of the Aegean Sea. Although the fourth largest of the Greek Islands, it is small enough to be easily explored, its landscape benign, yet abundant enough in variety to hold the attention for a lifetime.

If that vista exudes a timeless quality, the intervention of buildings and archaeological finds betrays the island’s turbulent past. But in the context of modern Greece, Rhodes and the other islands of the Dodecanese were the final piece in the jigsaw, the last part of this intricate picture to be put into place. It was not until after the Second World War, in 1947, that the defeated Italian rulers were officially made to hand over the islands. Rhodes and its satellites were finally reunited with the newly reformed, independent Greek state which had been pulling itself together for the previous 135 years.

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Lawrence Durrell, in Reflections on a Marine Venus, his classic memoir about post-war Rhodes, writes of the difficulties of expressing the essence of the Island: ‘In Rhodes the days drop as softly as fruit from the trees. Some belong to the dazzling ages of Cleobulus and the tyrants, some to the gloomy Tiberius, some to the Crusaders. They follow each other in scales and modes too quickly to be captured in the nets of form.’

The difficulty lies in trying to find an identity that fits. The island has changed its clothes so many times throughout history that it is hard to identify the fashion which best reflects its character. Inhabited since the Neolithic period, the Minoans came here in the 16th Century BC but did not leave their mark in the same way that they had further to the south west in Crete. The Telchines are held in some legends to have been the first inhabitants. The offspring of Gaia and Pontus, they hailed from Crete. These children of the gods had magical powers and were skilled metalworkers who created Poseidon’s trident, and a sickle for Cronos. In certain accounts their children were Ialyssos, Lindos and Kamiros. This theory is at odds with another that claims these boys, who gave their name to the triumvirate of early Rhodian cities, were the sons of Danaus. To make it more confusing, the poet Pindar wrote down the myth that is perhaps most widely accepted. He claims that the aforementioned children were the fruit of the union between Aphrodite and Helios, and it was their daughter, Rhodes, who lent her name to the island.

It is almost impossible to find any two accounts that concur. Frustrated by the failure of my research, I am forced to recall my friend Theo’s thoughts on the matter. Usually adroit, he would frequently remind me with a certainty that only a few glasses of ouzo can engender, that the ancient Greeks were promiscuous in their interpretations of the myths, so it is reasonable that we too can pick and mix our legends.

Pindar was something of a revisionist himself, however. On the flimsiest of evidence, he cites Helios as the father of our eponymous heroes, who himself was worshipped across the island and was celebrated by the magnificent Colossus, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Bearing this in mind, Pindar just edges it. That Rhodes’ airport is named after the Olympic boxer Diagoras, in whose honour Pindar wrote the Seventh Olympian Ode which recalls the myth, further reinforces the case!

The subject of the poem epitomizes the glories of sporting achievement and the joy in sharing the success of others. In the 5th Century BC, Diagoras won the boxing event at the Olympic Games twice, but at the 83rd Olympiad in 448BC, two of his sons also became champions. In celebration, they hoisted their father aloft and carried him around the arena. This was held to be the most contented a man could be and, from the standing crowd, a spectator is believed to have shouted, ‘You can die now Diagoras, as Mount Olympus you will not climb’, with which the proud father did indeed drop dead, a happy man, we are led to believe. The occasions I have arrived at the airport named after the famed boxer have often been far from happy –bomb scares and delays of Herculean proportions, along with the resulting exhaustion, have influenced my decision to arrive on the island by boat.

My ship cast off from Piraeus in the early evening. By the time dusk fell, the breeze created by the ferry pushing south left a chill on the spring air. The lights of Athens rode the waves like a giant cruise liner disappearing over the horizon. The sky was ablaze with stars given full license to shine their brightest in the darkest of blue-black skies. Occasionally a cluster of lights from some small island would appear like a mystical galaxy adrift in a watery universe.

Pulling on a jumper and sitting in the lee of a lifeboat, the moment was laced with anticipation, the regular drumming of the engines beating out the only accompaniment to my thoughts. Eventually letting the cold get the better of me, I descended the steel steps to the saloon and claimed a spot where I could stretch out for the night. Some cheese pies, a sweet Greek coffee and Metaxa lulled me into a sound sleep on my bench seat, until a hint of sunlight through the overhead porthole shook me awake, calling me on deck to see the emerging dawn. Off our starboard bow the lights were going out as Rhodes town rose from its slumbers.

From several miles out it was already showing off its splendours, the crenellations of battlements and its minarets and domes silhouetted against the encroaching dawn. It is an enticing sight. But one that only welcomes those who come in peace, for the defenses of the town are formidable and the history of the island is one of siege. We coast along past the imposing city walls and the ancient windmills which grace the harbour of Mandraki before turning hard to starboard; winches grinding we come alongside in the commercial port just to the east of the old town.

It is an overwhelming, medieval aura that distinguishes Rhodes from its island cousins; it is not the sun-bleached, dusty antiquity of ancient Greece, but the gothic that takes precedence here. And for the old city of Rhodes, which is now a World Heritage Site, it is reluctantly Mussolini’s black-shirted revisionists and their unhealthy preoccupation with the chivalric traditions of the Knights, that we must credit for much of the restoration of the town.

To access it now from the harbour is simple. A stroll through any of the vast gates that punctuate the walls delivers you into a different world. The Knights themselves took the island after a two-year siege in 1309, succeeding where the great Macedonian King Demetrius I had failed some 1600 years previously. Known as Poliorcetes (the siege maker), he turned his attentions to the strategically important centre of Rhodes in punishment for them not having supported him in his successful campaigns against the Egyptians and Cypriots. His flagship led a massive fleet of warships, carrying an invasion force of more than 40,000 troops, double what the Rhodians could muster to defend their birthright.

With an impressive armoury including a battering ram – at 180 feet long so huge it took more than 1000 soldiers to wield it – and a siege tower called Helepolis (conqueror of cities) weighing little under 200 tons and standing 125 feet tall, he led an assault on the town which proved futile. A year of huffing and puffing was enough, after which Poliorcetes turned, weighed anchor and set sail for Athens. The bravery of the islanders had left such a mark on the Macedonian that he deserted Helepolis as a token of respect for his worthy adversaries, making him an unlikely benefactor. The melted down scrap was used in the building of the great Colossus of Rhodes, dedicated to the god, Helios, who, Rhodians believed, had restored their fortunes in the war.

On the run from the Knights Templar following infighting between the chivalric orders, the Knights Hospitaller dragged its wounded rump from Cyprus to Rhodes. Seeing its potential as a stronghold for the beleaguered order, they set siege to the island in 1307 and prevailed after two years of bitter conflict. Reinventing themselves as the Knights of Rhodes, they set about further reinforcing the island’s already prodigious defenses, building a city in the image of their gothic ideal. And it is mostly the Knights’ heritage which has been restored, firstly by the Italian invaders, and since by various more empathetic archaeological practitioners.

If the magnificent buildings were beautiful manifestations of the Hospitaller’s arrogance, their longevity on the island surviving two great sieges is evidence that not all their swagger was misplaced. In 1444 the Sultan of Egypt tried his luck but was comprehensively repulsed. Thirty-six years later the Ottoman leader Sultan Mehmet II, or ‘The Conquerer’, failed to live up to his name and was driven back into the sea by the cavalry of the Knights commanded by Englishman John Kendal. Eventually in 1522 the Ottomans under Suleiman the Magnificent gained the territory they had cherished for centuries.

A force of some 100,000 finally prevailed over just 640 Knights and their ragbag band of supporters who had found themselves in the city and its surroundings at the time. By December the embattled Knights realized they were beaten and negotiated safe passage for the surviving 180 members of the order. On the 1st January 1523 they set sail for Crete before finally settling in Malta some six years later.

This began another era that left an indelible mark on the city. For almost 400 years, until 1912, Rhodes came under the panoply of the Ottoman Empire. Greeks were banished from within the great walls of the capital. This left behind only a Jewish settlement pitched under the defenses to the east, and the Turkish settlers who set about the Islamification of the town, turning all churches to mosques and erecting public buildings, of which the hammam or Turkish baths (now called Dhimotika Loutra) is a fine example. In this 17th-century Byzantine edifice in the south of the old town, with the sunlight streaming through star-shaped apertures in the towering cream dome of the baths, any visitor can still gain relief from the heat and dust of city life. A few euros can see you sweating it out by the olive wood fires, sitting on the same marble slabs as the Pashas did centuries before.

These days I prefer to take my refreshment in the Nea Agora (new market), a place I remember as being more open and light than it now appears. When I first visited here it was a dusty, airy space with random scruffy tables set out beneath the odd tree which emerged through dirt gaps in the squared paving slabs. The imperious domed entrance to this heptagonal building opposite the old harbour of Mandraki looks like the work of the Ottomans, which had spilled outside the walls of the old town. In fact it was the musing of Italian architect Florestan di Fausto, employed as an urban planner in Rhodes between 1922 and 1926 who was also responsible for the Governor’s Palace further north along the coast road.

That the city developed outside the walls of the old town was a result of the expulsion of the indigenous citizens following Suleiman’s ousting of the Knights. The Jewish settlers, however, were given leave to remain. They did so in peace for 422 years until the Gestapo rounded up most of the community and sent them to the death camps in 1944.

Much of the new town is a legacy of the Italians whose neo-Gothic and Venetian reveries make a pleasing, if on occasion incongruous, juxtaposition to the earlier medieval and Arabic styles. The archway supporting di Fausto’s dome is resplendent in gold decoration and dominates the forefront of the harbour side. Looking back seawards, the defensive circular tower of the Knight’s castle of Agios Nikolaos stands sentinel at the harbour mouth. In its shadow rise the two columns supporting a bronze stag and a doe on either side of the entrance to the old port. In times of conflict the harbour could be defended with underwater chains strung across its entrance to arrest the progress of invading ships. Inside the Nea Agora’s walls the courtyard closes in on you. The tavernas and ouzeries of old have been supplemented by souvenir shops, flower beds and mature trees, all of which conspire to make it a pleasant place to sit on one of the many tables which spill out onto the centre of the courtyard. On my first visit I ate snails with a garlic aioli to dip, bread to tear and steely cold wine to drink, today we settle for a pizza and beer which was just as welcome.

Richard Clark is a writer and journalist whose latest book Rhodes – A Notebook, http://tinyurl.com/lw5abtk, has just been published and is available in paperback or in eBook format from Amazon and other major retailers.

He is the author of two other books about Greece, The Greek Islands – A Notebook,

http://tinyurl.com/cv3j4jm

Crete – A Notebook

http://tinyurl.com/6vbdn3a

https://www.facebook.com/richardclarkbooks

 

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