Rhodes is the fourth largest of the Greek Islands and very popular with tourists for its beaches, climate and remnants of thousands of years of Mediterranean history. Its beauty and uniqueness has been acknowledged by UNESCO by giving it the status as a World Heritage Site. Humanity have lived on Rhodes for a long time but evidence from the stone age is rare; there is evidence that some of its early inhabitants were Minoan sea-farers that come from Crete. The name of the island is steeped in Greek antiquity. Its name comes from ‘Rhodos’, a nymph who apparently provided 7 children to the sun god Helios, three of whom gave their names to 3 cities on the island: Camirus, Lalsus and Lindos. This ancient heritage explains why citizens of Rhodes decided that the model for their huge statue to adorn Rhodes harbour would be that of Helios.
We had been on a long tour throughout Turkey and eventually arrived at Marmaris to catch the ferry to the closest part of Greece available: Rhodes! Our two days in Rhodes would be spent dividing our time between Old Town Rhodes and Lindos which is over four centuries older than the capital of the Island. We were staying at the Avalon Boutique Hotel, 9 Haritos St, Old Town Rhodes which was a beautiful hotel in itself as well as being right in the centre of the Old Town.
Apart from having a good stroll around town, our plan was to cover at least four of the main attractions of this port city.
- The town walls, the Street of the Knights.
- Palace of the Grand Master of the Knights of Rhodes.
- The Archaeological Museum.
- The Port of Rhodes…the Colossus of Rhodes, Mandraki Port.
Our hotel (Avalon Boutique) was right in the centre of the Old Town and a one-minute walk from the Street of Knights which crosses through much of this walled town. It was built in 1400 and provided Inns for the different nationalities that joined the Order of the Knights of Jerusalem. The notes made in the UNESCO document about this area are worth noting…“with its Frankish and Ottoman buildings the old town of Rhodes is an important ensemble of traditional human settlement…and building after 1523 combined vernacular forms resulting from the meeting of two worlds with decorative elements of Ottoman origin. All the built-up elements dating before 1912 have become vulnerable because of the evolution in living conditions and they must be protected as much as the great religious, civil and military monuments, the churches, monasteries, mosques, baths, palaces, forts, gates and ramparts.”
Coming from the centre of Old Town, there were many options in terms of Gates through the fortified walls. Due to Rhodes geographical location, it had a very advantageous position along the Mediterranean trade routes from West to East. Defensive walls were in place as long ago as the fourth century BCE. These walls always enabled Rhodes to defend itself against envious trade enemies and it continued to upgrade these walls as the centuries passed. Enemies of Rhodes’ walls also included earthquakes so these were another reason for constant upgrades and maintenance. When the Knights Hospitaller conquered Byzantine-controlled Rhodes, they too realised that these fortifications needed continual upgrading if they wanted to hold this strategic Island. They were finally driven out in 1552 by the Ottomans who simply maintained Rhodes’ fortifications for the next four centuries. The walls we see today are really a ‘museum’ of the transition between medieval fortifications and modern ones. The diagram (from 1490) of the fortified walls of Rhodes below left gives a good idea of their condition and layout during the Knights’ period of control.
Heading out through fortress walls and strolling along the edge of Kolona Harbour is a lovely walk with the fortress walls to the right and the sea to the left. This takes you in a curve along the walkway that leads around to the tourist harbour where the cruise boats pull in for the day. Along the way we stopped to have a good look at the ruins of the Church of Panagia (Virgin Mary) of the Burgh, built just inside the walls of the old town. This Gothic building survived from the 14th century but it took the 20th century’s World War II bombing to leave the venerable old church in ruins.
To visit the two major tourist sites of Rhodes, the Palace of the Grand Master of the Knights of Rhodes and the Archaeological Museum, we didn’t have to walk far from our hotel. As can be seen on the map above of the old town, the walk to these two major sites is very short.
There is a pattern throughout Europe over the millennia where new major buildings (Churches, Castles) are built over the top of previous major buildings. This is the case for the Knights Castle in the Old Town of Rhodes. Recent archaeological study has suggested that this major building was built over an ancient temple of the Sun-god Helios. (This site is also one of the suggestions for where the Colossus of Rhodes might have been erected.) Above these foundations are the remains of a Byzantine Citadel which was also built over when the Knights Hospitaller built this edifice as a palace and Administrative Centre for the Grand Master. Note in Appendix One you will find a Rhodes timeline if you get confused about the ‘layers’ of history that is Rhodes.
Later conquerors of Rhodes (Ottomans 1522) used the palace much as the Knights Hospitaller used it. In the twentieth century when the Italians took over Rhodes, both the King and Fascist dictator of that country used this building as a holiday residence. In 1948, Rhodes and the other islands of the Dodecanese became part of Greece and this fabulous Gothic building became a museum. You will need a good hour or more to explore this wonderful building, particularly inspecting the mosaics that are on display here. For example, the face of Medusa on the left below comes from the Island of Cos and is believed to be from the 3/4th century CE. The most famous piece of Art in this building is the group of sculptures called ‘Lacoon and his sons’. Alas this one is not an original; what is believed to be the original can be viewed in the Vatican Museums where it was placed after being dug up in Rome in 1506. The Roman writer Pliny saw this sculpture in the Emperor Titus’s palace in Rome and attributes it to three Greek sculptors from the island of Rhodes, Agesander, Athenodorus and Polydorus. So many of the Greek statues found in Rome are copies of originals that were originally cast in bronze and many believe that this Vatican one may also be a copy of an earlier bronze original. The other debate amongst scholars is whether the Lacoon is the greatest art piece of all times. I am on the side that suspects it might be!
Turning right out the front door of our hotel, it was only a short stroll down to the Archaeological Museum. This building, built in 1440 by the Knights Hospitaller, was originally a hospital. The order of the knights of St John were originally formed as an offshoot of the Benedictine Order dedicated to caring for the pilgrims visiting the Holy Land. They eventually transformed into a military order, thus explaining their need for a strategic base for their involvement in the crusades that lasted from the 11th to 16th centuries.
The museum houses ‘finds’ from all of the Dodecanese Islands including marble statues, urns, funerary stele, and wonderful mosaics. The mosaic on the left above is a representation of Bellerophon, the son of Poseidon, fighting with a Chimera, a hybrid lion monster that has the head of a goat on its back and the head of a snake on its tail; a formidable opponent! The gem of the museum is an original copy(!) found on Rhodes of a ‘Crouching Aphrodite’ that was inspired by the 3rd century BCE sculptor Doidalsas. These sculptures were commonly used to adorn wealthy houses and public Gardens of the Hellenistic period.
In the late afternoon of our first day in Rhodes we decided to exit the Old Town and head left and have a look at Mandraki Harbour. One of the most famous tourist suggestions ever written was the list of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. The third item on the traditional list of these wonders is the Colossus of Rhodes. References abound to this amazing, huge statue from the Hellenistic world built somewhere near the harbour of Old Rhodes Town. It only remained in place a little over sixty years, before an earthquake brought it down. A walk around this harbour area throws up questions of where this famous statue actually stood. It is too well attested to be considered a myth but the puzzle of where it was built remains to this day. I couldn’t resist buying the post card containing the image of the colossus above. The traditional story held that it stood over the harbour entrance of Rhodes as this image shows, but modern engineering has shown that it would not have held its weight in bronze upright and the harbour itself couldn’t have closed down over the twelve years it took to construct it at the harbour entrance.
Despite being the victim of yet another earthquake in Rhodes in 226 BCE, the Colossus in its broken state survived along the harbour wall until 662 CE when Arab traders were allowed to cart it away to build more mundane items than another wonder of the world. The famous Pliny the Elder visited Rhodes and the Colossus and wrote about what he saw. “… but even as it lies, it excites our wonder and admiration. Few men can clasp the thumb in their arms, and its fingers are larger than most statues. Where the limbs are broken asunder, vast caverns are seen yawning in the interior…”
The photos above and below here of Mandraki Harbour illustrate the list of the usual places where the legs of the Colossus could have stood. The most popular has been the mouth of Mandraki Harbour where two elegant deers stand on top of pylons today. Another theory is that the Colossus stood where the Metropolitan Cathedral of the Annunciation, stands today. Another theory holds that a pedestal exists within St Nicholas Fort which stands on the end of the other breakwater…it may have held up one foot of the Colossus. We walked out to St Nicholas Fort and admired the windmills on the way, relieved to find that they had no link with the missing Colossus of Rhodes. Mandraki Harbour is a beautiful place to stroll and wonder about the famous Colossus. The only cure for missing this famous statue here is to organise a trip to New York Harbour and catch a ferry out to visit the still standing Statue of Liberty
APPENDIX 1: RHODES TIMELINE
APPENDIX 2: Diagram of the fortifications of Old Town Rhodes