Have to admit that I was avoiding entering the walls of the Old Town for days, since I have booked a walking tour with Toma, our Odeon World Travel tour guide on the island. After so many things I have already read and heard about the knights of Rhodes, I didn’t want to “spoil” it. And I was right!
Our walk began at the small Mandraki Harbor, nice pedestrian path next to the sea and one bustling street on the other side. There was a beautiful building, the Governer’s Palace, with a line of charming arches that resembled – Venice?! And the Church of Evangelismos, Orthodox (as majority of Greeks are), that didn’t really seem Orthodox in architecture, but rather – Catholic?!
The island of the Order
Oh yes, being so important and developed, the island was targeted by many invaders, from ancient Romans and Julius Caesar to fascists of the World War II. Finally, the Greek flag was raised in 1948 over the same Governer’s Palace.
Since it’s a major commercial link between east and west, Rhodes also quickly responded to the new ideas of Christianity. This is actually the island where St. Paul has embarked once (more about it when we get to Lindos, since that is the exact spot!). After the division of the Roman Empire Rhodes became capital of the Byzantine Province of the Islands and was subject to frequent conquest and destruction. In 1082, the Venetians received the permission to set up a commercial station in the harbor. (Hence, the architecture in the harbor!)
In 1191 Richard the Lionheart of England and King Philip of France came to Rhodes with their fleet to enlist mercenaries for the Crusades. When the Crusaders occupied Constantinople in 1204, a local landowner Leon Gavalas declared himself the ruler of Rhodes, with the consent of the Venetians.
So, the island was sold to and fro throughout centuries until it got into the hands of the Order of the Knights of Saint John of Jerusalem who took full control in 1309 after the fierce opposition of the Rhodians. The Knights remained on the island until 1522 when the last Grand Master was forced to hand over the town to the Turkish sultan Suleiman (and moved to Malta!). It was ruled by Ottomans for 400 years.
Going to Malta? Read this first!
The Order whose members called themselves the Knights of Rhodes, was very important for the island’s development. It had been found as the philanthropy brotherhood in Jerusalem by merchants from Amalfi, Italy who were permanent residents of the Holy Land. In time, the Order gained considerable strength and took on a character of the military body under the control and the authority of the Church.
After the capture of Jerusalem by Saladin in 1187 the Knights shifted their base to northern Palestine, then to Cyprus and finally to Rhodes. In years to come they have conquered the surrounding islands (hence, the architecture on Symi that resembles Italian Amalfi – more about Symi in one of the next Glimpses), and held Smyrna for a long period. When Suleiman the Magnificent took over, the Order settled on Malta, calling themselves the Maltese Knights!
(“Now is definitely the time to travel to Malta, Samos or lovely towns along the Amalfi coast, since this just craves another journey to continue knights’ story and the one about the specific Italian architecture”, immediately went through my head!)
While in Rhodes, members came from all the Catholic countries of Europe that were arranged into seven national and linguistic groups called the Langues (languages). Each stayed in its own “inn” along with its leader. Overall government was controlled by the Grand Master who was elected for life. The official language was Latin, while French was used for oral communication.
The Old Town, still inhabited
The Old or the Medieval Town is one vital settlement even today, with approximately 6,000 residents who live and work in the same buildings as the Knights of St. John did nearly six centuries ago. This is one living monument, one of the few well preserved in Europe, where one can easily get lost, finding out another beautiful gem along the narrow streets while trying to reach one of the seven gates embedded into grand walls.
The interesting part of the Old Town, called the Castello, is full of monuments. Starting with the Eleftherias Gate, you come across the remains of the Aphrodite Temple. Walk a bit further by huge, heavy walls and you will come out to the steep, cobblestone Knights Street. A lot of “inns” around, the one that belonged to France or Spain, England. Also, try not to miss the Archaeology Museum or the Grand Masters’ Palace. (If you buy a ticket for both, including the Folklore Museum visit, it will cost you 10 euros; the fee for entering the Palace alone is 6, and for Archaeology Museum – 8.)
The walls, premises, arches, they are all breathtaking. It’s hard to believe when seeing inhabitants at the same spot, coming out of small houses around, all built to resemble the Medieval Town. A lot of motorbikes in small allies, another arch or hidden Greek restaurant in the courtyard of yet another “stronghold”.
From Sokratous’ to Aristotelous Street
Walking around the Palace, you will see the Mosque dedicated to sultan Suleiman, but also the Clock Tower built after the earthquake of 1851. It’s possible to climb up to the Tower. It will cost you five euros to enter, take some stunning photos from up there, and have a drink at the cafe, price included.
From the Suleiman Mosque the other part of the Old Town spreads. The Sokratous Street full of shops and cafes will take you down to the Ippokratos Square. This bustling square is always full of visitors, and bear in mind that prices are a bit higher than in the other parts of the city. From here, a street named after another Greek philosopher – Aristotelous Street, that leads to the old Jewish quarter.
Not only that I was astonished by the history of the place and the Old Town itself, but they just had to throw in couple of ancient philosophers! I mean, since I have studied at the Faculty of Philosophy, I was thrilled to being able to walk along Sokratous Street, trying to remember how his cell below the Acropolis of Athens looked like…
I have seen few more historic spots when touring the island, but let me just take a break here, to cool my overheated “gray cells” down, and yours too.
First, we are going to hit the beach and to chose where to plunge in along the west and the east coast of the island! It is summer after all, right!
Next: LET’S HIT THE BEACH! (5)
The full Rhodes Greece SERIES