by Tim Dawe
Modernity surrounds me – modern streets, cars and pedestrians, modern hotels, world-brand boutiques and Marks & Spencer, but 300 metres away, beyond the harbour, behind a forest of pines is a full-scale medieval walled city. It’s no illusion or movie-shoot façade but a very visible, fortified medieval town-within-a-town encased in huge stone walls, massive moats and entrance gates. I’m in Rhodes looking out to its old town – the castle of the knights. Or more accurately, the town of the Knights of the Order of St John of Jerusalem – the Hospitallers – still in service today and best-known for St John Ambulance. Rhodes Old Town is not just enormous, it’s intact and the oldest inhabited medieval town in Europe. Extraordinary. It looks like the knights have just left.
Western European knights, crusading to free the Holy Lands, evolved to become the Christians’ first-aiders. They were rewarded with the military Papal Order of St John and a role in stopping the western spread of Islam. After the Holy Lands fell in 1291 the knights retreated, eventually arriving in Rhodes in 1309 where they dug in. Although a polyglot group, they were dedicated and well organised with naval, military and hospital expertise. They not only dug in, they built, prospered and prevailed, lasting 220 years.
Their town covered 60ha, fortified by 4km of 12m thick walls and bastions. It was organised in “tongues”, or language/recreational groups, each with their own inns and traditions. Those inns, including the French and Italian inns that today accommodate their respective consulates, line the street of the knights, arguably Europe’s finest example of gothic architecture. Rhodes Old Town is a UNESCO world heritage site.
This labyrinth of history cannot be absorbed in one visit. It’s overwhelming. And it makes sense to avoid coach crowds and sun for quieter streets with softer light. I dip in and out, two or three times a day as it’s only 10 minutes from my hotel. For my first foray I walk up a hill through the shady greenbelt that separates the site from the new town. I enter at Amboise Gate crossing a former moat, now a meadow. It’s about 20m in depth and width. Two horses wide, the entrance is monumental and suitably heraldic in carved stone. I join others streaming along a wide tree-lined walkway of shops and restaurants. Suddenly I’m diverted by the stunning sight of the Palace of the Grand Master.
This fairy-tale castle cannot be 700 years old; it’s so intact and new it could be the latest Disneyland attraction. There is an explanation. Italy colonised Rhodes in 1912. With the Islamic Ottoman Empire in terminal decline they “liberated” Rhodes, destroyed mosques, cultural buildings and homes then lavishly restored the Christian medieval buildings. This explains the absence of expected ruination by siege and time.
The castle exterior is formidable while the interior shows grandeur fit for royalty, both awe-inspiring. Tourists can view a large collection of antiquities from throughout the Dodecanese. From here the pebble-paved street of the knights slopes down following an ancient straight path to the sea. Squashed between imposing-looking inns, Holy Trinity Church, closed and dark, looks its age. The street is walled-in with solid buildings but flitting from side to side, I peer into beautiful courtyards of gardens and fountains. Squinting, I can imagine this scene with draped horses, clinking chainmail, shouting leather-capped peasants, scattering animals – and the smell.
At the end of the street lies the seriously old Panagia tou Kastrou Church, in turn 11th century Byzantine Orthodox, and 14th century medieval Catholic. On the southern corner is the huge Archaeological Museum, the latest incarnation of the Knights Hospital. It’s a museum exhibit in itself, built around a huge courtyard with porticos in the style of a Byzantine inn. Numerous statues dating from the Classical and Hellenistic periods inhabit the former refectory, kitchen and wards, notably the 2,400-year-old crouching Aphrodite.
Near the imposing Marine Gate is Hippocrates Square, a magnet for people to meet, eat and shop, mingling as they have for centuries. Socrates Street runs off the square parallel to the “knights” street and remains the commercial centre. Sindrivan Mosque survives on the corner but is built-out leaving only narrow steps for the few faithful. Looking up, the western skyline changes dramatically from dark, squat and Gothic to light, curved and Islamic. This street ends at my starting point with an impressive array of buildings. The Mosque of Suleiman is, like the Sultan’s title, magnificent. Over the road the Muslim Library holds an important role as repository of a long history. A stand-out feature on a Byzantine site is a remnant clock tower where visitors get a birds-eye view of this tangle of streets and history.
Walking the southern streets reveals a different Old Town; for a start, they are mostly empty. What people I see are not tourists but residents. There’s no grand edifice and some houses are deserted and derelict. People work here but it’s not easy to see until you peer in. Carpenters, leatherworkers and metalworkers are busy and the mechanic has spilled parts and bystanders onto the road.
To get here I enter via St John’s Gate. Looking down to the grassed-bottomed moat I see the Melina Mercouri outdoor theatre, a popular venue for cultural events. My objective is to lose myself, free from the pressure of finding that must-see place or thing. Here are schools, neighbours, children playing in the street, a white-haired, black-robed priest holding forth with a group of men smoking in a kafeneion. It is not a museum but their community.
I pass the sad structure of the once grand Retzep Pasha Mosque, now boarded up. A familiar sign says millions of EU euros have been allocated to restore it but it appears that’s not a priority. Weaving between houses only 1m apart, a sharp turn presents Evreon Martyon (Jewish Martyrs) Square with upside-down birds drinking from the ancient fountain. Kahal Shalom Synagogue facing this square was the hub for 4,000 Sephardic Jews, now gone, mostly victims of the Nazi Holocaust. I’ve been here before, a reminder my time is up. I leave via Virgin Mary’s gate to a beautiful scene: a golden and turquoise beach, framed by expensive motor launches with the backdrop of a fairy-tale castle. Those knights knew about building to endure, and they also knew about waterfront real estate.
Rhodes Old Town illustrates another facet of Greece’s long and fabled history. Its extraordinary commanding presence cannot be ignored. And the mystique of medieval knights and castles makes a visit both compelling and unforgettable.