Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Medieval Rhodes

I first learned about the medieval town of Rhodes in my History of Architecture class, 40 years ago. But the textbook photos didn't do it justice. A World Heritage listed site, the old town is the largest inhabited medieval town in Europe. It is in remarkably good condition, given its age.

Our boat docked right outside the old city, and the juxtaposition of the modern ships and the historic wall was most impressive. As is becoming our habit, we arrived without any hotel reservations since we didn't know where to stay. But as soon as we saw the medieval streets of the old town, now lined with shops and restaurants, we knew this was where we wanted to be. So while Sally had a coffee and watched the tourists go by, Claire and I set off and quickly found what she described as a very ‘funky’ place for the night.

We then set off to explore. The history of Rhodes has been both fascinating and tumultuous. It has gone through many regimes and rulers. In 1100 BC, it first began to exert influence and power, and at one point joined forces with the Persians against Alexander the Great. But when it became apparent he couldn’t be defeated, it joined with him. After a subsequent victory, the Colossus of Rhodes, one of the seven wonders of the Ancient World was constructed. However, according to some historians, it was tragically destroyed by an earthquake only 60 years after it was completed.

Rhodes was part of the Roman Empire, the Byzantine Empire, and then enjoyed independence. In the middle ages, it was ruled by the Knights of St John, until taken over by the Ottomans, who were then defeated by the Italians. In 1947, after four decades of Italian occupation, it became part of Greece. However, the Italian connection is reflected in the local language and the number of pizzerias!

At one time it was home to a sizable Jewish community and the 'Jewish Quarter' exists to this day. A monument to the Jews who were killed during the Holocaust occupies a prominent location in a major town square. Although there aren't very many Jews living here today, there is a synagogue that was originally built in the 16th century. It is still operating, and on Saturday I dropped by, along with a small group of Americans who had just come off a cruise ship. In one respect, it reminded me of a very old synagogue I had visited in the Virgin Islands. The floor. The former had a sand floor; this one had a pebble floor. However, like many other floors and pavement surfaces in Rhodes, the pebbles had been arranged in an intricate and quite beautiful pattern set in concrete.

One of the reasons the walls of the old town walls have survived so well is their construction. They are generally 12m thick! Many of the medieval buildings are also in good condition, although the Palace of the Grand Masters was destroyed in a gunpowder explosion in the mid 19th Century, and had to be rebuilt by the Italians. As we walked along the main street constructed by the Knights, I couldn’t help but overhear two of the Americans off the cruise ship. “Touch these walls, Agnes” said one to the other. “They’re history!”

We visited Rhodes to use it as a stepping stone to Turkey and see the old town. However, many areas around the island have become very popular tourist destinations, especially for Brits on package tours. While we avoided them, we did visit Lindos, which is famous for its hilltop archeological site, and the white painted hillside village that surrounds it. Most of the streets are too narrow and treacherous for vehicles, but they are just fine for the donkeys that regularly transport goods and tourists up and down.

As a result of our recent harrowing experience with animals, (the camels in Rajasthan!), and our need for some exercise, we walked. But in a couple of places, we would have preferred the sure-footed donkeys, especially given the steep incline and sudden drop to the valley below. (I find that as I get older, I seem to be developing a fear of falling off narrow winding walkways onto the rocks below.)

At three in the afternoon, we again packed our bags and walked back to the port where we had arrived only 30 hours earlier. It was amazing how much we had seen and learned in such a relatively short period of time. We had arrived not knowing what to expect, where to stay, and what to do. We were leaving with the feeling that we really knew the place, and were so pleased that we had come. Now we were heading off to Turkey on a fast ferry, not knowing what to expect, where to stay, and what to do.

It’s a pattern that will likely repeat itself many times over the next three months before our return to Vancouver.


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