We last spoke from Thessaloniki about Macedonia’s favorite son, Alexander, and his father and son. Fly south with me now to Rhodes, an island half the size of Rhode Island (no relation) and only 11 miles from Turkey.
Rhodes has been continuously occupied since the Stone Age. It witnessed the Peloponnesian Wars (stayed neutral), was part of Alexander’s kingdom, and received Christianity from Paul himself. Rhodes was happily Byzantine until 1309, which is where our story picks up.
You’ll recall that European pilgrims had been journeying to the Holy Land throughout the late middle ages. The Crusades began in 1099, when thousands of Western European knights marched on Jerusalem (and anything else in their way). Naturally, there were people needing medical attention, so a group calling themselves the Knights Hospitallers of St. John formed to help out. They soon started providing armed escorts to pilgrims, and became a military group aligned with the Pope.
After being defeated in and around Jerusalem, with a quick stop in Cyprus, the Hospitallers took over Rhodes in 1309. Their fate took a positive turn when Pope Clement dissolved their main rivals, the Knights Templar. On the island’s northern tip, they proceeded to build what is now Europe’s most magnificent medieval walled city, which is what I came to see.
I saw it in the blazing heat—90 degrees at 10am, going higher hourly.
Gigantic walls encircle the city, even along the waterfront. As a bonus, they’re topped by swallow-tail (not the conventional saw-tooth) crenellations, which I’d never seen nor heard of. They’re in extraordinary condition, containing the coats of arms of various important families. On some of the original gates into the city, the heavy wooden doors are original, covered with their original metal plating.
In the wide dry moat below street level are dozens of leftover stone cannonballs.
Inside the walls unfolds a charming little town of about 50,000 Greeks and a jillion tourists, disgorged daily by nearby cruise ships (Homer himself praised Rhodes’s maritime location). While there are plenty of tourist facilities, this is also a living, breathing town, where people live, work, and raise kids. Once off the main street, the narrow lanes twist and turn until getting lost is absolutely inevitable. And how charming that is! Bougainvillea here, an old stone chapel there, the remnants of various Knights Inns. The Crusades really happened, and this city was deeply involved.
So involved that the Ottomans couldn’t let it last as a base. In 1522 Suleiman the Magnificent besieged the town with 100,000 Ottoman soldiers. After six months, the survivors were allowed to retreat to Sicily, and later to Malta. A Kiwanis Club version of the Knights exists to this day.
Meanwhile, the jewel of the Old Town is the Palace of the Grand Master, lovingly rebuilt by the Turks after an enormous ammunition explosion destroyed much of it in the 19th century.
The floor mosaics—gorgeous. The ceilings—artistic cabinetry. The rooms themselves are large, airy, and designed for both function and to impress. We walked from one to another, grateful to be doing it without wearing armor. Because of the late hour I had the place essentially to myself. I kept telling my guide to lower his voice—he wasn’t with a large group, and a reverential whisper made it much easier to imagine life there in 1400 or 1500.
Soon enough it was time to descend the wide stone steps and leave the palace. I headed toward the harbor where the Colossus of Rhodes once stood, a lighthouse and an advertisement for the grandeur of the ancient city. Suleiman’s Ottomans held the city 400 years; the Italians grabbed it in the run-up to World War II; and when they had trouble holding it in 1943, the Germans invaded. Soon enough Rhodes’s 2400 Jews were sent to Auschwitz, and the local Greeks were starving.