Basking in perpetual sunshine, Rhodes is one of the most favoured islands in Greece. Weather apart, there are many good reason to visit but topping the list is Medieval Rhodes town itself. Founded in 408BC and now encircled within 8miles (13km) of sturdy walls, the town has been home to many over the centuries but it is the Knights of St John who left the visible marks now admired by all.
Knights of St John.
The order of the Knights of St John, like the Templars and the Teutonic order emerged from the Crusades. Originally the Knights were a religious and charitable order evolving from a hospice dedicated to St John the Baptist founded by Italian merchants in the eleventh century. Their duties related to the care of Christian pilgrims visiting Jerusalem and they were known as Hospitallers. After the first Crusade, the Hospitallers became more actively involved in the wars against the Moslems and emerged with a military order to extend their protective role beyond nursing and care. It evolved into a structured organisation with the knights representing the military wing, the brothers in charge and the nursing care and the clergy for spiritual matters. In 1291, with the eventual failure of the crusades, the Knights lost their headquarters at Ptolemais in northern Palestine and took refuge in Cyprus. A relatively short time later, in 1306 they bought Rhodes, Kos and Leros from the Genoan admiral Vignolo and three years later they were firmly established on Rhodes.
With the need to defend themselves, the Knights indulged in considerable building activity and rebuilt Rhodes town in such a robust style that it stands hardly changed to this present day. The Acropolis at Lindos was converted to a stronghold and other castles were built around the island, notably at Monolithos, Archangelos, Kritinia, Feraclos and Asklipion. Watchtowers were built around the whole coast and kept manned. The chain of defence against the east stretched to other islands and castles were also built on neighbouring islands including Halki, Symi, Tilos, Nisiros, Kos, Kalymnos and Leros.
Under the protection of the Knights, the native Rhodians were generally loyal but had little political power. Their numbers were swelled by immigrant craftsmen mainly from Spain, Italy and France who were skilled in shipbuilding, engineering, architecture and even in banking. With the Jews being expelled from Spain, a large population built up on Rhodes where they settled in the south-east section of the city.
When the fleet sent by Mohammed II the Conqueror besieged the city in 1480, it was successfully defended by the Knights under the Great Magister Pierre d'Aubusson. Later, in 1522, when besieged by an even greater force under Sultan Suleiman II, the Magnificent, the Knights held out for six months before finally capitulating and leaving for Malta. Rhodes remained under Turkish rule until 1912.
Rhodes town today
The old and the new towns stand in such contrast. Prepare for an assault on the senses on entering the old town. The stoic grandeur of the medieval fortress-like buildings seem at odds with the narrow alleyways and homespun architecture of the houses. Graceful minarets, rickety balconies, tranquil squares with fountains and shady trees still exude an oriental air. Turkish influences are all around with blue glass eyes to ward off evil, Turkish delight simply renamed loukouma on sale and restaurants offering a cuisine which owes as much to the Turks as it does to the Greeks..
A visit to all or some museums is usually on everyone's list and there is a money-saving ticket available which gives entry to four of the main museums in the old town. Even if ancient remains do not excite, the Museum of Decorative Arts with its insight into life during the past couple of hundred years, will interest all the family. If time is pressing, and there is only time for one museum visit, save it for the Palace of the Grand Masters. The Exhibition of Archaeological Excavations, displaying finds from Prehistoric to Hellenistic times is clear, informative and above all fascinating. The Palace closes at 3pm and admittance to the museum stops at 2.30pm but the exhibition demands much longer than half an hour.
Out in the modern city, there are shops enough to delight the 'shopaholics', with plenty of High Street names and designer labels around. The old market with its shops and cafés leading through to the picturesque Mandraki harbour is worth a few moments.