The splendours of Rhodes

The island of Rhodes is rich in history, with a variety of museums, art galleries, and archaeological sites to visit.

Josho Brouwers

Rhodes is the largest of the Greek Dodecanese islands a little off the coast of Turkey. Its shape resembles the head of a spear. The island is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Europe, but don’t let that dissuade you from visiting it.

When my girlfriend and I were there in late August and early September of 2013 (about four years ago to date!), there were plenty of people about, but in the museums and on the archaeological sites there were hardly any crowds at all. A lot of people, in fact, seem mostly to hang around the beaches and some of the more touristy resorts.

A brief history of Rhodes

In ancient times, there were three major cities on the island of Rhodes: Lindus, Ialysus, and Cameirus. Towards the end of the fifth century BC, the major cities came together to build a new capital named after the island. This new city had a regular plan, as most new-built Greek cities were wont to have. The island experienced some political turmoil as first the Carians and then the Persians briefly controlled it in the fourth century BC, before Alexander embarked on his own campaign of conquest.

One of Alexander’s greatest opponents was Memnon of Rhodes (380–333 BC), who served as commander of the Greek mercenaries under Persian king Darius III. He led the mercenaries at the Battle of the Granicus River in May of 334 BC, but was defeated by the Macedonians. Among the Greek historians, Memnon assumes the well-known role of the counselor whose sage advice is ignored by the haughty Persian king, with the understanding that if Memnon had actually got his way, Alexander’s campaign would have ended in failure. Memnon eventually succumbed to disease in Mytilene.

After Alexander’s death, Rhodes eventually formed an alliance with the Ptolemies in Egypt. Antigonus Monophthalmus (“Antigonus the One-Eyed”) directed his son, Demetrius, to besiege Rhodes in 305 BC in an attempt to break this alliance. He failed and a peace treaty was signed in 304 BC. To mark the occasion, the Rhodians took the equipment left behind by Demetrius, sold it, and used the proceeds to build a giant statue of the sun god, Helius, who served as the city’s patron deity. According to ancient writers, the statue was approximately 33 metres tall, or about the same height as the Statue of Liberty.

The Colossus was counted as one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world. An earth quake in 226 BC toppled the statue and it was never rebuilt. The idea has been floated a few times to rebuild the Colossus, but nothing has come of this so far. We also don’t know precisely where the statue was originally positioned, except that it stood at the entrance to the city’s main harbour. The well-known image of the Colossus standing astride the harbour entrance, with ships passing between his legs, is strictly fantasy:

A fanciful reconstruction of the Colossus of Rhodes. It actually stood off to one side of the harbour; ships would not have passed between its legs.

The island managed to remain independent, but eventually the Romans were pulled into the struggles in the Aegean. During the Third Macedonian War, Rhodes was ostensibly neutral, but still seemed in the eyes of the Romans to be more favourably disposed towards the Macedonian king Perseus. Eventually, it became clear that it was better to be friend to Rome, and Rhodes became an ally in 164 BC, essentially surrendering its independence.

Museums and sites

Today, the first thing you’ll notice as you go into the centre of Rhodes are the many medieval remains. Indeed, the Medieval Old Town of Rhodes has been declared a World Heritage Site, and gives a good idea of what the city must have been like during the Middle Ages. Many of the buildings and the walls date from the fourteenth century, when the city was rebuilt by the Knights of Rhodes (originally Knights Hospitaller).

The strong walls managed to withstand assaults by the Turks for a long time, but the city eventually fell to Suleiman the Magnificent in 1522. As in other places in Greece, all of the different nations that at various controlled the island have left their mark, so as you wander the city you’ll notice influences that range from ancient times to the modern ear, with Byzantine, Islamic, and Italian architecture particularly noticeable.

A street in the Old Town of Rhodes.

The city of Rhodes has a beautiful archaeological museum with a large collection of artefacts, including objects from other cities and towns on the islands. Particularly impressive are the objects recovered from ancient tombs, which include various examples of red- and black-figure pots with figurative decorations. Within Rhodes, you can visit the remains of a Hellenistic wall and the site of the city’s acropolis, which features the Temple of Pythian Apollo, an ancient theatre, and a stadium.

The stadium on the acropolis of Rhodes.

But the island has plenty more to offer when you go outside of the city. I would recommend you rent a car for at least one day and tour the island’s major archaeological sites. In one day, we managed to the ancient sites of Ialysos (Ialysus) and Kamiros (Cameirus), and also visited the ruins of Krinias Castle. Ialysos mostly features Byzantine remains, but there’s also the remains of an older Athenian temple, and if you carefully examine the stones used for the walls you’ll find some ancient marble wedged in there.

A view of the ancient site of Kamiros.

Above is a view across the site of ancient Kamiros. As you can see, a lot of the site has been excavated and you can actually wander the streets of the ancient town. The remains of the walls that you see here are probably just the stone sockles of the original houses; you’d probably have to imagine them being topped by mudbrick superstructures, with the entire surface plastered over and gleaming white in the sun, topped with roofs covered in red tiles. The view is nothing short of spectacular.

If you’re not sure of where to go to for your next holiday, give Rhodes a try!