Medieval City of Rhodes
The island of Rhodes, the bride of the god Helios according to mythology, is situated in the Eastern Aegean very close to the shores of Asia Minor. The city of Rhodes was founded in 408 BC at the northernmost point of the island by the Olympic victor, Doreius, son of Diagoras. It was envisaged as the combined settlement of the three ancient cities of the island, Kamiros, Ialysos and Lindos. The ancient city, about the same size as the modern town, was built based on the street plan system of Hippodameus with straight streets in a grid and underground sewage and water installations of exceptional technique. On the Acropolis, high on the Hill of St Stephen, the Temple of Apollo Pythias dominated the scene and further north stood the stadium and the Temple of Zeus and Athena Poleos. Hellenistic Rhodes, with Colossus, fortified walls and protected harbours, was one of the most shining cities of the ancient Greek world, and an important cultural center.
With the Romans in the ascendancy, Rhodes lost her independence but, until 42 BC, she maintained her prestige as an important center of letters and science with famous schools, where famous students, like Cicero and Julius Caesar attended. From as early as the second century AD an active Christian community was developing, and according to tradition, it was St Paul who founded and taught the new religion on the island.
During the 6th century AD the enormous Hellenistic city had dwindled to about 1/3 of the present day Old City. In the middle of the 7th century Rhodes was based round the great harbour and was separated in the Byzantine acropolis, “the Castrum” and the rest of the city. Information about the island in the Mediaeval Era is very slight and relates mainly to Arab incursions and looting.
Rhodes remained part of the Christian Byzantine Empire until 1309, when she came into the hands of the Order of the Knights of St John of Jerusalem. The installation of the Knights on Rhodes and the creation of a new state, gave the island the power to escape the fate of the rest Greece, which became part of the Ottoman Empire. The re-birth of Rhodes in all sectors from trade and commerce to arts and letters through her relationship with Western Europe lasted for around 200 years. The medieval city expanded to the size of the present day Old City, separated in the Collachium – the former Byzantine acropolis which now included the Palace of the Grand Master and the famous street of the knights with the inns of the Tonques of the Order – Italy-Navarre, Provence, France-Auverne, England, Germany, Portugal, Spain-Castile-Aragon – and the Burgum, the rest of the city. Construction of prominent buildings occurred – churches like St John of the Collachium and the Virgin Mary of the Castle and the Burgum, the old and new hospital the inn of St Katherine, the Admiralty etc., as well as progressive modernization and strengthening of the fortifications, in shape and form of the Western European conception of mechanics and architecture. These eminent fortifications, still standing in their greatness, endured two major sieges by the Ottoman Empire, the first, victorious in 1480 and the second, fatal in 1522.
Rhodes remained under the Ottoman rule for almost four centuries (1522 – 1912). Apart from the fact that the Rhodians were granted certain privileges, such as freedom of religion and exemption from the forced recruitment and training of Christian boys for the Turkish army, the island fell into decline and turned into a colonized city of the Ottoman Empire. Apart of that, the city suffered some serious disasters during the second half of the 19th century: catastrophic earthquakes, the explosion of the gunpowder cache in St John of the Collachium in 1856, which flattened the surrounding area (including the Palace of the Grand Master) and the great fire of 1876.
At the beginning of the 20th century the Italians declared war on Turkey and in 1912 they occupied Rhodes. For 35 years, in a wide programme of modernization, reorganization of the administration, expansion of the city, works of public amenities and promotion of the island for tourism were put into effect. Subsequently and consequently there was an effort by the Italian occupational administration to propagandize Italy as the natural successor of the Knights of St. John. Extensive excavations brought to light important ancient monuments, monuments were restored to their mediaeval form, with the removal of later Ottoman additions and, by an Italian decree of 1920 the Old City of Rhodes and the Muslim and Jewish cemeteries round the moat were designated as a Monument Zone.
In the end of the Second World War, Rhodes and the other Dodecanese islands were officially incorporated into the Greek State in 1947. In 1948, by a decision of the General Council of the Dodecanese, many Mediaeval and later architectural monuments both inside and outside the walls were designated as “historic monuments to be conserved.” In 1960, by a ministerial decision, the entire Medieval City of Rhodes, with the walls and monuments in and around it, was declared a group of historic monuments to be conserved. Finally, in 1988 the city was included in the UNESCO catalogue as a Monument of World Cultural Heritage. In 1993 it became a founder member of the Union of Cities of World Cultural Heritage.