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History and Legend
The name of the island is often said to derive from the Greek word for a rose, ‘rhodon’, but may more probably come from the Phoenician word ‘erod’ meaning ‘a snake’. In ancient literature the island is referred to by several names, amongst them: Ophiousa (deriving again from its snakes), Aithrea, Telchinia etc. Our most ample source for the legend of the island’s origin is Pindar’s Seventh Olympian Ode—written for Diagoras of Rhodes , the Olym pic victor of 464 bc—which tells of the birth of Rhodes , daughter of Aphrodite and bride of Helios, the Sun God. Camirus, Ialysus and Lindus, the eponymous heroes of the island’s three principal cities, were their offspring.
Earliest Antiquity to Hellenistic times
Earliest finds, from the Neolithic period (especially from the area of Trianda), show that the island was under the influence of Minoan and subsequently of Mycenaean culture. Rhodes suffered considerably from the eruption of Thera in the late 16th century bc: substantial deposits of volcanic ash from the eruption have been found at a considerable depth on the northwest of the island. Already in Homer the three main cities of Rhodes are mentioned—Lindos, Ialysos and Kameiros (Iliad, II, 656). Together with Cos, Cnidos and Halicarnassus, they formed the ‘Dorian Hexapolis’ of the southwest corner of Asia Minor. Togeth er they established trade routes throughout the Mediterranean and founded colonies in the neighbouring islands and on the coasts of Asia Minor and Europe; Gela in Sicily, founded by Lindos, was one of the most significant of these. Lindos also participated in the 7th century founding of the enclave of Naucratis in Egypt; and mercenaries from the island fought for the Pharaohs on several occasions. In the 6th century bc the island’s cities were governed by ty rants. Rhodes submitted to the Persian invaders in 490 bc; but after the victory of the Greeks, it was co-opted into the Delian Confederacy in 478 bc as a subject-ally of Athens. In 412/11 bc, however, the Rhodians revolted in favour of Sparta, late in the Peloponnesian War.
The most decisive moment in the island’s ancient history was the synoecism of 408/7, in which the three cities of Ialysos, Kameiros and Lindos peacefully united to found jointly and on equal terms the new federal city of ‘Rhodes ’ which they populated with their own citizens. Strabo says that it was Hippodamus of Miletus, the most famous town-planner of Antiquity, who laid out the new city beside the group of fine natural harbours at the northern point of the island. The city soon became prosperous and prominent. At first it had an oligarchic government and remained largely loyal to Sparta, but in 395 bc a pro-Athenian faction gained supremacy and the citizens joined cause with the Athenians in defeating the Spartans at the battle of Cnidos in 394 bc. A democratic constitution was then adopted, and in 378 bc Rhodes joined the Second Athenian Confederacy. In 357 bc at the instigation of Mausolus, king of Caria, the island revolted against Athens once again. In 332 bc a Macedonian garrison was briefly (and unpopularly) installed but was expelled shortly after. In the succession wars that followed the death of Alexander the Great, the Rhodians allied themselves closely with Ptolemy I who crucially assisted them in 305/4 bc when their city was besieged by Demetrius Poliorcetes. (The Rhodians afterwards accorded divine honours to Ptolemy as their saviour—hence his epithet ‘Soter’.) Demetrius was (somewhat unusually for him) compelled to raise the siege after a year, and it is said that he was so impressed by the islanders’ valour that he left them most of his siege artillery, the proceeds from the sale of which they put to wards the cost of dedicating a 32m high (105ft) bronze statue of Helios, the island’s patron divinity. The statue, later known as the Colossus of Rhodes , was shaken down by an earthquake in 227 bc and never re-erected.
Because of its strategic position, Rhodes developed into an important centre of trade between Italy, Greece, Macedonia, Asia and Africa. It also became the princi pal naval power of the Aegean. Rhodian law, the earliest code of maritime law, was widely accepted and respected: Augustus and Justinian were both later to adopt it as a model, and a number of its provisions are still cited to day. With a population of 60,000–80,000, the city was lavishly adorned and it enjoyed an artistic golden age. Pliny claimed that the city had no fewer than 2,000 statues, many of them colossal. The great earthquake of 227 bc wrought widespread devastation, but it subsequently inspired an international programme of aid in money and talent. In its heyday the island became a beacon of civilisation: the orator Aeschines (c. 397–c. 322 bc), after his discomfiture at the hands of Demosthenes, founded at Rhodes a school of rhetoric which was later to be attended by many distinguished Romans—among them Cato, Cic ero, Julius Caesar, and Lucretius. The 3rd century bc Alexandrian poet, Apollonius, taught rhetoric at Rhodes with so much success that the Rhodians honoured him with the cognomen ‘Rhodius’.
Roman, early Christian and Byzantine times
As the Roman presence and power grew in the Aegean, Rhodes —which was rich and now, to a large degree, in dependent—was much divided between pro and anti Roman factions. The island helped Rome both in its struggle against Philip V of Macedon, leading to the defeat of the latter at Cynoscephalae in Thessaly in 197 bc, and in its war against Antiochus (III) the Great, king of Syria in 188 bc, and gained control of the Cyclades as a result of the first, and of territory in Caria and Lycia, adjacent to the island’s large and important peraea of dependent settlements, after the second. But Rhodes ’s equivocation in the Third Macedonian War brought swift Roman retribution: after the Battle of Pydna in 168 bc, she had to surrender her possessions on the mainland of Asia Minor. Two years later, her commercial supremacy ended when the Romans declared Delos a free port. In the Mithridatic wars, the island recovered some favour with Rome and successfully resisted Mithridates’ siege of the city. Sulla re stored to Rhodes some of her former possessions in Asia Minor; but the island sided with Julius Caesar in the civil war and suffered in consequence at the hands of Cassius, who plundered the city in 43 bc and captured the Rhodian fleet, effectively terminating the island’s naval power and self-sufficiency. Augustus accorded to Rhodes the title of ‘Allied City’; Vespasian incorporated the island into the Ro man Province of Asia; and under Diocletian (284–305 ad) Rhodes became the capital of the ‘Province of the Islands’.
St Paul briefly visited Rhodes in 60 ad, allegedly landing at Lindos (Acts, XXI, 1). The island appears to have had its own bishop from a very early date, who was among those who participated in the first church council in Nicaea in 325 ad. In 1274 a Metropolitan of Rhodes attended the Council of Lyons and appears as a signatory of the short lived reunion of the Eastern and Latin churches.
For Byzantium, Rhodes represented an important base for the navy it deployed against Arab expansion; but its defence was often deficient, and after 654 the island was frequently pillaged, and for a time occupied, by Saracens. Already by 1082, though, the Venetians had negotiated with Emperor Alexander Comnenus a presence on the island with significant privileges. Rhodes was also an important staging post for troops and pilgrims on the way to the Holy Land. During the Fourth Crusade, which established the Latin empire of Constantinople, Rhodes was taken over by the scion of a Byzantine naval family, Leo Gavalas, who declared the independence of the island. Within half a century the Genoese, however, were in partial control of Rhodes , and it was they, in the person of Vignolo de’ Vignoli, who came to an agreement with the refugee Knights of St John of Jerusalem jointly to invade and occupy the island.
Under the Knights of st John
The origin of the Order of the Knights of St John goes back to the foundation in 1048 of a hospital in Jerusalem, built by merchants from Amalfi for the benefit and protection of pilgrims travelling to visit the Holy Sepulchre. Their first rector, Gerard, formed the Knights into a strictly constituted religious body subject to the jurisdiction of the Patriarch of Jerusalem; but it was not long before the Order became predominantly military and the Knights were sworn to defend the Holy Sepulchre to the death and to make war on infidels wherever they were to be found. In 1191 Saladin captured Jerusalem and the Knights were evicted. They retreated to Acre, from which they were expelled a century later after a terrible siege. In 1291 they sailed to Cyprus. The period was further marred by a bitter and unresolved animosity between the Knights Hospitaller and the Knights Templar, which ended in hostilities in which the Templars prevailed. In 1306 the Hospitallers were again compelled to flee from Cyprus to Rhodes . Having in vain demanded the fief of Rhodes from the Emperor in Byzantium, they then took the island by force in 1309, after more than two years’ siege. Their possession of it was recognised and supported by the Pope.
There were three ‘horizontal’ levels or classes within the Order—knights (milites), chaplains (cappelani), and serving brothers or fighting squires (servientes armorum) who followed the knights into action; and seven ‘vertical’ divisions according to nationality—Provence, Auvergne, France, Italy, Spain (later, in 1461, subdivided into Aragon and Castile), England and Germany. These were called Langues or ‘Tongues’. Each ‘Tongue’ had a Bailiff, and its own headquarters or Auberge. The Bailiffs, under the presidency of the Grand Master who was elected for life by the Knights, formed the chapter of the Order. The modern British Order of St John of Jerusalem, founded in 1827, is effectively a later revival of the ‘Tongue’ of England.
The plan which the Knights had for Rhodes was clear and far-sighted. They set out to re-fortify the city with a thoroughness which few other cities in the world had seen, and in a way that responded to the rapidly changing realities of warfare. They were to fortify the island itself with castles, and then to further fortify the surrounding islands to the north, west and east, so as to create an impregnable ‘navy’ of islands, subordinate to the ‘flagship’ of Rhodes , riding at anchor off the coast of Turkey. They also built a powerful marine fleet which protected the island’s trade. For two fraught centuries the Knights of St John defied the Turks. They took part in the capture and later in the defence of Smyrna; and in Rhodes they withstood two great sieges—in 1444 by the Sultan of Egypt, and in 1480 by Mehmet the Conqueror. During the latter, their ‘Turcopolier’, or Commander of Light Cavalry, was an Englishman, John Kendal. As soon as Mehmet lifted his siege, the Knights set immediately about fortifying the city once again in new and ever-moreenious ways. At last, in June 1522, Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent, having captured Belgrade, turned his attention to Rhodes and at tacked the city with a force said to have numbered 100,000 men. The Knights mustered only 650, with the addition of 200 Genoese sailors, 50 Venetians, 400 Cretans and 600– 800 other inhabitants of the city. Pope Adrian VI implored the Christian princes in vain to come to their aid. The Turks blockaded the city by sea, and eventually secured the heights above it, from which they pounded the forti fications with artillery. The besieged constantly repaired the breaches in their walls: their sophisticated defences would probably have been able to endure and even outlast the Sultan’s siege. But it was human frailty instead, that was the defenders’ undoing—exhaustion, diminishing numbers, and the actions of traitors. The siege was over by Christmas of 1522, and the Sultan allowed the Knights to capitulate on honourable terms, permitting them to leave the city unhindered within two weeks. On New Years Day 1523, the Grand Master, Villiers de l’Isle Adam, sailed out of Rhodes and led his 180 surviving brethren first to Candia (Herakleion) in Crete and finally, after six years of uncertainty and peregrination, to Malta in 1530. Given the defeat that the Turks would eventually suffer at the hands of the Knights in Malta, Suleiman might well have had reason to rue his magnaminity in Rhodes .
The ottoman occupation and modern times
For nearly 400 years from 1523 until 1912, Rhodes was a provincial administrative capital of the Ottoman Empire. All churches in the city, from the smallest to the largest, were converted into mosques; and a number of fine, new Islamic religious complexes were erected. The Greeks were ousted from within the walls of the Old Town, which remained inhabited only by the Jews (in the eastern corner) and by the Turkish masters. The Greek population had to resettle in the outlying areas; but many were to emigrate over the subsequent centuries, especially to Egypt. Those who remained enjoyed a period of relative prosperity and stability in the 18th and 19th centuries.
In 1912, during their war with Turkey, the Italians captured Rhodes after a short siege; their possession of the island was only recognised by international treaty (Lausanne) in 1924. The 1920s saw an ambitious pro gramme of building and improvement in infrastructure by the Italians. But their intentions and ambitions became rapidly less benign in the late 1930s with the increasingly restrictive, Fascist policies emanating from Rome. In the latter part of the Second World War the Germans took over from the Italians. In 1945 the island was freed by British and Greek commandos, and in 1947 officially became part of the Greek State.
Postscript on Rhodian art
The notable prosperity, cosmopolitan culture and rapid expansion of the city of Rhodes after its foundation in 408/7 bc brought an influx of famous artists. Most famous of all was Lysippus of Sicyon, the sculptor attached to the court of Alexander the Great, who created on Rhodes his famous Four-horse Chariot of the Sun. A ‘School of Rhodes ’ flourished under his influence, later much lauded by Pliny (Nat. Hist., XXXIV). It included Protogenes, the painter and protege of Apelles; Chares of Lindos, creator of the Colossus of Rhodes and originator of a long tradition of bronze sculpture in the city; Bryaxis, who worked on the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus; and Philiskos, author of a group of the Muses, which was later carried off to Rome, perhaps by Crassus, and placed in the Porticus of Octavia. Inspired by Lysippus, Philiskos was especially skilled in the treatment of drapery.
During the Roman ascendancy of the 2nd and 1st centuries bc, artistic activity continued in Rhodes , although it conformed more to the taste and grandeur desired by the new commissioning masters. Rhodian sculptors made a colossal statue, 12m high, dedicated to the Roman people and placed in the Temple of Athena Polias and Zeus Polieus on the Acropolis of Rhodes . Apollonios and Tauriskos of Tralles made the virtuoso group depicting the awful revenge wrought upon Dirce by her stepsons, today known as the ‘Farnese Bull’, which was found in the Baths of Caracalla in Rome and is now in the Archaeological Museum of Naples. The group of Menelaus and Patroclus, a fragment of which survives in Rome under the name of the ‘Pasquino’, came from Rhodes . Perhaps best known of all is the Laocoon, found in 1506 near the Golden House of Nero in Rome; this group was produced in the 1st century bc by the Rhodian sculptors Agesander, Polydorus, and Athenodorus—authors also of an elaborate series of sculptural groups on Homeric themes found in the Grotto of Sperlonga, to the south of Rome.
Byzantine and mediaeval
With the arrival of the Knights of St John, who natural ly favoured the styles of their own native countries, the art of Rhodes soon feels the influence of Western styles: French and Catalan Gothic features predominate in architecture and Italian in painting. Up until around 1480, the Knights depended on local labour which was unfamiliar with the Gothic style, and a certain awkwardness ensues as the artesans try to reconcile the new style with the older Byzantine elements that were familiar to them. After 1480, especially under the aegis of the energetic Grand Master, Pierre d’Aubusson (1476–1503), Western craftsman were more widely employed. The Gothic character of the work remains, but the forms are more harmonious, the execution more delicate, and the decoration more appealing. The style promoted by the Knights remains predominantly austere, as befits a military order; but it is not with out some elements of considerable beauty. The door and window-frames of the period are a rich field of study in themselves, and even the simplest carved string-course of a facade can be a thing of beauty.
Ottoman and modern
Many of the Ottoman monuments on the island remark ably have survived, and are now the object of concerted conservation. The sophistication, both decorative and architectural, of two of the 16th century mosques in particular—that of Recep Pasha, and the Suleimaniye—show that architects of considerable talent, probably from the capital, were brought to Rhodes at the beginning of the Turkish occupation. There are also gateways, houses and many finely carved, Ottoman marble water-fountains both in Rhodes and around the island. The prosperity of the last years of the Turkish presence is characterised by the construction of a number of substantial mansions; some are typically Ottoman in design such as that near the church of St George on Menandrou Street, some are purely neoclassical in design and were largely built by the Greek community in the New Town and in the fashion able areas of Trianda, Kremasti, and Koskinou, while yet others are a hybrid of the two styles, such as the imposing Hadji Halil mansion of 1880/90 on Pythagora Street. Rhodes also has the oldest, surviving Synagogue in Greece dating from 1575.
Ottoman motifs and ideas permeate the decorative arts of the island of the last three centuries—nowhere more than in what is called ‘Rhodian’ or ‘Lindos Ware’. The exquisite ceramic production of the Turkish workshops of Iznik first came to the island with the Ottoman masters in the 16th century. By the 17th century, a gamut of new images began to supplement the traditional floral designs— amongst them images of fully rigged ships. These became popular with Greek traders and mariners, who decorated their houses with large displays of such plates. Even though much of this production still came from Iznik it self or from i‡anakkale, local imitations and variants were produced, in particular at Lindos.
The island’s latest architectural flowering came with the Italians in the 1920s. The Master Plan for their ‘regional capital’ of Rhodes foresaw the restoration of the city of the Knights to its former glory in such a way that it would be an appropriate theatrical backdrop to the new, planned, administrative centre outside the walls to its north. For this new creation, a group of talented Italian architects— Florestano di Fausto, Rodolfo Petracco, Armando Bernabiti and Pietro Lombardi—laid out and designed a wide variety of buildings in an architectural language which juxtaposed historical references to a Roman and Venetian and Hospitaller past with some entirely new elements and forms. The buildings included residences, churches, banks, theatres, offices, clubs, recreation facilities, an aquarium and a thermal baths complex. The result is unusual, and never monotonous. Only in the late 1930s, with the rapid deterioration of the situation in Italy, did the architecture take on a more brutal form, in which former decorative elements were ‘purged’ from its surfaces—ignominiously ending what was a promising architectural experiment.
Rhodes Island is part of the Dodecanese Island Group, Greece.