The island of Rhodes is located at the crossroads of two major sea routes of the Mediterranean between the Aegean Sea and the coast of the Middle East, as well as Cyprus and Egypt. The meeting point of three continents, it has known many civilizations. Throughout its long history the different people who settled on Rhodes left their mark in all aspects of the island culture: art, language, architecture. Its strategic position brought to the island great wealth and made the city of Rhodes one of the leading cities of the ancient Greek world.
Rhodes is the largest island in the Dodecanese. Its capital city, located at its northern tip, is the capital of the Prefecture with the Medieval Town in its centre. In 1988 the Medieval Town was designated as a World Heritage City. The Medieval Town of Rhodes is the result of different architectures belonging to various historic eras, predominantly those of the Knights of St. John.
The island was inhabited as early as the late Neolithic period (4000 B.C.). In 408 B.C. the three major cities of the island - Ialyssos, Kamiros and Lindos - founded the city of Rhodes. The three centuries that followed were the golden age of Rhodes. Sea trade, skilled shipbuilders, and the careful and open-minded political and diplomatic maneuvers of the city kept it strong and prosperous until Roman times.
In the same period, Rhodes produced excellent artistic work. The most celebrated of all was the Colossus, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, made between 304 and 293 B.C. by the Lyndian sculptor Hares. The construction of the Colossus took 12 years and was finished in 282 BC. For years, the statue, representing their sun god Helios, stood at the harbor entrance, until a strong earthquake hit Rhodes about 226 BC. The city was badly damaged, and the Colossus was demolished.
The urban plan of ancient Rhodes reflects directly the urban and philosophical ideas of the famous ancient Greek planner, Hippodamus. The street plan of the ancient city is known due to decades of archaeological excavations. The building blocks (insulae) measure 47.70X26.50 m and all have the same dimensions. They included 3 houses each and were surrounded by streets 5-6 meters wide. Greater units constituted areas surrounded by wider streets (8-11 meters). Every area included 36 insulae or 108 houses. The ancient city had an extended and well-constructed sewage system as well as a water supply network
The independence of the city came to an end in 164 B.C. when Rhodes became a Province of the Roman Empire. But even as late as the 1st century A.D. Rhodes preserved much of its splendour and developed into one of the greatest centers of learning, science and the arts. Apart from the surviving written sources, the archaeological research which continues to this day gives us a clear idea of the level of civilization during this period.
During the early Christian period (330-650 A.D.), Rhodes belonged to the eastern part of the Christianized Roman Empire, which is known in history as the Byzantine Empire. Though less significant and prosperous than before, the city was the See of a Bishop and had a great number of churches, among them some basilicas of impressive dimensions. It was also an important military base.
The Arabs, who appeared or the first time in the Mediterranean in the 7th century, attacked Rhodes and occupied it for some decades. The city shrank during the following centuries and was fortified with new walls. At the same time it was divided into two zones, one reserved for the political and military leadership and the other where the laymen lived, a division that reflects the social reality of medieval times. Due to lack of written sources we have little information concerning this period. The restoration work of the Italians neglected or even harmed surviving buildings in favour of the Knights period.
In 1309 the island was sold to the Order of the Knights Hospitaliers of Saint John of Jerusalem. The Order was established in the 12th century in Jerusalem for the purpose of nursing pilgrims and crusaders, but soon enough it was transformed into a combat unit and acquired vast tracts of land. Having retreated from Jerusalem and then Cyprus, the Order established its Headquarters on Rhodes, taking a leading role in the Eastern Mediterranean at this time.
During the Knights era the fortifications were extended, modernized and continuously reinforced. Á hospital, a palace and several churches were among the many public buildings constructed at that time, offering interesting examples of Gothic and Renaissance architecture. Én spite of the hostilities with the Ottoman Empire, sea trade was a source of wealth and the markets of the city were thriving. Under the Knights, the island had a period of prosperity and the relations between them and the local population was characterized by tolerance and often by close collaboration. Most of the streets of the Medieval Town coincided with those of the ancient city. The division of the town into two parts was retained. in Rhodes the Order kept a well-organized archive that included documents issued by its leadership, correspondence, notary acts, etc. The archive has survived and is found today in the National Library of Malta. It constitutes a valuable source of information for the period.
The city was divided into its two parts by an inner wall. The Northern part, known as Chastel, Chateau, Castrum, Castellum or Conventus, was the site of the Grand Masters Palace, the church of the Knights, the Latin Cathedral, the Catholic Bishop’s residence, the various tongues” quarters, the Knights houses, a hospital etc. The South part, known as ville, burgus or burgum was the area where the laymen lived and included the market, synagogues, churches and public and commercial buildings.
In 1522 the Ottoman Turks conquered the city after a second long siege. New buildings were constructed: mosques, public baths and mansions for the new patrons. The Greeks were forced to abandon the fortified city and move to new suburbs outside its walls. In the Ottoman era Rhodes lost its international character. The city maintained its main economic function as a market for the agricultural products of the interior of the island and the surrounding small islands.
After the establishment of their sovereignty ïn the island, the Ottoman Turks repaired the damaged fortifications, converted most of the churches into mosques and transformed the major houses into private mansions or public buildings. This transformation was a long-term process that aimed to adapt the buildings to the Ottoman way of living. The Knights’ period facades with their sculptured decorations, the arched gates and hewn stone walls were enriched with the random character of the Ottoman architecture adapted to the local climate and culture. Én this process most ïf the architectural features of the existing buildings were preserved. The most characteristic additions were the baths (usually in the back of the buildings) and the enclosed wooden balconies ïn the facades over the narrow streets.In this this way most of the buildings of the Hospitaliers period in the Medieval Town were well preserved. The result was a mixture of oriental architecture with imposing western architectural remains and more recent buildings, which were characteristic of the local architecture of the time. Én the l9th century the decline of the Ottoman Empire resulted in the general neglect of the town and its buildings, which further deteriorated due to the strong earthquakes that often plague the area.
Italian troops took over the island and the rest of the Dodecanese in 1912 and in 1923 Italy established a colony Isole Italiane del Egeo. The Italians demolished the houses that had been built on and beside the walls during the Ottoman era and turned the Jewish and Ottoman cemeteries into a "green zone" surrounding the Medieval Town. They preserved the remains of the Knights period and removed all the Ottoman additions and also reconstructed the Grand Masters Palace. In addition, they established an Institute for the study of the History and Culture of the region. The Italians undertook extensive infrastructure works (roads, electricity, port, etc.) and radically transformed the town of Rhodes, which was supplied with a new urban plan, building regulations and many new public and private buildings.
The English bombs that fell on the medieval city of Rhodes in 1944 claimed human lives and destroyed a great number of buildings, leaving large gaps in the urban tissue. One of the first Decrees of the Greek administration designated those areas as reserved for future excavations and a number of edifices as safeguarded buildings. In 1957, a new city plan was approved by a Decree and in 1960 the entire medieval town was designated as a protected monument by the Ministry of Culture. In 1961 and 1963 new Decrees were issued concerning the new city plan. They provided for the widening of existing streets and the opening of new ones. These were not implemented in the old city due to the resistance of the Archaeological Service. In 1988, the old town of Rhodes was designated as a World Heritage City by UNESCO.