The Old Town of Rhodes

This is an excerpt from the book Travels through History : 9 Greek Islands , newly available on Amazon.

Most travellers to Rhodes, the largest of the Dodecanese Islands, visit the Old Town of Rhodes and the ancient town of Lindos with its acropolis dating from the 6th-Century BCE. It may come as a surprise to learn that Lindos is around 500 years older than Rhodes Town and that Lindos was instrumental, along with two other city states on Rhodes – Kameiros and Ialyssos, in the founding of Rhodes Town, which became the capital of the island in 408BCE.

These four city states then allied themselves with the strongest military and political powers of the times. This nimble diplomacy lead to burgeoning wealth and importance as evidenced by the building of the Colossus of Rhodes in 304BCE. One of the seven wonders of the ancient world, this massive statue stood for approximately 80 years before being toppled by an earthquake. Economic decline set in when Rhodes became involved in the break-up of the 1st Roman triumvirate when the island was sacked by Cassius Longinus in 43BCE. During the next thousand years, Rhodes was passed from the Byzantines to the Genoese, who then handed over control to the Knights of St John in 1309. The Knights used Rhodes as their main base until ousted by the Ottoman Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent in a long siege between 1522 – 1523. As part of the Ottoman Empire, Rhodes fell into obscurity once again until the island was seized by the Italians in 1912.

Visiting the old town of Rhodes is a memorable experience as there are historical sights from different eras rubbing shoulders with each other at every turn. Most of the old town is medieval and was built in the 14th Century by the Knights Hospitaller. The old town became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1988 and is an incredibly popular place to visit. Indeed, when a cruise ship arrives in the harbour, avoid the main arterial streets, Sokratous and Ippoton, and head south into the warren of cobbled alleys where there are fewer shops and restaurants, and discover the many interesting sights of this area, not all of which are mentioned in guidebooks.

Starting in the north-west of the Old Town, the first major sight the visitor comes across is the Palace of the Grand Masters, which was rebuilt by the Italians after an ammunition explosion destroyed the original building in 1856. The idea was that the reconstructed Palace would be an ideal place for Mussolini to spend time during the summer, but he never came near the place. The outside appearance is true to the original building, as authentic medieval plans were used in the reconstruction, but the same can’t be said for the inside, which was designed to make a Fascist dictator feel at home.

If you’d like to read more, the book Travels through History : 9 Greek Islands is newly available on Amazon.

Symi

This is an excerpt from the book Travels through History : 9 Greek Islands , newly available on Amazon.

In Homer’s Iliad Symi is mentioned as the domain of King Nireus, who fought in the Trojan War on the side of the Greeks and Thucydides writes that during the Peloponnesian War there was a Battle of Syme near the island in January, 411 BC, in which an unspecified number of Spartan ships defeated a squadron of Athenian vessels. Little else is known of the island until the 14th century, but archaeological evidence indicates it was continuously inhabited, and ruins of citadels suggest it was an important location.

Like many Greek Islands, Symi was first part of the Roman Empire and then the Byzantine Empire. However, unlike many Greek Islands, Symi was conquered by the Knights of St. John in 1373. This conquest fuelled by the Knights’ interest in shipping and commerce, launched what was to be a period of several centuries of prosperity for Symi, as its location made it an important waypoint for trade until the advent of steam-powered shipping in the 19th century.

The island was conquered in 1522 by the Ottomans (along with Rhodes) but it was allowed to retain many of its privileges, so the prosperity continued virtually uninterrupted. Symi was noted for its sponges which provided much of its wealth. It attained the height of its prosperity in the mid-19th century, which is why so many of the mansions covering the slopes of Symi Town date from that period.

Although Symiots took part in the Greek War of Independence of 1821–1829, Symi was left out of the new Greek state when its borders were drawn up and so remained under Ottoman rule. Symi, along with the rest of the Dodecanese, changed hands several times in the 20th century: in 1912 the Dodecanese declared independence from the Ottomans as the Federation of the Dodecanese Islands, though they were almost immediately occupied by Italy. The island was formally ceded to Italy in 1923, and on 12 October 1943 it was occupied by the Nazis. At the end of World War II, the surrender of German forces in the region took place on Symi and the island was subject to several years of occupation by the British. Symi finally became part of Greece in 1948.

Arriving at Symi Town is the loveliest way to begin any visit to a Greek Island. The bay has low hills on all sides and on those hills are stacked differently coloured ochre Italianate mansions, each one a slightly shade to its neighbour. The slope of the hills means these mansions appear in neat rows above one another, leaving the visitor spellbound by the man-made beauty. Added to this are lines of sail boats, small ferries, and large yachts bobbing rhythmically on the swell by the quay.

The wealth of Symi has been based on sponge diving and shipbuilding. Indeed just over a hundred years ago, these two industries meant more people lived in Symi Town than lived in nearby Rhodes Town. Symi has always been famed for its shipbuilding and legend has it that Symi provided 3 ships for the Greeks in the Trojan War. Nowadays tourism is the main earner, with enough expats staying on the island to allow some businesses to remain open all year round. Some of the houses built in the last two centuries have fallen into disrepair and the more you explore, the more ruins you will find.

If you’d like to read more, the book Travels through History : 9 Greek Islands is newly available on Amazon.

Patmos

This is an excerpt from the book Travels through History : 9 Greek Islands , newly available on Amazon.

The island of Patmos has been inhabited since 3,000 BC, but the identity of those first inhabitants has not been conclusively proved. Some believe that the Kares, and the Leleges were the first settlers, others believe the Dorians were the first inhabitants, followed by the Ionians. Finds have excavated various buildings, cemeteries, fortresses and evidence of an ancient acropolis, testifying the existence of a densely populated area in the past, but no one can conclusively prove who built it.

During the Peloponnesian Wars, the Lacedemonians came to the island to escape from the Athenians and there are ruins that show a flourishing island during this period. However, Patmos started to decline when the Romans conquered it and used the island as a place of exile for convicts.

It was in these circumstances that St John the Divine or St John the Evangelist was exiled to Patmos from Ephesus in 95AD by the Roman Emperor Domitian. It’s said St John wrote his Gospel on Patmos, but his exile here is better remembered for his authorship of the last book of The Bible, The Book of Revelations. St John heard the voice of God and dictated the words to his scribe Prohoros in a cave on the island. The imagery provided by Revelations has been used ever since in frescoes to depict to people what will happen to them if they don’t believe in God and don’t follow the path of the righteous.

The Whore of Babylon, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, and the Seven Trumpets that will sound to cue apocalyptic events are all depicted in Revelation. This book was sent to the Seven Churches of Asia Minor before John was allowed to return home.

A thousand years later the cave used by St John was enclosed within a chapel, which is now visited by hundreds of people on a daily basis as part of the Apokalypsis monastery. The chapel and cave together comprise an area not much more than ten metres square, with a central rock pillar that manages to divide the whole area roughly into two areas of about the same size. The first area nearer the entrance is where visitors stand and look around the chapel. The second area, closer to the icons at the front of the chapel, is where services take place and where people attending those services stand. My advice is to get there early so you can soak some of the atmosphere and have a good look at what there is to see namely, a small opening in the rock, outlined by beaten silver, where St John is said to have rested his head every night and a smaller gap in the rock, also outlined by beaten silver, which St John used to haul himself up in the morning after lying on the cave floor.

I was lucky enough to see a Greek Orthodox service at the Apokalypsis monastery, only attended by local people. The priest wore a white ‘dress’ decorated with Greek crosses. He had a large, bushy grey beard and his hair was a similar colour. He spent most of the service in an inner room chanting while two men, members of the congregation not garbed in priestly attire but definitely part of the service, on the opposite side of the inner half of the chapel were counterpoint to his chants. People attending the service had lit candles when coming in to the chapel, but these were replaced every 10 minutes by one of the two men helping to run the service, who would replace each thrown-away candle with a new one. There were a few chairs in the inner part of the chapel and there was no music, the only sounds were the three human voices.

If you’d like to read more, the book Travels through History : 9 Greek Islands is newly available on Amazon.

Samos

This is an excerpt from the book Travels through History : 9 Greek Islands , newly available on Amazon.

I had arrived at the town of Pythagorio on the ferry from Patmos. Pythagorio is the Samian destination for ferries from the Dodecanese Islands. The port of Vathy on the northern side of Samos is the terminus for ferries to the other Aegean Islands, whereas Karlovassi towards the western end of Samos is the place to catch ferries to the Cyclades. There’s more to Samos than meets the eye and the coast of Turkey is only about two miles away to the east.

Visiting the area around Pythagorio I was struck at how many of the substantial ruins didn’t have any written explanation as to their origin. There’d be a small acropolis in the middle of a field, a large section of town wall by the roadside, or a Roman baths close to a hotel, with no information as to their age or significance. The irony is that the best known ancient site, the Heraion a UNESCO listed World Heritage Sight, whilst extensive, has only one heavily restored column to give the place a sense of perspective and depth.

Walking around the ancient harbour of Pythagorio, parts of which are 2,600 years old, the visitor soon comes to a statue of Pythagoras, who was born i the area around 574 BCE. He was one of a number of intellectuals – Aesop, Aristarchus, and Epicurus were others – who thrived on Samos during the prosperous reign of the tyrant Polycrates in the 6th Century BCE. With the rise of the Athenian city state and the killing of Polycrates by the Persians, Samos declined and never reached the same heights again, becoming part of the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires before joining the Greek state in 1912.

The Archaeological Museum in Pythagorio has two floors and an extensive outdoor section where the walls, dwellings, and temples of Ancient Samos can be viewed from a raised walkway. Indoors my highlights from the collection include 7 terracotta dolls dating from 500 BCE, a vase in the shape of a running hare, grave stele with palmettes on top, a large marble sarcophagus in the shape of a temple, a large status of the Roman Emperor Trajan, and a hoard of 300 gold Byzantine coins found in a bronze jug.

At the western end of Pythagorio, right by the shoreline, is the castle built by a local strongman Lykourgos Logothetis in the 19th Century. Next door are the ruins of a very early Christian church. From the castle, the visitor can walk westwards along the path towards the Doryssa resort and pass many ruins along the way including an acropolis, former town walls, and Roman baths.

Heading back into town, walking up the hill and then taking another road out of Pythagorio in a westerly direction, I came to the Panayia Spillani monastery and the attraction here, other than the cats lying on piles of carpets, is the subterranean shrine to the Virgin Mary, found about 100 yards inside a cave. The miniature church is impressively manicured despite the permanently damp conditions. This cave was also the place where the priestess Phyto – known as the Samian Sibyl – gave out prophecies including one prediction of the birth of Jesus in a stable. Further along the same road, passing an ancient theatre still used for performances, is the entrance to the Efpalinio Orygma.

This ancient aqueduct is 1036 metres long and was built by Eupalinos of Megara on the orders of Polycrates, using slave labour. The tunnel was dug through solid rock by two sets of slaves starting at opposite sides of the hill and working towards each other. The whole venture was a success and the aqueduct provided the town with running water until Byzantine times.

If you’d like to read more, the book Travels through History : 9 Greek Islands is newly available on Amazon.

Syros

The first historical mention of Syros is made by Homer, who named the island as “Syria” and then referred to it as “dipolis”, meaning it had two cities: Posidonia and Foinikas. The first known inhabitants were the Phoenicians during the second millennium BCE followed by the Minoans, Mycenaeans, and finally, in the early part of the first millennium BCE, the Ionians.

Ancient Ermoupolis was built by the Ionians, who then gave way to Persian invaders, Romans, Franks and Turks. The people who left the biggest impression on the city were the Venetians, who made Syros an important commercial centre of the Eastern Mediterranean. Repeated raids by pirates, forced the residents to relocate the capital up the hill to Ano Syros. Presumably the residents thought the pirates were either unfit or just plain lazy.

When the island was conquered by the French, Capuchins monks settled in Syros in 1635 and founded a small monastery still open to this day. In 1744, Jesuit monks arrived on the island.

At the beginning of the Greek War of Independence, the island’s population was about 4,000 residents mainly in the settlement of Ano Syros. After the massacre of Chios in 1822 and the persecution of Greeks on Samos, Rhodes, and in Smyrna, amongst many others, there was a large wave of refugees to Syros. Refugees found Syros to be a relatively safe place and started to build a vibrant city with impressive buildings at the foot of the hills below Ano Syros.

In 1828 there were 14,000 inhabitants in Ermoupolis, making it the the largest urban centre in Greece. Very quickly, Ermoupolis became the largest industrial and commercial centre of “free” Greece, reaching 20.000 inhabitants in 1850 and 22,000 in 1899.

Arriving at Ermoupolis, the capital of Syros and of all The Cyclades and known as “The Queen of the Aegean”, I couldn’t help but be impressed by the loveliness of this town that stretched up the hillsides towards the blue sky. Ermoupolis used to be the busiest port in the whole of Greece and a centre for shipbuilding. The wealth generated by all this commerce manifests itself in the stateliness of the mansions all around and in the number of large churches dotted across the town.

My hotel was the former home of the architect Georgios Vitalis and was located about a third of the way up the Vrondadho hill, just behind the Orthodox Cathedral or Mitropolis. In Syros, the orthodox population tends to live in the lower part of Ermoupolis whereas the Catholics live in the upper town and in the villages of the island.

The Plateia Miaouli is the centre of the town, a large open square, surrounded on three sides by palm trees, cafes, and benches for people watching. This is the place where the local population goes to be seen. The square is dominated on the land side by the glorious, neoclassical town hall, designed by Ernst Ziller. The square and accompanying statue are named after the Hydriot naval hero Andreas Vokos, whose nickname was Miaoulis. He commanded Greek naval forces during the Greek War of Independence between 1821 and 1829.

If you’d like to read more, the book Travels through History : 9 Greek Islands is newly available on Amazon.

Tinos

This is an excerpt from the book Travels through History : 9 Greek Islands , newly available on Amazon.

The first inhabitants of Tinos were probably the Phoenicians, followed by the Ionians in the 11th century BCE. Two tombs from the Mycenaean period have been discovered in the area of Kyra Xeni, and about fifty archaeological sites in the area of Xombourgo.

The island came under the authority of the Persians in 490 BCE, but the inhabitants rapidly regained their freedom after the battle of Marathon ten years later. Tinos became a member of the Delian Alliance, which was dominated by Athens, and instituted democracy. In 386 BC, the island became independent.

Tinos soon came under the authority of Philip of Macedonia. After the death of his son Alexander the Great, the island was ruled by the Egyptian Ptolemies, the successors of Alexander the Great. In the 2nd century BC, Tinos, with all the other islands and the mainland of Greece, became a part of the Roman Empire.

During Byzantine times, the inhabitants moved from the seaside to the interior of the island in order to protect themselves from the many devastating pirate raids. One of the few things known about Tinos during the Byzantine times is that it was a time of epidemics, fear, and insecurity for the island.

Tinos is recommended for those people who want to visit an island in The Cyclades that has more visitors from the rest of Greece than non-Greek visitors. Tinos is the most important Orthodox centre of worship in Greece but is also an important Catholic centre too, due to the Venetians holding out against the Turks until 1715, a lot longer than the rest of Greece. This mixture of religions is so rare in Greece and gives the island a particular character.

The main reason for the influx of Greek visitors is the church at the top of the hill in Tinos Town. The Panayia Evangelistra was built on the spot where an amazing icon was found in 1822 by a local nun, Ayia Pelayia. The nun is now the ‘patron saint’ of Tinos. The timing couldn’t have been better as the Greek War of Independence had only started the previous year and the ‘chance’ discovery served to reinforce the relationship between the Greek Orthodox Church and the cause of Greek independence from Turkey.

In the church today, visitors can still pay homage to the icon, even though it’s well hidden beneath a layer of jewels and other gifts. Some pilgrims ascend the plush, red-carpeted stairs to the church on their knees, symbolising the veneration the icon can generate in some believers. In the crypt there’s a mausoleum to the sailors who were killed when the Greek cruiser, Elli, was torpedoed by an Italian submarine when she was at anchor of Tinos in 1940. There’s another memorial to this ship on the waterfront about three hundred yards to the east of the ferry terminal. The tragedy was that the Elli was taking part in the celebrations of the Feast of the Assumption when she was torpedoed and no one was on lookout as Greece was still at peace with the Fascist states of Northern Europe.

Tinos is renowned throughout Greece for the excellence of their craftsmen in producing marble ornamentation and this is particularly evident in the town of Pyrgos with its School of Fine Arts and Museum of Marble Crafts. Tinos is also famous for its dovecotes – there’s even a dovecote trail to follow if you hire a car.  I’d heard a village called Tarambados had a great selection of dovecotes, so I caught the bus to the interior and got off at the village. There was no one around, but I saw at least five dovecotes in the mid-distance and sure enough there were soon some signs, which took me by streams, through fields, and along walls. The fields were full of vegetables and the hedges and low trees were full of the sounds of insects, especially bees who were attracted by the copious wild flowers. The dovecotes were bigger than the houses in the village and were attractively decorated with intricate triangles, circles, and honeycomb patterns.

When the Fourth Crusade lurched violently out of control and sacked and captured Constantinople in 1204, instead of heading to the Holy Land, the ramifications for Tinos were enormous. The island was no longer part of the Byzantine Empire and instead was ruled by a private Venetian citizen named Andrea Ghisi, who captured the island in 1207, along with his brother Jeremiah. One of their first moves was to erect fortifications on the Exobourgo Mountain, making it a stronghold. The “Castle of Saint Helen” as it was called, took its name from a chapel on the peak.

If you’d like to read more, the book Travels through History : 9 Greek Islands  is newly available on Amazon.

Paros

This is an excerpt from the book Travels through History : 9 Greek Islands , newly available on Amazon.

In around 1600 BCE, it was the Minoans from Crete who had the first recorded presence on Paros, tuning the island into a naval station with the name of Minoa. In 1100 BC, the Ionians became rulers of the island destroying the Minoan civilization on the island though traces can still be seen in the Mycenaean Acropolis near Kolimbithres.

In 1000 BC, Paros was taken by the Arcadians and became a power in the region, creating a colony on the island of Thassos. There was a cultural flourishing too with the construction of many temples, like a temple dedicated to goddess Athena (some of the columns from which can be seen to this day in the Kastro in Parikia) and the healing centre of Asklepieion.

Paros is the birthplace of many ancient poets such as the lyrical poet Archilochus, the first to use personal elements rather than heroic ones in his poetry. During ancient times, Paros was famous for its high quality semi-transparent marble, from the Marathi Quarries. This marble was used for the Temple of Apollo on Delos, the Venus of Milos (in the Louvre in Paris), and the statue of Hermes, by Praxiteles, at Olympia.

During the wars with Persia, Paros fought on the Persian side, but were defeated by the Athenian army. In 338 BC, the island came under the rule of Philip of Macedonia and became part of the Macedonian empire. After the death of Alexander the Great, Paros was taken over by the Ptolemies.

The ferries arrive on Paros at Parikia, a town of white houses with blue windows and doors, narrow streets, and shady courtyards, all found under a beautiful blue sky. The most important tourist sight in Parikia is the church known as Ekatondapyliani – “The One Hundred Gated”. The first church on this site, called Katopoliani – “facing the town” – was founded in 326AD by St Helen, the mother of the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great. However, most of what’s visible today dates from two centuries later and the time of Justinian. From a historical perspective this church is the most important in the Aegean and should not be missed, even by the most casual observer.