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.

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.

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