Rhodes Island History
The island of Rhodes is situated 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
Throughout its long history the different people who settled on Rhodes left
their mark in all aspects of the island's 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.
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 manoeuvres 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 harbour
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
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 centres 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.
Early Christian period
During the early Christian period (330-650 A.D.) Rhodes belonged to the
eastern part of the Christianised 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 sοme 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. Α hospital, a palace and several churches were
among the many public buildings constructed at that time, offering
interesting examples of Gothic and Renaissance architecture. Ιn 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 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. Ιn this
process most οf 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 οn 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.
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 οn 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