When I travel, two emotions seize me. First, I feel proud. I puff up with newly acquired knowledge. Then, I deflate realizing how ignorant I remain.
Take Rhodes, Greece. The only factoid I’d ever heard, once- upon- a- time in my junior high school “daze” was a recollection about a statue whose legs straddled a harbor. I recalled a Sun God, who favored Bruno in the Popeye cartoon strips, with his feet planted on the terra firma of both sides of the Aegean inlet. I never gave this wonder of the Ancient World much thought until I pulled into the harbor of Rhodes. Anyone approaching her sixth decade can verify that the knees go first. Helios, the colossal giant of Rhodes, lasted 65 years before his knees gave way, and he came crashing down! Later, merchants sold “the seventh wonder” for scrap parts. Those remnants got hauled off to Syria. The sad “green” fate of Helios does have a silver lining: When Lady Liberty was built, her French creator gave her a solid base so her knees wouldn’t buckle!
Gazing at the blue sea, I wondered if Odysseus had been buffeted by the winds to Rhodes. I doubt Odysseus had come here after the Trojan War, in Turkey, because Rhodes has always been a bustling place—a seaport, a shipbuilding town, a stop between the Mideast, Greece, and Africa. If memory serves, King Odysseus ended up on deserted atolls with pigs and sorceresses and one –eyed monsters.
I sallied off our cruise ship, the Windstar, and joined other wayfarers on a guided tour through Old Town Rhodes. A medieval barrier surrounds the town, replete with curtain walls. Three and a half miles of sandstone walls surround a palace, the highest point. Although the Sun God tumbled due to earthquakes in 227 BC, Rhodes still has wonders to offer, like these 20 feet thick walls where atop them folks poured down burning sand or molten lead on their enemies’ heads as they approached the archway entrances.
The knights of St John — Hospitalers —were members of a religious military society and controlled the island from 1309 until 1522, the Middle Ages. “Hospital” meant “lodging” to them. The knights were forced to leave the Sovereign Military Hospitaller of St. John of Jerusalem in 1522 when the Turks conquered. They resettled in Malta- now that order is in Rome. When the Turks came to Rhodes, no Christian could remain.
Around Old Town lay large, round, stone cannon balls, which could be shot only every few hours as the cannons had to cool off between shootings. Our guide told us how everything was precise. The “ballistras” were bowed on the side with a canal in the middle. The weight of the ball was chiseled on it so the soldiers knew how far each ball would fly.
Another curiosity about Old Rhodes is that buildings are attached to each other; ancient earthquake insurance!
As we listened to our Greek guide, we’d slam ourselves up against medieval walls. Scooters jetted past. Terry Mayousakis, our guide, shrugged. He called them “modern knights.” “These walkways have been trod on continuously for 2,400 years. It’s the most modern of medieval cities in Europe.”
Nowadays, souvenir shops, craft stores, ceramic ateliers line the streets of old Rhodes. Two main squares situate the traveler. One – the square of Jewish martyrs has a “sea horse fountain”. The other, Hypocrites Square, is named after the Father of Medicine. “The people of Rhodes have to live side by side with history. Every November, they start digging to install cables and sewers and must stop because they always find archeological artifacts,” said Terry.
I’d read about Greek Fire in Steve Berry’s thriller The Venetian Betrayal and didn’t understand what it was. Terry explained it was composed of sulpher and other things that made it a “napalm” weapon. The mixture was put in ceramic jars, sealed, a wick added, and then thrown at the enemy. Greek fire was the secret weapon of the Byzantine Empire. “‘To understand Byzantine,” he explained, “think Greek, Roman, and Papacy.” Istanbul was called “Byzantium” and later “Constantinople.” The Eastern Roman Empire is the Byzantine Empire where Constantinople was the capital in A.D. 395-1453.
During the time of knights, the bottom part of the buildings was storage. Then, a courtyard was atop that and steps to living quarters. When the Turks took over, balconies were added and whitewashed. In ancient times there were central sewage systems here! I marveled at that fact because when we moved to Chatham County, NC in 1979, many functioning outhouses littered the landscape.
Supposedly in 1309 when the Knights of St. John arrived, they brought with them a relic- bones of the right arm of St. John the Baptist. After the Turks came, all churches were turned into mosques; the palace became a prison. Minarets were added. Churches face east. So, the Turks added niches facing toward Mecca to orient their worshippers. In 1856, lightning hit a minaret and some storage of gun powder destroying the main mosque.
Terry said his grandparents welcomed the Italian take over in 1912 thinking things would improve after so many years of Turkish rule. But, the Italians closed down Greek schools by 1922. No Greek language was spoken. “They tried to recreate the Roman Empire using Roman statues everywhere.”
The façade of the palace looks the same. It crenellations were fixed to make it exactly the way it was. “It took so long to restore we were afraid soon they’d have to replace the scaffolding!” joked Terry. Some folks speculate that the Giant Sun God stood in the courtyard. No one is sure where the Colossus actually stood.
Terry pointed out a dedication plaque to “Benito Mussolini” made in 1940: one of very few with his name. It was dated the 18th year; the fascists made up their own calendar and began numbering in 1922.
We entered the palace, “a fortress in a fortress”. Terry said the engraved letters “FERT” on the wall meant “Strike” in Old French. I thought they might mean “strength” like “forte”. He pointed out the statue of Laocoon and his sons being strangled by snakes. It had been found in Rhodes on a farm in 1504. On the floor of one room is Medusa. I recognized her! The Greeks believe in putting blue eyes to ward off bad spirits; they even put them on the front of ships, we learned. Terry told us the Turks were originally from Mongolia. He pointed to designs in the mosaics that resembled ‘swastikas’ and said that the “swastika” was a symbol of movement – like someone running with two arms and two legs in motion simultaneously. He said the “meander” the Turks called “Manderes;” this symbol is found all over Greece. Another mosaic was of the nine Muses. Only Terpsecorea didn’t have a symbol with her. ( Hard to demonstrate” dance” with a static drawing.) One actor played many parts using masks, and the mask had a cone attached to the mouth to project the voice, Terry told us. Another interesting tidbit—ancient columns and structures were not originally milky white! They were vibrantly colored.
During the war the city was bombarded by Allies and Germans; the resulting open spaces were planted with cypress trees –the symbol of resurrection. He pointed out the fountains outside of mosques for washing ears, faces, throats, feet, and arms. “Leave behind the old; renew yourself,” Terry said. Christian baptism has much the same idea of washing away sins.
In 1912, Italy captured Rhodes. Mussolini asked for help. In 1941 Germans came. In 1945, British came. In 1947, Rhodes became part of the nation of Greece. There had been 6,000 Jews on the islands; two thirds left when the Italians came. Many settled in Atlanta, GA and Utah, Terry said. The Germans took away adult Jews; the kids stayed. Many left for Israel later. Today only five Jewish families remain. Ten adult men are needed for a bar mitzvah so tourists are recruited from cruise ships! The synagogue dates from 1570 and is still intact.
I’m sure my descendents will see things I didn’t because discoveries are constantly being dredged up in the harbor. Cruise ships churn up the sand and unearth things. “Four thousand pieces of gold were found in the middle of the harbor. Three years ago a fisherman pulled in his net and captured a life-sized bronze statue of a woman.” The man got 500,000 EU for it. Two years ago another farmer on another island found remains of a temple and 10 statues in a pit.
I heard the lovely chirping of birds. “Isn’t it amazing,” I commented, “that so many birds thrive within this ancient fortress?” Terry pointed toward the source. “Men from Serbia sell these ‘bird whistles’. Kids buy them and use them during our walking tours; it gets to you after awhile!” I laughed. Again, I learned something new and something unexpected.