The medieval streets of Rhodes Old Town echo of a time when Knights Hospitaller ruled the island of Rhodes. For more than 200 years, the knights protected the island from pirates and, after the fall of the Byzantine Empire in 1453, from Ottomans and Mamluks. The Order of the Knights of St. John shaped the old town, that rightfully earned the designation as a UNESCO World Heritage in 1988. Follow in the Footsteps of the Knights Hospitaller as Jocelyn Garwood discovers Rhodes’ fascinating history and captures its beauty on camera.
By Jocelyn Garwood
Rhodes Town is actually divided into two towns: the Old Town (Medieval Town) and the New Town. Each town has its own particular charm, but without a doubt the Old Town, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is most evocative of the medieval period of the Order of the Knights of St. John, also known as the Knights Hospitaller, that ruled Rhodes between 1309 and 1522.
Enclosed within enormous fortifications, the Old Town is, itself, divided into two sections: the Collachium, in the northern section where the knights lived, and the Bourg, in the southern section where everyone else lived.
The Collachium includes the Palace of the Grand Master, the Street of the Knights, the Archaeological Museum (former Hospital of the Knights), and the church of Our Lady of the Castle.
The jewel in the crown has to be the Palace of the Grand Master! Approaching the twin towers flanking the entrance, I found my imagination going into overdrive, conjuring up images of knights in shining armour and delicate damsels in distress. The main entrance to the palace leads into a spacious courtyard lined with sculptures of Roman emperors. A grand interior staircase leads up to the main exhibition halls that feature stunning mosaic floors, medieval furniture, and exquisite decorative arts.
Originally, the palace was a Byzantine fortress from the 7th century, but by the beginning of the 14th century it had become the administrative centre of the Order of the Knights. Under the influence of the seven different European ‘tongues’ that comprised the Order of the Knights, the palace underwent several transformations. The evolution of the palace continued under the Ottomans and Italians who succeeded the knights.
Street of the Knights
The Street of the Knights leads directly up to the palace from the Archaeological Museum. The street is flanked on either side by inns of the tongues. Very early in the morning, one can almost hear the echoes of horse hooves clattering along cobblestones.
The Archaeological Museum was the former Knights’ Hospital. It’s a lovely two-storey structure that now houses a variety of ancient artefacts, a terrace, an open-air mosaic gallery, and a garden/cemetery. What stayed with me the most was the haunting emptiness of the cavernous main ward, quietly echoing the groans of the sick and the dying.
Our Lady of the Castle
Situated across from the Archaeological Museum is the church of Our Lady of the Castle, once known as the Knights’ Cathedral. It dates back to about the 11th century. Its beautiful interior vaulting is particularly memorable.
The Bourgh is a much larger area and features cafés, hotels, shops, museums, churches, mosques, a synagogue, a labyrinth of cobblestone lanes, and city squares.
Ippokratous Square appears to be the social centre of the Bourgh. Within the square is a tiny fountain that seems to attract both people and pigeons. Also in the square is the Kastellania, most notable for its broad staircase that leads to an outside balcony. It’s now a public library.
A short distance from Ippokratous Square is the majestic Mosque of Ibrahim Pasha (1540), the earliest built mosque in the Bourgh.
Also in the Bourgh is the church of Our Lady of the Burg, built in the late 14th century. It retains the three apses of the sanctuary as well as the west wall of the church.
Encircling both the Collachium and the Bourgh, are massive fortifications: a 4-km wall, up to 12 meters thick in some sections, supplemented with bastions, towers, and a moat. The wall is punctuated by several gates that allow entry into the Old Town.
It’s difficult to choose a ‘favourite’ gate, but certainly among the contenders are the beautiful St. Paul’s Gate, the imposing Marine Gate, and the magnificent d’Amboise Gate.
The moat resembles a huge park. It has a jogging/walking trail that runs right through the entire moat, with a distance of about 2.5 km. Colourful wildflowers thrive throughout. There are high stone walls on either side of the moat, with lush foliage carpeting the outer wall. There’s also a very nice path atop the outer wall.
The period of the Knights was preceded by the Roman and Byzantine empires and followed with the Ottomans and Italians, so it’s not surprising that the Old Town reflects a multi-cultural heritage.
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The New Town has quite a different ambience to that of the Old Town, but is equally interesting.
The Mandraki Harbour area is really the hub of the New Town. The harbour promenade is typically filled with locals and visitors alike enjoying the sights. Local fishermen gather to cast their lines and compare catches. Cafés, coffee shops and ice-cream kiosks abound. There’s the harbour entrance itself, flanked by two deer-topped columns where, legend has it, the Colossus of Rhodes once stood astride.
Located at the end of the east jetty of Mandraki Harbour is the imposing fortress of St. Nicholas built by the knights in the 15th century and which now functions as a lighthouse. The three 14th-century windmills stand a few meters away from the St. Nicholas Fort along the jetty. The Church of the Annuciation is another beautiful structure overlooking the harbour, as is the nearby former Governor’s Palace, now a municipal government office.
Running north from Mandraki Harbour along the east coast to the aquarium is Elli Beach; running south from the aquarium along the west coast is Windy Beach.
With so much to offer, Rhodes really awakens the senses, fires the imagination and enriches the mind.
About Jocelyn Garwood
Jos is a female nomad (also a senior citizen who travels solo), born in Canada but citizen of the world. When she was on the morning side of the mountain, she just slung her backpack over her shoulders and set about hitchhiking. Now that she’s on the evening side of the mountain, she still slings her backpack over her shoulder, but no longer hitchhikes – too dangerous.
Follow this inspirational nomad as she proves that curiosity and a sense of adventure doesn’t have an expiration date nor a price tag.