‘These islands are really heavenly when the weather allows,” wrote Lawrence Durrell about Rhodes in 1946 when he was stationed in the Dodecanese for the British Ministry of Information. “One wants to undress and climb trees.”
I was more interested in unpacking my memory. I first went to Rhodes back in August 1977, aged 11, on a family holiday. It was my first time on a plane (Olympic Airlines, sitting in the same row as the actor Michael Crawford, who was playing the hapless Frank Spencer in Some Mothers Do ’Ave ’Em).
We stayed in a small pension in Lindos (the only place to stay in the village) and spent our last day visiting the medieval city of Rhodes where my mother emerged with a rabbit-fur coat and a sticky bottle of cherry brandy that lingered in our drinks cabinet.
Forty-four years later, I wanted to return with my own young family. I had several clear memories from 1977: I know it was August because Elvis Presley died on the 16th and I remember everyone crowding around the only person on the beach who had a copy of the Daily Mail.
What I had not known back in 1977 was that Rhodes is one of the most important Christian places in the Crusader world, the gateway to the Holy Land. My mother had given me a paperback copy of The Greek Myths by Robert Graves. I remembered the long donkey trek in the midday heat up to the acropolis and walking up to the magnificent Temple of Athena. That 1977 holiday had been all about the ancients:
I never heard anything about the Knights of Rhodes – known today as the Sovereign Military Order of St John of Jerusalem, of Rhodes and of Malta – or the Order of St John.
I remember the pizza slices in Lindos village square being the best I had ever had and being secretly thrilled when I watched the Guns of Navarone at school and recognised the brutal rocky cliffs from our family pedalo rides out of St Paul’s Bay. I had not known that the bay was where the apostle was apparently shipwrecked in AD 51 while on his way to preach Christianity to the island.
Like many striking places, the medieval city of Rhodes is a state of mind rather than just a location. So much of it is so beautifully intact – if not in its original form – thanks to being largely reconstructed in the 1920s as part of Mussolini’s neo-imperial building programme when Italy ruled the island before the Second World War.
Mussolini wanted the old Grand Master’s palace – demolished in the 19th century – to be his summer house. No expense was spared. Durrell didn’t care for it, saying: “The Italians have emasculated it and sugared it all over and weakened its lovely undulous femininity.”
To visit the island of Rhodes is to travel to what was, for more than 300 years, the very last frontier of Christendom after Jerusalem was sacked in 1244 by the Tatars. This romantic idea of a last city, defending the Faith, with some 500 knights looking out from crenellated walls towards the Holy Land, can still be felt today as you walk around the extraordinarily intact ancient city.
Walking down the Street of the Knights, you still get a sense of what it would have been like to be a religious knight posted to the Rhodes garrison. Evenings would be spent strolling between the various inns wearing their distinctive black robes decorated with the white cross of Jerusalem. They were soldier knights of noble pedigree.
A wonderful little book has recently been published, translated by the late Father Jerome of the Oxford Oratory, from the 12th-century Latin, called the Rule of Blessed Raymond. This gives an insight into the chivalrous daily mores of these hospitaller knights. They lived comfortably but not grandly. This spiritual manual reveals the rules of being a Christian pilgrim-knight – in manners, spirit, diet (two meals a day, with wine) and even dress (fur is vulgar and off-limits). I recommend taking it with you to Rhodes as it is a call-to-arms for anyone wishing to reclaim their inner warrior monk.
In Rhodes itself, I’d recommend staying at the Kókkini Porta Rossa hotel which is the first building when you enter the old town from the Gate of St John. My guide called it the “Red Gate”, as it is still known by locals in honour of the blood spilt trying to defend the city from invaders. The hotel is on the site of the former armoury. It’s an old knight’s house and has a church beside it dedicated to St John. The boutique hotel – run by the charming Nikos Voulgaridis, a modern-day hospitaller – has won various awards and is the perfect base for exploring the old city.
With the Holy Land lost, Rhodes became a symbol of Christian knightly power. One of the most important Christian icons is the 11th- or 12th-century Byzantine icon of Our Lady of Philermos, which was originally housed at the monastery of Philermos in the hill outside Rhodes. It was said to have originated from the Holy Land and she was claimed as the source of the miraculous defences of the city against almost insurmountable odds.
Alas, the monastery was closed because of the threat of fires, but the icon – tempera on wood of the Virgin Mary with Byzantine features – has not been at the monastery for centuries. It was moved to Malta in the 1570s when the order left Rhodes and it is now kept in Cetinje, Montenegro.
The city walls are built around the old Byzantine settlement and include the imposing Grand Master’s palace and the Collachio (or convent) which marks the areas between the palace and the old port.
There were expansive loggias, the cathedral church (Our Lady of the Castle) and stately grand inns for each country or “tongue” of knights, along with fur dealers, vintners and more.
As an English traveller to Rhodes wrote in 1345: “There are moneyers, armourers and all the artificers necessary to a city or royal castle. Below the castle is the house of the hospital, a mother, nurse, doctor, protector and handmaiden to the infirm.”
The English Inn, or “auberge”, is one of the least memorable along the Street of Knights. It is now part of an art gallery and the Dinoris fish restaurant and is opposite the hospital. It was restored in 1919 by the Italians.
A plaque on the wall notes that the building was bought by Sir Vivian Gabriel in 1926 – it is claimed he was a knight of the order himself, although the records are not conclusive – and then given by his heirs to the people of Greece in 1972.
More than anything else, though, Rhodes was a military stronghold and the city had a reputation for being almost impossible to besiege or capture.
The Turks discovered this to their fury – and heavy cost – after their humiliating failed attack of 1480, which lasted nearly three months and involved the entire Ottoman fleet – some 160 ships – under Sultan Mehmed II.
The Knights Hospitaller had only around 500 knights and maybe 2,000 soldiers in their garrison, whereas the Ottomans had 70,000 men. By the time they retreated they had lost around 9,000, with 15,000 wounded, but the knights – under Grand Master Pierre d’Aubusson – suffered few casualties. Rhodes is the patron island saint of the warrior underdog.
The knights ruled from 1310 to 1522, when they finally surrendered after another long siege but only after being betrayed by an Italian knight embittered because he was passed over for promotion.
The icon of Our Lady was then attached to the mast of a ship called the Santa Maria, captured from the Sultan of Egypt when the Order of St John were looking for a new home – they ended up in Malta. The Catholic cathedral – dedicated in 1309 – was converted into a mosque. The Italian fascists then removed all Ottoman features in 1940.
As you walk around the city, you pass through several walled gates controlled by the Knights of the Order of St John. Huge stone cannon balls are still dotted around
the ramparts and gullies.
Any invading foreign force that attempted to scale the walls would soon find themselves caught in a lethal gully – some 30-feet deep – sandwiched between huge square towers and crenellated walls with no escape route as the knights mercilessly returned fire – through slits in the walls – on the trapped invaders.
“Would they have poured hot oil?” I asked my guide, Alexis, who was recommended to me for his knowledge of the history of the Knights of Malta. We were standing beside a set of vast bronze-looking defensive doors that must have been 20-feet high.
“Sand,” he replied. “They hated nothing more than sand as it got inside their armour and rendered it useless.”
This article is from the December 2021 issue of the Catholic Herald. Subscribe today.
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