When I was younger, I was an expert armchair traveller (I still am) and had an image in my head of all Greek islands. They all looked exactly the same and you can probably guess the picture: idyllic, whitewashed buildings with blue-painted doors and window frames, geraniums and bougainvillea surrounding the houses, sheer cliff faces plunging into an azure sea below. Yes, it’s that photo that appears on the front of every holiday brochure, guidebook and tourism poster that advertises the Greek islands and it’s the island of Santorini. Santorini is the face of Greece.
Because we had done no research before we first visited Rhodes Old Town years ago, I was genuinely surprised by the sight that greeted us as we pulled into Mandraki harbour on the ferry. Not a whitewashed building in sight. If we’d been dropped there blindfolded and asked to guess where we were, I would have perhaps chosen a Middle Eastern country rather than a Greek island.
Rhodes sits in a strategic position and, as such, has always found itself on the wanted list of conquering armies menacing the Mediterranean.
It took two costly attempts but in 1522, under the rule of Süleyman the Magnificent, the Ottomans finally wrestled the island from the occupying Knights of St. John. Mosques were erected and, as a result, as with the neighbouring island of Kos, it is domes and minarets, jutting skywards from behind the fortress walls that welcome you into the harbour in 2011.
The building of idyllic, stereotypically Greek whitewashed houses are evidently not high on the list of priorities of expanders of their empire.
Knowing what I know now (that, of course, not all Greek islands are covered in whitewashed buildings), Rhodes is all the more interesting. Rhodes Old Town is practically an open-air museum with evidence of its various conquests on full display to all – if you can see past the many tourists – and despite visiting there on quite a few occasions, there’s more we’d like to see of the physical history of the area.
For example, the Ottoman library, pictured in the centre of the top photo, houses original Ottoman scripts and handwritten copies of the Quran. This is the one building we took the time to enter on a past visit – very small but well worth it.
When we were there at the end of May, you’ll remember we were just in shock at the density of the crowds, and most of our day was spent buying Rhodes sandals and being bewildered by just how many tourists could visit a small corner of an island in one day.
So, if you’re a history freak like me, perhaps you need to soak up the history of Rhodes Old Town out of season when you’ll be able to photograph and walk around empty fortresses at your leisure and take yourself back into mediaeval times.