The Dodecanese offer a wide range of landscapes and activities. Their hot climate and fine beaches attract many visitors but the islands also boast lush, fertile valleys and wooded mountains. The Dodecanese have been subject to several invasions, with periods of occupation by the medieval Knights of St. John, the Ottomans, and the Italians. This checkered history is still apparent in the island’s impressively varied architecture and wealth of historical sites. This group of islands includes Rhodes, Kos, Kárpathos, and Pátmos.
An important center from the 5th to the 3d centuries BC, Rhodes was later part of both the Roman and Byzantine empires before being conquered by the Knights of St. John. Their medieval walled city still dominates Rhodes town today.
Mainly flat and fertile, Kos is known as the “Floating Garden.” It has a wealth of archeological sites, Hellenistic and Roman ruins, and Byzantine and Venetian castles, many of which can be found in Kos town. Kos is a good base from which to explore the more northerly islands of the Dodecanese, including Pátmos, home of the 11th-century Monastery of St. John.
Despite an increase in tourism from the late 1990s, wild and rugged Kárpathos remains largely unspoiled. Its capital, Kárpathos town, is a busy center with hotels, cafés, and restaurants around the bay.
POINTS OF INTEREST
PALACE OF THE GRAND MASTERS – RHODES OLD TOWN
The seat of 19 Grand Masters of the Knights during two centuries of occupation dominates Old Town Rhodes. The palace houses several priceless mosaics from sites in Kos, as well as two permanent exhibitions about ancient and medieval Rhodes.
STREET OF THE KNIGHTS – RHODES OLD TOWN
This medieval street is lined with the Inns of the Tongues of the Order of St. John. There was one Inn for each of the seven Tongues, or nationalities, into which the Order was divided. These Inns were used as meeting places for the Knights.
ARCHAEOLOGICAL MUSEUM AND BYZANTINE MUSEUM – RHODES OLD TOWN
Both of these museums are located in the Collachium. They contain many fine exhibits from different periods in Rhodes history.
MOSQUE OF SULEIMAN THE MAGNIFICENT – RHODES NEW TOWN
This mosque was built to commemorate the Sultan’s victory over the Knights in 1522.
ACROPOLIS OF LINDOS
A 15-minute climb (on the back of a donkey if you prefer) from the village center up to the Acropolis of Lindos leads past a gauntlet of Lindian women who spread out their lace and embroidery like fresh laundry over the rocks. The final approach ascends a steep flight of stairs, past a marvelous 2nd-century BC relief of the prow of a Lindian ship, carved into the rock.
The entrance takes you through the medieval castle built by the Knights of St. John, then to the Byzantine Chapel of St. John on the next level. The Romans, too, left their mark on the acropolis, with a temple dedicated to Diocletian. On the upper terraces, begun by classical Greeks around 300 BC, are the remains of elaborate porticoes and stoas, commanding an immense sweep of sea and making a powerful statement on behalf of Athena and the Lydians (who dedicated the monuments on the Acropolis to her); the lofty white columns of the temple and stoa on the summit must have presented a magnificent picture. The main portico of the stoa had 42 Doric columns, at the center of which an opening led to the staircase up to the Propylaia (or sanctuary). The Temple of Athena Lindia at the very top is surprisingly modest, given the drama of the approach. As was common in the 4th century BC, both the front and the rear are flanked by four Doric columns. Numerous inscribed statue bases were found all over the summit, attesting in many cases to the work of Lindian sculptors, who were clearly second to none.
MONASTERY OF ST. JOHN THE THEOLOGIAN – PÁTMOS
On its high perch at the top of Chora, the Monastery of St. John the Theologian is one of the world’s best-preserved fortified medieval monastic complexes, a center of learning since the 11th century, and today recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site. Hosios Christodoulos, a man of education, energy, devotion, and vision, established the monastery in 1088, and the complex soon became an intellectual center, with a rich library and a tradition of teaching. Monks of education and social standing ornamented the monastery with the best sculpture, carvings, and paintings and, by the end of the 12th century, the community-owned land on Leros, Limnos, Crete, and Asia Minor, as well as ships, which carried on trade exempt from taxes.
A broad staircase leads to the entrance, which is fortified by towers and buttresses.
The complex consists of buildings from a number of periods: in front of the entrance is the 17th-century Chapel of the Holy Apostles; the main Church dates from the 11th century, the time of Christodoulos (whose skull, along with that of Apostle Thomas, is encased in a silver sarcophagus here); the Chapel of the Virgin is the 12th century.
The Treasury contains relics, icons, silver, and vestments, most dating from 1600 to 1800. An 11th-century icon of St. Nicholas is executed in fine mosaic work and encased in a silver frame. Another icon is allegedly the work of El Greco. On display, too, are some of the library’s oldest codices, dating to the late 5th and the 8th centuries, such as pages from the Gospel of St. Mark and the Book of Job. For the most part, however, the Library is not open to the public and special permission is required to research its extensive treasures: illuminated manuscripts, approximately 1,000 codices, and more than 3,000 printed volumes. The collection was first cataloged in 1200; of the 267 works of that time, the library still has 111. The archives preserve a near-continuous record, down to the present, of the history of the monastery as well as the political and economic history of the region.