A Rough Map of Greece: Rhodes

A member of the ATLANTIC’S editorial staff, with a love for antiquity, PHOEBE LOU ADAMS conducted a one-woman exploration of the Greek Islands and the mainland in the spring of last year. We published four of her papers in 1963, and this is the third of a new series.

YOUNG Julius Caesar, a bit of a playboy and temporarily out of office in Rome, occupied his time learning oratory in Rhodes, under that same Professor Molon who had instructed Cicero. It was quite the thing for Romans to improve their minds in Rhodes. Cassius and Brutus both studied there, and the Emperor Nero once proposed to abdicate and settle quietly on the island. His change of mind was presumably a great disappointment to everybody but the Rhodians.

The islanders used to claim that their territory was named for the rosebushes that thrive on it and that their patron was the sun-god. The last claim was true if they believed it. I understand philologists are still settling the first. Roses, sunlight, and the sea breeze have always made Rhodes attractive to lazy visitors, and I went there expecting to bask on the beach. I was too early.

Good Friday — Greek Good Friday — was chilly. The sea flashed tropical sapphire and aquamarine, but the wind blew straight out of the north, and the charming little white-fringed waves that crinkled on the shore were snow cold. All the bright umbrellas had been taken in because they tipped south and nobody was sitting under them anyway, and the beach was left to the wind, the water, and the Germans. The place was full of Germans who had come to swim in the sunny Mediterranean, which they did, emerging slate blue to report that it was warmer than the Baltic.

The barkeep, his glass-polishing altogether disrupted by an influx of customers at ten in the morning, clanked the handles of the espresso machine and announced above the hissing that it was very unusual weather for the time of year. The concierge had not had the benefit of a hitch in the United States. He shivered and called things tiès impossible and regretted that reservations to Crete were unavailable, all the planes booked up, and besides, sir, it is also cold in Iraklion.

The island of Rhodes is shaped like an almond, with the point, where the city of Rhodes stands, aiming north toward the coast of Asia Minor. The wind from the Turkish highlands swept straight down over the town and grew colder as the day passed, but regardless of the gale and the miseries of tourists, Rhodes prepared for the evening ceremonies. Palm fronds and flowers were put up outside the church on the old harbor, spotlights were strung, and the epitaphion was trimmed with great bunches of white lilies. This was not easy work, for the wires whipped in the wind, ladders rocked, and palms, hats, and flowers bowled away down the waterfront. A group of small boys, gathered at the harbor entrance where a bronze stag on a column allegedly marks the site of the lost Colossus, tested the wind and disapproved of it. They would be expected to carry candles in the procession.

The Church of the Evanghelistria is a long, narrow building lying between the main waterfront boulevard and Mandraki Harbor. It faces on a paved plaza between the street and the harbor, not on the traffic, and like a number of other things in Rhodes, it is not as old as it tries to look. When Mussolini took a fancy to the island, which was an Italian possession from 1912 to 1948, the whole town was dusted up and restored. The Evanghelistria was built, supposedly to plans dating back to the Knights of Saint John of Jerusalem, during this period, and its only distinction is that it remains a church. Most of the Italian structures have been thriftily converted by the Greeks into schools, hospitals, and orphanages.

A rather pretty building in its Musso-medieval style, the church is not nearly large enough for the Good Friday congregation. By ten in the evening, although the sky had clouded over and the weather was bone-chilling, the plaza was thick with people. The younger members of the crowd had crossed the street to ooze up the steps of the post office, and a small group managed to perch, dry, in the intricacies of a baroque fountain on the plaza. Entrance to the church itself was impossible. The open doors showed a confusion of light and glitter and people packed like olives in a jar.

The crowd outside was quiet, dressed in dark winter clothes and speaking in murmurs. Children carrying candles shielded them behind rosy, translucent hands or nudged the nearest adult for another light, producing a continual scatter of small blue flares in the dark. The spotlights were not turned on until the procession emerged from the church, when a sudden blaze illuminated the great filigree standards of gold and silver rocking above the heads of the people.

Behind the standards came two lantern bearers escorting the plain wooden cross. The candles burning on the head and crosspiece were blown out before the bearer, who made heavy weather of the lintel, got past the door. Then came the grave, bearded priests, the metropolitan in stiff gold robes and his colleague in black, followed by the epitaphion carried on the shoulders of four young men. There was no image of the dead Christ inside it— only the elaborate gilded bier, like a miniature pavilion, strung with wind-bruised lilies and small lights that must have run on batteries, for they defied the gale.

The group swung into the street beside the church, facing north, where the head of the procession was already formed. The lads who had worried about the wind proved to be boy scouts, and their candles had been equipped with paper shields. A contingent from the navy, arms reversed, fell into step on the edges of the parade. The navy band struck up a slow, sad march, the brass wailing unevenly in the wind, and the procession moved off.

The crowd followed slowly, of necessity, because groups of police had been artfully strung through it to hold down the pace. Candles and small Japanese lanterns gleamed here and there, went out and were relighted. Houses along the route had candles burning in their windows, and sometimes sparklers or Roman fires lit up a garden, a tangle of wisteria or half a rosebush shimmering briefly in the dark. The band played steadily on, repeating the same tune in the same sweet, melancholy scream until it began to produce the effect of a dirge on the Scottish pipes — a desire to cry, or hit somebody, or both. When the second turning made it clear that the route would cover another three quarters of a mile, I ducked between two impassive sailors and went back to the church.

A SCATTERING of the old and stout sat inside, motionless under the harsh light reflected from gilding and brass and crystal, for the church is very thoroughly electrified. The plaza was empty except for a row of youths holding their point of vantage on the post office steps, a man with a cigar, and me. I had trouble with a match. “Allow me, please,” said the cigar smoker, producing a lighter, and then, “American?”

I admitted it and was told in exchange that he had spent more than forty years in the United States, become a citizen, married an American wife, and now proposed to spend his old age in his native island. “I was a laborer all my life,” he explained in the slow, deep, almost accentless English which many of the returned immigrants speak. “I am not an educated man. I don’t get much social security, but it is enough to live here and bring up our little boy in comfort.” His wife, unfortunately, had taken an instant and determined dislike to the island.

“No conveniences. In America, every workingman’s house has such things — beautiful washing machines, refrigerators, television. Here, no. I tell you,” he confided, “I forget how it is here.” I gathered that a visit to his relatives in the Old Town, with a charcoal cookstove and water from the community pump, had startled him as much as it had his wife. “They live like pigs,” he lamented. “and they can’t help it, but my wife, she can’t live that way. She is young.”

“Yes, beautiful climate — this tonight is unusual — but nothing, nothing. She doesn’t speak Greek. This place frightens her.”

It didn’t frighten him, even after forty years, for conditions had improved. Leaning against Mussolini’s church, his cigar marking dim red lines as he gestured with it in the dark, he described the Rhodes of his boyhood. The Italians had been bustling, pushy overlords, determined to make the Rhodian Greeks into proper Italian citizens, and to this end they not only taught Italian in the schools, they began to make restrictions against the speaking of Greek anywhere. This brought on an Easter Sunday demonstration which was put down by the military, with some bloodshed. “You can see bullet holes in the churches still,” said my acquaintance. “My uncle died of wounds — bayonet. This is why we are still bitter enemies of Italians.” So he had gone to the States, about 1920, liked it and thought himself well treated, married late and come home at last with the young American wife who couldn’t stand Rhodes.

His wife came out of the church, where she had been keeping the little boy out of the wind, because the child was bored and wanted to see Daddy. She said she did indeed think poorly of the island. “We can’t find a house fit to live in. It’s not that I expect luxury, you know, but the houses we’ve seen — you wouldn’t believe it. No bathroom. Or if there is a bathroom, there’s no water. Now, Joe, you know that’s silly.”

Ruefully, her husband agreed.

A steady shuffle in a side street announced the return of the epitaphion. The band was silent now, and the procession rounded the post office and approached the church to the beat of a single muffled drum. The wind had strewn the street with broken palm fronds and flowers, which were erratically revealed, along with the feet of the marchers, by sparklers tossed from the post office roof. The two priests paused on the church steps and faced the plaza. Their voices were ragged from the difficult service, but still strong enough to carry above the mumble of the crowd and identify the band’s long-dead march as the Kyrie Eleison.

The epitaphion bearers crouched through the door to wary whispers of “Hamilá, hamilá,” and the forward edge of the crowd swept in behind them. Deploring the American female’s lack of adaptability, I walked back to the hotel, where the elevator, having reached the second floor, sighed like a tired dog and fell into the basement. It is not easy to adapt to being shut up in a nonfunctioning elevator in the cellar of a Greek hotel, even one of the luxury class. When pounding did no good, I tried a rebel yell. It was amateur, but the Rhodians didn’t know that. Results were immediate and satisfactory. I went to bed feeling a certain sympathy for Joe’s wife.

IOLY Saturday is a terrible time for lambs. Their hides were carried back and forth across the city on bicycles and trucks and handcarts. Every vehicle in town seemed to be moving lamb hides, while the carcasses were carried home by Rhodian householders. The method is to wrap a sheet of newspaper around the lamb’s ribs to protect the coat sleeve, heave the animal up tail foremost, and walk off with it under the arm. Since the body is absolutely intact except for the ears, the pedestrian behind a lamb purchaser faces a doleful, bloody, bobbing head and a glassy, reproachful stare.

The first lamb worried me. By the time I followed the fourth one up the Street of the Knights, I had become indifferent to their fate, like Byron watching the guillotine in action. Besides, I had passed a restaurant, and the smell of roasting lamb is influential.

The Street of the Knights runs along the northern quarter of the Old Town of Rhodes. Old and New have confusing connotations here. The New Town is built over the ruins of Hellenistic Rhodes, which turn up on street corners and make the construction of new foundations a dreadful business. Houses are set on piers, lest the collapse of forgotten subcellars should bring them down in a heap, and the discovery of any respectable relic is a disaster, halting the whole enterprise in a tangle of red tape. Old, however, merely means late medieval. The Old Town is the area enclosed by the fortifications of the Hospitalers, who took refuge on the island after the fall of Acre in 1291. Within twenty years they had taken complete control of the place, over the testy protests of the emperor up in Byzantium, who thought he owned it. They then devoted to fortifying the island that energy which could no longer be satisfactorily employed against the Turks. Acre had finished crusading in Asia, practically speaking, but the Knights of Saint John refused to admit it. They hung on in Rhodes and the Dodecanese for another two hundred years, and were ousted by Suleiman I on New Year’s Day in 1523, after an expensive siege of six months’ duration.

Six months is a long time when the garrison is small and the besieging force enormous. The walls of the Old Town explain it at a glance. Built of dull gray-yellow stone, they rise behind the dry moat like a hill range, lumbering into towers and battlements that must have bristled with guns. Suleiman’s artillery was presumably the best that his time could provide, but it was not equal to these terrible walls. The remnant of the knights — one hundred and eighty men under the grand master Villiers de L’Isle-Adam — surrendered with honor and were permitted to leave the island.

The enormous fortification then fell into obsolescence and gentle decay, until the antiquarian enthusiasm of the Italians caused a spate of repairs. Lost buildings were reconstructed, fallen walls were set up again, roofs were replaced, stonework was pointed, and the dust of centuries was scrubbed from carvings and cornices. The result of all this effort is now displayed for the amusement of tourists. It is handsome, but too neat, in spite of the goats and sheep tethered in the bottom of the moat. It looks like a vast movie set on which somebody is filming the wrong picture.

The stone-paved Street of the Knights runs from one of the main gates on the harbor up a long slope to the palace of the Grand Master. It is wide enough to accommodate an automobile or even a truck, which means that when it was laid out it was extravagantly broad. The buildings that line it were originally the headquarters of the various contingents of knights. They were divided into groups according to language, and the housefronts still show the arms of the knights of England, Italy, France, and Germany, but children dart in and out the doors, and radios roar jazz through the windows. Rhodes enjoys a Voice of America broadcasting ship just off the coast in one direction, and Radio Cyprus in the other, and listens permanently, like it or not, to the tongue of England.

The Grand Master’s high, untenanted halls are open to the public at suitable hours. There is no avoiding a guide. Visitors are not permitted to roam unsupervised about the palace for fear they may trample on the mosaics.

These mosaics are representations of gods, goddesses, animals, laurel wreaths, and other such antique favorites, and most of them come from the island of Kos. They have no business in a medieval castle, but since they had been dug up and needed protection while the castle needed new flooring, the Italians sacrificed congruity to practicality of a sort. Actual practicality, of course, was ignored, for these delicately cut and fitted little stones were never intended to support steel spindle heels or spiked golf shoes or Teutonic hiking boots. The guide, rattling off information in an Anglo-FrancoItalo-Germanic language of his own invention, kept his serious attention centered on our feet. Every anecdote was interrupted by warnings to stay off the mosaics, warnings continually forgotten as we gawked at electric chandeliers of Murano glass, or a Louis XV drawing-room set in gilded wood and white and gold striped satin from which tufts of stuffing bulged picturesquely, for the palace is infested with improbabilities. When the guide described a mosaic damsel riding a sea serpent as Europa, nobody protested. It seemed, at the moment, as though a sea serpent might well represent a bull.

Outside the palace and the jurisdiction of the guide, a small enclosed garden lies under the battlements. It is neglected and contains, besides trees, tools, weeds, and ragged grass, half a dozen long stone boxes filled with dirt and growing a thin crop of nettles. The boxes are covered with the battered arms and indecipherable names of forgotten Knights of the Cross, and there is more of the past in this row of empty tombs than in all the expensive restoration inside the building. Across the ramparts, looking east, the Turkish coast sulks in the afternoon sun, only a few hours’ sail away.

SOUTH of the Street of the Knights the Old Town is much livelier. This section has not been restored; it has simply survived. Narrow alleys wander in confusing loops ending, inexplicably, back where they started. Thin stone arches span the streets, striping everything with shadow. The place is full of small enterprises, tourist shops selling rugs, embroideries, and cracked brass pots, bakeries, butcher shops, shoemakers, and tailoring establishments, where boys who seem no more than children sit hunched over sewing machines. Free schooling ends at age fourteen, unless the law has changed very recently, and most families cannot afford to do anything but put their sons to work at that age.

Houses stand wall to wall with the shops. Their windows are usually high up in the facade, but the street doors, rickety and with peeling paint, give on courtyards whitewashed to a dazzle and crammed with flowers. The inhabitants of Rhodes seem to be able to make anything grow in pots, including rosebushes sagging under immense, sweet-scented blooms. Sometimes a lamb or a kid, tethered at the doorway, plays watchdog and bleats indignantly at snooping strangers.

Wandering about in the Old Town has its sporting aspect because the map provided by the tourist office covers only the main streets. I turned down an alley to admire a carved double door with brass handles and a knocker in the shape of a fragile, heavily ringed hand. Fatima’s, perhaps? I spotted an explosion of Easter lilies on a balcony and went to look closer. Then I was lost, but remembering the mosque, I looked for the minaret soaring above the housetops and followed it, unaware of this simple fact: there is more than one mosque in the Old Town.

The wrong mosque lured me into no-man’s-land, a small open field strewn with boulders, fallen masonry, and bits of rusty machinery. Poppies and scrawny grass grew in the hard yellow dirt, and small dust devils whirled between the stones. The place was not exactly a vacant lot, or a dump, or a blasted heath, but it was distinctly not prosperous. The buildings surrounding it were low and sad, with cracked stucco walls and shutters drooping on broken hinges. Through a half-open door, a stone staircase led insanely into space.

At one side of the field stood a bit of curved wall under a flat roof supported by thin cement pillars. This odd structure — it was clear from any distance that the roof and pillars did not really belong to the wall — proved to be the remains of a church which had once occupied the entire open space. Nothing was left but this fragment of wall with its faded fresco — part of a black and white checkered robe and a hand holding a scroll. To one side, a shallow niche was piled with the tributes of the children who play in the field — a small tarnished cross, a smudged ribbon, a geranium blossom in a tin can, a scattering of nameless trinkets.

With more skyline in view, I found my way back to the waterfront. The Old Town, enclosed by its three-mile circuit of wall and moat, faces east over the new harbor, also called the commercial harbor because all the large ships have to dock there. The north side of the new harbor washes against a great mole running east to north in a crescent shape and supporting a road, a lighthouse, three windmills, and the medieval fort of Saint George, which squats on the ultimate northern tip looking like an enormous gun turret. Archaeologists suspect that the foundations and stone fill of the Colossus were built into this fort. Behind the mole, north of the new harbor and the Old Town, lies the elegant little old harbor, Mandraki, with the New Town on its landward side.

EXCEPT on the water side, the New Town of Rhodes encircles the Old Town as the pulp of an avocado encircles the pit. Both districts overlie antique Rhodes, which was one of the great trading ports of the Hellenistic world, a rich, proud merchant city and larger than all the present metropolis — Old Town, New Town, and suburbs. It was also a peaceful city, studiously avoiding trouble. The local guidebook attributes this admirable quality to education rather than native virtue. The Rhodian burghers fell into a squabble with Queen Artemisia of Caria and sent a fleet against her capital of Halicarnassus. Artemisia is the lady who built for her husband and brother, Mausolus, that tomb which was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. She pined away, so the story goes, and died of grief before the structure was completed, but while she lived she gave her enemies nothing but trouble. She captured the Rhodian fleet, trimmed the ships with banners and victory garlands, manned them with her own people, and sent them back to Rhodes. When the Rhodians saw what they took to be their ships returning in triumph from the defeat of Halicarnassus, they became so busy preparing a suitable welcome that they could only stand helpless while Artemisia’s marines stormed ashore and took the carnival. Having eventually settled this unhappy affair, Rhodes gave up military enterprise except in cases of extreme necessity.

An extreme necessity was any power shift that threatened the Levantine trade routes and the shipping on which Rhodes flourished. The Colossus — the great bronze statue of Apollo at the mouth of Mandraki — overlooked a harbor thick with the ships of all the world. It was built in celebration of victory in a war Rhodes would have preferred to avoid. The city resisted a long, determined siege by Demetrius, son of Antigonus of Macedonia, one of the heirs to Alexander’s dismembered empire. Rhodes had barely endured Alexander; more Macedonian meddling was too much to contemplate. The Rhodians drove off Demetrius and commissioned Chares of Lindos to make a suitably large statue out of the weapons and siege engines abandoned by the enemy — or possibly out of money from selling the same; there seem to be several versions of the financial side of the enterprise. Chares raised a god more than a hundred feet tall, who stood for half a century to the great glory of the island. An earthquake brought the thing down in 224 B.C.

The Colossus was not put up again, but the pieces were admired by visiting Romans for generations. Nobody thought of molesting the bronze ruin until the seventh century, when the Saracen conquerors sold it to a dealer in scrap metal. How he got it to the mainland is not recorded, but 980 camels bore it off across the desert.

Since pieces of the Colossus lay about on land, it cannot have stood astride the harbor mouth: anything falling from that position would almost certainly have gone partly into the water, blocking the channel and forcing the Rhodians to do something about the remains. The task would have been as difficult as erecting the statue in the first place, and would hardly have gone unmentioned. It must actually have stood in a decent, dignified way on one side or the other of the harbor mouth, the obvious choice being the outer side on the end of the mole because it would appear more spectacular to approaching ships. The entrance to Mandraki, no longer spectacular, is still very pretty, flanked by columns supporting a bronze stag and his doe. The stag was installed by the Italian regime, and old snapshots show the Roman shewolf on the second column.