It is the most important attraction of Rhodes, as it is a tourist trap for visitors coming from all over the world. It is a labyrinth consisting of narrow streets with small houses and imposing knights’ buildings, most of which were built in the 15th and 16th century, amidst around 35 medieval churches and several mosques, which with their minarets add an oriental touch. UNESCO has included the town in the List of World Heritage Towns, therefore any alteration in the appearance of houses and buildings without the approval of the archaeological service is prohibited.
The medieval city of Rhodes began to take shape in the last quarter of the 7th cent. AD, over the remains of the pre-existing Hellenistic settlement. The early Byzantine fortress on the NE side of today’s medieval city was built to protect from Arab sea raids. It featured a wall, a rampart and a moat on its southern, western and northern side, while eastwards it rose above the ancient harbor. Contemporary with the fortress is the Palace of the Grand Master, up to the height of the first floor, which played the role of a citadel, meaning it was the last place of refuge for the defenders in case the walls fell into the hands of the enemy. In the late 11th and early 12th cent, the fortification was expanded to include the settlement that was located outside the walls.
After the advent of the Ioannite Knights in 1309, the city’s fortifications were expanded and the city itself became four times bigger compared to the Byzantine, growing in a semi-circular area of 800.000 sq. m. around the main harbor. The construction of new walls was gradually adapted to the requirements of the times, as these had been formed after the widespread use of gunpowder and fire arms. The repairs and modifying interventions in the Rhodian fortification during the rule of the Knights are strong evidence of the above development.
The new fortifications defined three lines of defense, leaving as last the fortress complex of the Palace of the Grand Master. Between that and the perimeter wall there was an intermediate defensive line: a wall that divided the city into two unequal parts. The northern, smaller part was called Kollakio and its purpose was exclusively dedicated to the activities of the members of the order of knighthood. Its main road was the Street of the Knights (Ippoton Str.), running from the Palace of the Grand Master and ending at the church of Panagia tou Kastrou (Our Lady of the Castle), while on both sides stood some of the most important knights’ buildings, such as the church of Hagios Ioannis tou Kollakiou (Saint John of Kollakio), the Accommodation of the Tongues, the chapel of Hagia Triada (the Holy Trinity), the Hospital and the residences of the order’s officers.
The rest of the population resided in Burgum. This area was crossed by the wide road of the Agora, which led to two very important buildings of the period: the church of Panagia tou Bourgou (Our Lady of the Burgum) and the Guest House of Agia Aikaterini (Saint Catherine).
The most characteristic feature of the medieval city of Rhodes is its walls. Their perimeter is approximately 4km, and they have countless towers and bastions. Upon them carved are the coats of arms of the Knights that built, enhanced or defended them. A sightseeing/ guided tour is organized at the battlements of the walls, which starts from the Palace of the Grand Master and ends at the Gate of Koskinou. Whoever wished to, of course, may go round the walls at any given time, by following the moat surrounding them.
The street of the Knights
The famous street of the Knights has been faithfully restored to the form it had in the Middle Ages. Along its path are located the accommodations of most of the “tongues”, namely the national groups that constituted the Order of the Knights of Saint John. Each “tongue” had its own accommodation, something between a club and a hotel, where the members would gather (it was not their permanent residence) and the guests of honor would be accommodated.
The palace of the Grand Master
At the highest point of Ippoton Street (Knights Street) is located the Palace of the Grand Master or Kastelo, as the Rhodians use to call it. Its gate with a heavy wooden door and two enormous towers is one of the most characteristic images of Rhodes. It was one of the first buildings built by the Knights and it was completed in 1346. In 1856 it was destroyed by an explosion, only to be restored in 1939 by the Italian governor of the Dodecanese, Cesare Maria de Vecchi. He literally rebuilt it, making it bigger and more impressive than before. Today the Palace serves as a museum. On the first floor there are exhibits from the era of the Knights’ rule: furniture, chandeliers, carpets, vases, statues, armors, articles of virtu. In the halls of this floor the visitor can also admire the mosaic floorings that were brought by the Italians, mostly from secular and ecclesiastical buildings of Kos, in order to decorate the Palace. Apart from the impressive mosaics, there are also columns and capitals, medieval furniture, mirrors, paintings, candlesticks and other objects that complement the décor of the imposing edifice.
In the basement there is a wing dedicated to ancient Rhodes, with findings from the excavations carried out in the mid-20th century in Mandraki. The permanent exhibition of the 4th Ephorate of Byzantine Antiquities, entitled “Rhodes from the early Christian era until its occupation by the Turks (1522)” is housed in a section of the ground floor of the Palace, in successive halls. In this exhibition findings from the excavations that were conducted in the Medieval City (ceramics, sculptures, detached mural paintings, icons, works of miniature art, etc.) are included.
Under the foundations of the Palace of the Grand Master, the archaeologists place the sanctuary of god Helios (“the Sun”), the ancient protector of Rhodes. Many even argue that this –and not the port entrance- was the place where the Colossus of Rhodes stood. Tradition has it that the statue was visible from the sea and that when it fell, it crushed buildings…
While entering the Old Town through the Sea Gate, the most impressive of all gates, you shall find Ippokratous Square (Hippocrates’ Square). All day long it is full of people who either sit at the small tables of cafes and restaurants or pose for pictures at the marble fountain or wait for their dates on the steps of the building of Kastellania. Two of the main streets of the Old Town run from Ippokratous Square: Aristotelous Street (Aristotle Str.), leading east to Evreon Martyron Square (Square of Jewish Martyrs), and Sokratous Street (Socrates St.), the busy street of the old market.
Square of the Jewish Martyrs
The most distinctive spot on the square of Jewish Martyrs is the seahorse-decorated fountain. Around it there are Greek taverns, cafes and small souvenir shops, while street painters set up their easels at the adjacent small park and create the tourists’ portraits.
From ancient times until today, this has been the Old Town shopping street, with dozens of shops selling souvenirs, clothes, jewelry, leather goods, umbrellas (although it doesn’t often rain, Rhodes is famous for its umbrellas), ceramics, carpets, etc. At the top of Sokratous Street stands the Süleymaniye Mosque, built by Sultan Suleiman shortly after the conquest of Rhodes. At the point where Sokratous Street meets Orfeos Street (Orpheus St.) the Clock Tower is located, constructed by orders of Fethi Pasha in 1857. The old mechanism of the clock is considered one of the technological breakthroughs of the 19th century and it is on display in the courtyard of the bar that is housed on the premises. From the top of the tower you can admire the view of the Old Town and take panoramic photos.