The Colossus Of Rhodes Lives!

Feature by Willard Manus

The island of Rhodes has long been the official beauty spots of the Eastern Aegean, with upwards of a million tourists a year migrating there to partake of its abundant charms. High on the list of attractions is Rhodes City itself, which has a port spacious enough to handle cruise boats, charter yachts and hydrofoils alike. Rhodes also has a major airport that can accomodate jumbo jets from every nook and corner of Europe.

Most visitors to Rhodes City head straight to the Old Town, which is located behind towering fortress walls built by the crusading Knights of St. John over a two-century period (1309-1522 A.D.) The Knights built lavish houses and palaces for themselves as well as erecting a stronghold that is considered one of the finest military constructs of all time. With its battlements and turrets, its moats and massive iron gates, it was well-nigh impregnable. Its surrender to the Ottoman army of Sulieman the Magnificent was finally negotiated on December 25, 1522 after a five-month siege.

The Levantine atmosphere of the Old Town is still intact, though the saddlers, blacksmiths and ironmongers of old have given way to hawkers of tourist trinkets and souvlaki sandwiches. The Palace of the Grand Masters still stands, as does the Hospital of the Knights, which has been turned into a museum containing artifacts, sculpture and jewelry from just about every period of Rhodian history. Another popular tourist draw is the nightly sound and light show which dramatizes key moments from medieval Rhodes' war with the Turks.

The Old Town was once home to a thriving community of Sephardic Jews dating back to 1492. The Jewish quarter (known as the Juderia) was located in the northeast corner and was centered around a square with a fountain decorated with sea horses. The main street was called (in Ladino) La Kay Ancha. It was packed with one- and two-story houses and a profusion of shops, schools, libraries, banks, synagogues, restaurants and hospitals. The Juderia was by all acounts a remarkable and kinetic place, home to an insular but vital and loving tribe, some wealthy, some poor, but none neglected or exploited.

Rhodes was the last place in Europe which the Holocaust reached. In 1944 over two thousand Rhodian Jews were rounded up by the Germans and shipped to death camps in Poland and Austria. Today visitors to the Juderia can no longer hear Ladino spoken or encounter Jewish cobblers, goldsmiths and shopkeepers. However, one of the Juderia's four synagogues has been rebuilt, The Kal-Shalom, which stands on 8 Simmiou St. (and has an adjoining Jewish museum).

In 1946, Gabriel Haritos, the first Mayor of Rhodes City after WW II, renamed La Kay Ancha "The Street of the Hebrew Martyrs." To walk down it is to pay homage to their memory.

Rhodes' New Town can't compete with the walled city for history or significance, but it does have several worthy things to offer. It is comprised of a dozen-odd sections, about half of which were founded by Greeks after the Turks drove them out of the fortress's confines. Each neighborhood has its own church, shops, streets, houses--and hotels. Rhodes City can boast of over two hundred hotels, many of which are high-rise, deluxe edifices containing indoor and outdoor swimming pools, saunas, exercise rooms, nightclubs and restaurants. The Hotel des Roses, built by the Italians during their time as colonizers between WWI and WWII, has been turned into a gaudy gambling casino that draws high-rollers to its blackjack and baccarat tables.

The New Town's biggest draw, however, is the site where the Colossus of Rhodes is supposed to have stood, back in 300 B.C., on the mandraki (Turkish for harbor), where hundreds of boats and charter yachts bob at anchor, giving the scene a busy and bright nautical air. The Colossus was, of course, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world--an immense statue made of either copper or bronze that stood 107 feet high with legs set wide enough to allow ships to pass between them. This scantily-clad representation of the god Helios held a torch aloft in his right hand and rested his left hand on his thigh (perhaps to protect himself from any tall-masted ships).

Some historians believe the Colossus was much smaller than is supposed--and that it stood much further inland, until the year 227 B.C., when a savage earthquake toppled it (and much of the rest of Rhodes City as well).

Supposedly Athens and Sparta, as well as the Greek colony of Syracuse and the king of Egypt, donated money to repair the statue, but it never regained its footing again, largely because the oracle of Delphi forbade it (one calamity was evidently all she could handle). So the statue lay in pieces for centuries until it was finally sold to a Syrian scrap dealer.

Even without the Colossus, the Rhodian waterfront still has a distinctive look, thanks to its decorative windmills and graceful iron deer. It's pleasant to sit over a coffee and watch the tourists go by. Once upon a time the marketplace behind the mandraki was honeycombed with shops and stalls offering fresh fish, fruit and vegetables. These have given way to a glut of souvenir shops and tavernas with importuning waiters and blaring rock music.

Just north of the mandraki is a string of official buildings built by the Italians--bank, court house, post office, theatre, city hall--in a style that has been described as Mussolini Gothic. But the waterfront is also dotted with trees and gardens which help soften things and make the heavy, incessant traffic bearable, and there are large white beaches tenanted by wall-to-wall sunbathers, swimmers and windsurfers.

The mandraki is also where visitors wishing to take day trips around the island or ferry boats to nearby islands will find lots to choose from. There is even a dive boat that offers scuba diving lessons (and a "diploma" to boot).

In front of the Hotel Des Roses are the remnants of an orchard where Lawrence Durrell, author of The Alexandria Quartet and Reflections in a Marine Venus (a non-fiction book about Rhodes), lived in 1945-46 with his wife Eve in a tiny house that once belonged to the Turkish poet Hascmet. At the time, Durrell was serving as a press officer attached to the British army.

About a mile outside Rhodes City, just off the main highway to Lindos, is a sprawling park called Rodini which is packed with plane trees and ponds abounding in fish, ducks, geese and frogs. Beware, though, of the fast-strutting, noisy, bad-tempered peacocks.

At one time Rodini housed a center of the arts. Aeschines, a political opponent of the famed orator Demosthenes, opened a School of Rhetoric; such painters and sculptors as Protogenes, Lyssipus, Polydoros and Timocharis (who carved the rock-ship on the Lindos acropolis) offered their works here. Many well-known Romans also flocked to Rodini to partake of the intellectual and artistic climate (and late-nite parties): Mark Anthony, Cicero, Cassius and Brutus, among others.

Rhodes' New Town still has something of an artistic and intellectual life; there are galleries and book stores offering the work of local writers and painters, but they take distant second place to the main business being conducted here: tourism. Most shops in the New Town deal in schlock, but there are upscale boutiques and jewelry stores as well, offering world-class goods for sale. There are also slews of restaurants and tavernas where one can sample savory (but expensive) Greek food and wine.

As for live entertainment, Rhodes City offers everything from Greek pop stars to Swedish comedians and German hiphop artists. When you add discos to the mix--dozens of subterranean clubs pump out amplified music from darkness to dawn--it becomes clear that he new Colossus of Rhodes is its night life.