Old Town – Rhodes

A UNESCO World Heritage site and the oldest continuously inhabited medieval town in Europe, Rhodes Old Town is best seen on foot.   Medieval buildings, mosques, traditional fountains, Byzantine and Gothic churches are scattered throughout the Old Town, which is also the site of the oldest existing synagogue in Greece.

When they arrived in Rhodes, the Knights of St. John (the Hospitallers) immediately started improving the old Byzantine fortifications.  Today, the walls, which are 40 feet thick in some places, extend for four kilometers and encircle the Old Town.  The upper quarter, called the Collachium, was the Knights’ administrative center; the lower quarter, called the Burgum, was the civilian part of the town, inhabited by Western Europeans, Jews and Orthodox Greeks.  The two sections were separated by a wall that roughly paralleled the current main street, Sokratous.

Map of Old Town Rhodes

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If you’re arriving by cruise ship, the nearest gates will be the St. Catherine (Milon) Gate and the Gate of the Virgin.  Once inside, walk along Pindarou, keeping the walls on your right as the street changes its name to Aristotelous and Ermou until you arrive at Plateia Mouseio (Museum Square).  Ippoton, the “Street of the Knights” will be to the left.  Entering through the northern Eleftheria (Liberty) Gate will take you through the Plateia Symi into Argyrokastrou Square and Museum Square, just beyond.

Just opposite the Eleftheria Gate are the ruins of the 3rd century Temple of Aphrodite.  The building immediately behind the temple is the Inn of the Tongue of Auvergne (1509), which is distinguished by an outside staircase running across the front facade.  Like so many of the old Crusader buildings, the Inn of Auvergne has been repurposed and now houses government buildings.  Continue into Argyrokastrou Square, which contains the Armeria, possibly the very first hospital in Rhodes Town.  Keep going, pass under an arch, and you’re at the foot of Ippoton Street in Museum Square.

The building immediately to your left is the Church of Our Lady of the Castle, which was the Knights’ Cathedral.  Today, the Church houses the Byzantine Museum and showcases rotating exhibits of Christian art.  (Open Tuesday through Sunday 8:00-7:00 – Admission € 3)

On the corner where Ermou enters the Square is the Inn of the Tongue of England.  The original building (built 1443) was destroyed in the mid-19th century; what stands in its place today is a 1919 reconstruction in the same style as the original structure.

Facing the Square on the left side of Ippoton is the former Hospital of the Knights, now the Archaeological Museum.  Construction was begun in 1440 and completed in 1489.  Built in the style of a Byzantine inn, the two-storey building surrounds a central courtyard flanked on all sides by porticos.  The second floor of the east wing, with its long central colonnade, was the patient’s ward of the Knights’ hospital.  (Open daily 8:00-7:40 – Mondays 1:30-7:40 – Admission € 3)

The 600 meter-long cobblestone Street of the Knights ends at the Palace of the Grand Master; its length is flanked by the Inns of the various Tongues, which were used as eating clubs and temporary residences for visiting knights.  On the right is the Inn of the Order of the Tongue of Italy, built in 1519 by Grand Master Fabrizio del Carreto; his shield is carved above the door.  Just next to the Inn of Italy, is the Palace of the Villiers de l’Isle Adam, reputedly the residence of the island’s last Grand Master.  Built in 1521, it now houses the Archaeological Service of the Dodecanese.

Inn of the Tongue of France

Inn of the Tongue of France

Opposite the Villiers palace is the original entrance to the Hospital.  Next to this is an iron gate giving onto a small garden with an ornamental Turkish fountain.  The style of a stone gateway inside the ruins indicates that the building that once stood there was Spanish.  Opposite the garden, on the right side of the street, is the Inn of the Tongue of France, constructed in 1492; it now hosts the French Language Institute. Of all the inns on the Street of the Knights, this is the only one open to the public (Mon-Fri 8:00-noon).   Built in the late 15th or early 16th century, the façade bears the coat of arms of Grand Masters Emery d’Amboise and Pierre d’Aubusson along with the emblem of the Order and the escutcheon of Villiers de l’Isle Adam.

Next to the Inn is the Chapel of the Tongue of France, which features a Gothic statue of the Virgin and Child on its façade.  The coat of arms of Grand Master Raymond Beranger (1365-74) indicates that this is one of the older buildings on Ippoton.  Next to the Chapel is the former residence of a priest, now housing the Italian Consulate.  On the opposite side of the street, just beyond an archway, is the Inn of the Tongue of Spain, distinguished by the vertical columns of its façade.  Opposite it, on the right, is the Inn of the Tongue of Provence.

At the top of Ippoton is a Gothic loggia, the remains of the Church of St. John, and, on the right, the Palace of the Grand Masters.  Both were destroyed in an accidental explosion in 1856, when lightning touched off gunpowder stored beneath the church.  The Palace was restored by the Italian government (then in possession of Rhodes) between 1937-40.  Of the Palace’s 158 rooms, only 24 are open to the public, including the Reception Hall, the Waiting Room, the Room of the Icons, the Ballroom and the Music Room.  Many of the rooms on the ground floor have mosaic floors of the late Hellenistic, Roman and early Christian periods taken from buildings on Kos.  (April through October:  Open Tues-Sun, 8:00–7:40, Mondays 9:00-4:00 November through March:  Tues-Sun, 8:30-3:00 – Admission € 6)

The Fortifications played a critical part in Rhodes’ defense against the Ottomans and featured in some of the bloodiest fighting during the Siege of 1480 and the Great Siege of 1522. You can literally tread in the footsteps of the defending Knights by taking a walk along the top of the Walls from the Kanonia Gate to the Gate of St. John. Access is from the Palace of the Grand Masters and requires a separate € 4 admission fee. The museum also operates a one-hour tour at 3 pm on Tuesdays and Saturdays for € 6.

Fortifications and the Palace of the Grand Master

Fortifications and the Palace of the Grand Master

A different view of the Walls is available from the Moat, which is open to the public 24 hours a day, year round.  Access is from Mandraki Harbor (behind the main taxi stand), the Kanonia Gate or the Akandia Gate.  If you have arrived by cruise ship, Akandia is probably the best entry or exit point, since it is closest to the pier.

If you enter at Akandia, you will first pass the Tower of Italy (Caretto Tower), which the Turks captured in 1480, allowing them into the Jewish Quarter.  Grand Master Pierre d’Aubusson led the Knights in the fierce fighting that followed, forcing the invaders to withdraw.  The next gate is the Gate of St. John, also known as the “Red Gate” because so many men fell defending it during the Siege of 1522 that the stones were dyed red.   Parallel to the walls between the St. John Gate and the Gate of St. Athanasius is the “terre plein” of England.  This freestanding secondary wall was built after the 1480 siege as a first line of defense against cannon fire.  This and the “terre plein” of Spain (between the Athanasius Gate and the Tower of Spain) were the scenes of ferocious fighting during the 1522 siege.

Note: A ticket that includes admissions to the Museum of Decorative Arts, Archaeological Museum, Church of our Lady of the Castle, and Palace of the Knights is available at all of the museums.

Leaving the Palace of the Grand Master by way of Orfeos Street leads you into the old Turkish Quarter.  The pink-striped Mosque of Suleiman (at the corner of Orfeos and Sokratous) dates from 1808, and was built on the site of one constructed by Suleiman the Magnificent in the 16th century.  Across the street is the Turkish Library (founded 1794), which houses Turkish, Persian and Arab manuscripts as well as two beautifully decorated Korans, one from 1412 and the other from 1540.

The Mosque of Suleiman

The Mosque of Suleiman

Continue down Orfeos, which has changed its name to Ippodomou, and turn left on Archelaou, which leads to Plateia Arionos.  This Square holds the Sultan Mustafa Mosque (built 1765) and the old Turkish Baths, or ‘hamam,’ which are housed in a 7th-century Byzantine structure.  The baths are still in use today, and are open Tuesday through Saturday, with alternate days for men and women.  Continue out of the Square on Archelaou and you will get to Ag. Fanouriou, a straight street that runs from Sokratous to Omirou.   Sokratous will take you to Plateia Ippokratous, while Omirou eventually intersects Pithagora, which also leads to Ippokratous Square.  The large building on the northern edge of the square is the Castellania, which dates back to 1597.  The bottom floor was used by traders while the upper floor was a courthouse; today, the building houses the Municipal Library.

Walk along Aristotelous, keeping the wall on your left, and you will arrive at the Square of the Jewish Martyrs, also known as Sea Horse Square because of the sea horse fountain.  This square holds a monument to the 1,604 Jews who were rounded up here and sent to their deaths at Auschwitz.  Just up Dossiadou Street, which leads off the Square, is the Kahal Kadosh Shalom Synagogue, founded in 1577 by Sephardic Jews expelled from Spain.  A small, attached museum tells the story of the congregation.  (Open April 15-November 15, Sunday-Friday, 10:00-4:00 – Free).

Past the Square of the Jewish Martyrs, on Pindarou Street, are the ruins of the Church of St. Mary of the Burg, the largest Catholic church on the island.  The largest surviving section of the walls is the eastern façade with its three Gothic arches and inner coves.  At the end of the street, where Pindarou enters Pisidorou Square, is the Hospice of St. Catherine (Open Mon-Fri 8:00-2:00 – Free). Built in the late 14th century to house eminent guests of the Order, the original building was destroyed in the siege of 1480 and the earthquake of the following year.  The Hospice was rebuilt in 1516 and again partially destroyed by Allied bombing during WW II.  Restoration began in 1985, and today the Hospice, with its sea-pebble and mosaic floors, carved and painted wooden ceilings, and Grand Hall, houses the Hellenic Educational Center.

Church of St. Mary of the Burg

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