Rhodes Town (Ródos), founded in 408 BC, lies on the northern tip of the island of Rhodes in the Dodecanese. Its magnificent old town, a maze of narrow cobbled streets and squares, is encircled by sturdy medieval walls with domes, minarets, and palm trees rising into the skyline. Through the centuries, it has been held by the Greeks, the Knights of St. John (1309-1522), the Ottoman Turks (1522-1912), the Italians (1912-1948), and then Greece again. Today, the old town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It overlooks a busy port, and cruise ships sailing the Eastern Mediterranean call here
On the highest point in the old town, at the top of the Street of the Knights, the Palace of the Grand Masters is a massive stronghold defended by a triple circuit of walls. Built on the site of an older Byzantine citadel, it was constructed by the Knights of St. John (aka Knights Hospitaller), a Catholic military order, who ruled the island from 1309 to 1522. Based on a square plan centering on a large internal courtyard, it fell into disrepair after the departure of the knights but was rebuilt by the Italians in the 1930s as a holiday residence for King Emmanuel III and later for Fascist dictator Mussolini. A whimsical structure with towers and crenellated ramparts, pebble mosaic floors, antiquities, and antiques, it has more than 150 rooms, but only about 20 are open to tourists.
Starting from the Palace of the Grand Master, you can walk around the ramparts of the old town walls – one of the finest examples of medieval fortifications in the world. Initially built during the Byzantine period, they were extended and reinforced by the knights between the 14th and 16th centuries due to an obsessive fear of enemy attack. Measuring four kilometers in length, and in parts up to 12 meters thick, they include imposing towers, sturdy bastions, several magnificent gates, a dry moat, and artillery firing posts. However, in 1522, after a six-month siege, the knights eventually surrendered to the Ottoman Turks. Under the Turks, Christians (the majority of Greeks) were banished from the old town.
As a religious military order, the knights dedicated themselves to preventing the spread of Islam and to tending the sick and the poor. They built this imposing hospital, overlooking a lovely herb-scented courtyard garden, between 1440 and 1489, and it now houses the archaeological museum. On display are various ancient finds from archaeological sites across the island, including marble statues, urns, and funerary stele, but the top attractions have to be the stunning mosaics and the first-century-BC Aphrodite of Rhodes, a white marble figure of a naked girl, who is crouching and running her fingers through her hair to dry it.
Outside the fortifications, the so-called new town was first settled by local Greeks after the Ottoman Turks banished them from the medieval center in 1522. However, it gained its present appearance in the 1930s when the Italians, under Mussolini, added the elegant Art Deco administrative buildings overlooking the Mandraki Harbor, including the town hall, post office, covered market, theater, and aquarium. Between the Mandraki Harbor and the northern tip of the island, are a string of narrow sandy beaches, with sunbeds and umbrellas for hire.