Explore with me the fortress-within-a-fortress built by the Medieval Knights of St. John, and restored by the Italian Fascists in gaudy splendor.
NOTE: Since my 4-month backpacking trip around Greece too many years ago, I had been longing to return to this magical land of myth, history, and dramatic landscapes. I recently made a fabulous 3-week return trip there, to research additional settings for my novel-in-progress, THE ARIADNE DISCONNECT. My first post in the new series, on September 30, gave an overview of my rambles with my husband Thor from Athens to the islands of Rhodes, Santorini, and Naxos, and finally a pilgrimage to the ancient center of the world at Delphi.
As promised last time, we’ll take a closer look at the grand edifice of the Palace of the Grand Master, built by Foulkes de Villaret, who was the first Grand Master when the Knights were expelled from Jerusalem along with the other Crusaders in the 14th century AD. The Knights of St. John, who had been tasked with guarding the Holy Sepulchre, were elite fighters who adhered to strict vows of chastity, poverty, and obedience (at least in their early years). After the failure of the Crusades, they negotiated with the Genoese pirate Vignolo de’ Vignoli to relocate to the island of Rhodos, where they built fortresses and established protection for the lucrative maritime trading ports. The island then experienced many years of prosperity before surrendering to a final Turkish siege. The Palace was intended as a final refuge for the Knights in case attackers breached the thick defensive walls of the port city. Cannon balls are still stacked and ready.
The Knights, recruited from the nobility of several European countries, had several headquarters, called Inns or Tongues, according to their native languages, along the Street of the Knights:
This is one Inn doorway:
The palace survived subsequent attacks and earthquakes until 1856, when an accidental explosion caused extensive damage. In the convoluted history of this region, the Italian Fascists came to control the island and restored the Palace in the 1930s to glorify Mussolini and King Victor Emmanuel III.
As I mentioned earlier, the restoration involved looting many beautiful Hellenic mosaics from the nearby island of Kos to include in the flooring, along with polished marble.
One famous mosaic is of Medusa, the mythical Gorgon with hair of snakes. Anyone who looked directly at her would turn to stone, which is why the hero Perseus gazed only at her reflection in his shield as he beheaded her.
The writer Lawrence Durrell, who was stationed in Rhodos by the British in the recovery years after World War II, was not a fan of the Italians’ taste in the palace reconstruction. In his memoir Reflections on a Marine Venus, he tours the edifice, which he calls the Castello:
“We pursued our way across the deserted market-place and entered the old walled town of the Crusaders, passing by the lovely and undamaged Gothic tower of St. Paul. At the spur of a gentle incline we turned into the famous Street of the Knights at the top of which lay the Castello–that monument to bad taste executed by the latest Italian governor. By now the hideous archness of the restoration work was becoming fully apparent…. We walked from room to garish room, from chapel to chapel, corridor to corridor; wherever you turned you were greeted with ugly statuary, tasteless hangings and tapestries, and the kind of marquetry work that suggested the lounges of passenger steamers.”
Here’s an example of the taste he was describing:
But, all in all, I enjoyed touring the rambling collection of grandiose chambers, especially for the wonderful mosaics, like this centaur with a rabbit:
And this scene of luxurious living from ancient times:
I enjoy the fanciful depictions of dolphins, sacred companions of Dionysos:
The Chamber of the Nine Muses features another late Hellenistic mosaic honoring the deities of the creative arts in Greek mythology:
Can you identify the Muses?
We had seen the original marble carving of The Laocoon in the Vatican in Rome. This amazing work was created by three Rhodian sculptors, and that heritage is celebrated with this reproduction housed in the Palace. It’s interesting that Laocoon’s two sons, also captured by the sea serpent, are represented by figures that look like mature men, only on a smaller scale:
The Palace commands beautiful views across the old city:
This view through one of the eastern windows captures the mixed heritage of this fusion of cultures, with a mosque and church shoulder to shoulder:
On the west side, the Palace overlooks the harbor and historic windwills:
The nearby lanes are less commercialized than other parts of the walled city, peaceful enough for an alley cat to enjoy a quiet nap:
The Knights established a large hospital near their quarters, now housing a lovely museum that we’ll visit in an upcoming blog post. Durrell wrote of the hospital:
“The physicians were bound by order to visit their patients not less than twice a day. Two surgeons were standing by under their orders to perform whatever operations were found necessary. A large store of herbs and drugs was maintained as part of the charges of the establishment, while the patients were fed upon all kinds of nourishing food. But dicing, chess, and the reading of chronicles, histories, romances or other light fiction of the kind was strictly forbidden.” Those Knights were, indeed, strict about their vows of purity, though apparently as they gained great wealth through control of shipping, they started to indulge in expensive clothing, horses, and furnishings. All came to an end when they finally had to surrender to a siege by the Turks in 1522. Once more, the island of Rhodos changed hands.
Don’t miss next week, when Thor and I visit the breathtaking Classical site of Lindos, perched high on the rocky eastern shore above the deep blue sea.
You will now find The Rambling Writer’s blog posts here every Saturday. Sara’s latest novel from Book View Cafe is available in print and ebook: The Ariadne Connection. It’s a near-future thriller set in the Greek islands. “Technology triggers a deadly new plague. Can a healer find the cure?” The novel has received the Cygnus Award for Speculative Fiction. Sara has recently returned from a research trip in Greece and is back at work on the sequel, The Ariadne Disconnect. Sign up for her quarterly email newsletter at www.sarastamey.com