Kremasti and the small villages of Rhodes, with their tavernas, white-washed domed churches and neoclassical public buildings, appear for all the world like picture-postcard Greece. It is hard to imagine that Rhodes and its neighbouring islands in the Dodecanese have been part of the modern Greek state for only 50 years.
Looking across the narrow strait that separates the western coast of Rhodes from the thin, finger-like peninsulas that jut out from Anatolian Turkey, it is easy to understand why local people talk in terms of “when the Turks come,” and rarely “if …”
The shore line is pock-marked with gun positions which, despite their wilting camouflage, are always ready for use. Turkey and Greece have gone to war twice this century, and both states have yet to find a way to implement an agreement reached 10 years on reducing tensions in the Aegean.
The signs of invasions that came wave after wave are to be seen throughout the island. Rhodes has been attacked or conquered by each and every civilisation that has sought to impose its might on the Mediterranean, including the Minoans, the Dorians, the Romans, the Arabs, the Byzantines, Genoese pirates, and the Crusading Knights of Rhodes, who were forced by the Turks to abandon the island for Malta in 1522.
In the old town of Rhodes, the Turks have left a monumental legacy, with their terracotta pink mosques and minarets, Ottoman libraries and harems, fountains, baths and bazaars providing an oriental atmosphere in the narrow streets with their hanging balconies. There is still a small minority of 4,000 Muslims of Turkish origin on the island, and their integration into island life is typified by Mustafa, the taxi driver, who insists on being called Taki by his colleagues.
But while the Turks left their mark mainly in the old town, the Italians were the last invading force to leave their mark everywhere in Rhodes and throughout the Dodecanese. Despite their name, there are more than 12 islands in the Dodecanese: over 1,000 islands – only 26 are inhabited – fell to Italians after they defeated the Turks in 1912.
Under the command of the Italian Governor, Mario de Vecchi, Italian architects rebuilt the Palace of the Grand Masters, destroyed in an explosion in 1856, as a summer residence for King Victor Emmanuel III and Mussolini. They were given free rein to their fantasies and proved indiscriminate in their mixture of architectural styles, features and furnishings, plundering early Christian mosaics from Kos and misplacing them in the upper floors. The overall kitsch effect was later ridiculed by Lawrence Durrell as “a design for a Neapolitan ice”. Ironically, the rebuilding was completed in 1939, and neither the king nor Il Duce ever stayed in the palace.
A project that was a disaster – although on a lesser scale – was the building work at Kalithea, where Hippocrates had advised his patients to take the spa waters for kidney and arthritic complaints. The Italians tried to restore the thermal baths, laid out terraced tropical gardens, and built domed pavilions with pink marbled pillars, arcades and walks in pseudo-Moorish style. The project failed to attract Italian visitors, and today the site is only of passing interest to tourists on their way south to the popular resorts of Faliraki and Lindos.
Further north in the Dodecanese lies Leros, once famous as the island of Artemis, but now infamous as the home of Greece's most notorious psychiatric institutions, and as the island to which the colonels exiled their opponents. After Mussolini came to power, Italian architects and town planners started working on Mussolini’s vision of a fascist dream town in Lakki, building wide boulevards, a saucer-shaped market building with a clock tower, a cylindrical town hall and fascist centre, and the vast art deco Albergo Romana, later the Leros Palace Hotel, with a cinema and theatre complex.
To defy the Italians, the people of Leros abandoned Lakki and made the village of Platanos their own capital. Today, Mussolini’s summer residence houses the State Therapeutical Hospital, and Lakki is a ghost town by day, resembling a disused film set.
BUT, despite Durrell's criticisms of the rebuilding of the old town of Rhodes, the pleasant shape of the new town is a credit to Italian architects. They built the Nea Agora (new market) in the style of an oriental bazaar a Moorish inner courtyard and heptagonal domed fish market; they built the imposing and stately Post Office and the Bank of Greece; and they rebuilt the Evangelismos Church, a faithful reconstruction of the Crusaders’ Church of St John. The Governor's Palace - now home to the Greek Orthodox archbishop - mixes elements of Arab, neo-Gothic and Venetian styles, and has been compared by some with Doge’s Palace in Venice.
To view the authentic architectural styles of the islands, one must travel to Symi – squashed between Rhodes and the Marmares peninsula of Turkey – with its pastel-coloured neo-classical houses rising in tiers above the the semi-circle of the harbour they embrace. On the harbour-front at Symi, a small plaque commemorates the surrender of the Germans on May 8th, 1945, and the end of the second World War.
Durrell arrived soon after in Rhodes to edit to re-establish local newspapers and as part of the British administration. The British continued to administer the Dodecanese and in the old Governor’s Palace in the new town, the Italians formally handed over the Dodecanese in 1947.
This year, Rhodes and the other islands have been marking the 50th anniversary of their incorporation into the Greek state on March 7th, 1948. If Mussolini and Victor Emmanuel never managed to take up residence in the Grand Masters’ Palace, the Italians’ lasting legacy may well be the introduction of tourism to Rhodes. Close to the Villa Kleoboulos, where Durrell once made his home, they built the now-abandoned Hotel des Roses in Moorish style as the island’s first holiday hotel. And while other Greek islands have suffered from depopulation over recent decades, tourism has allowed Rhodes to see its population almost double from 66,000 in 1971 to the present 110,000.
The Italians are welcome and popular tourists today. No longer a threat, they are praised for the efforts to enhance the island’s beauty. But the islanders still look across the straits to Anatolia, and worry about the Turks who first and invaded and conquered them in 1522.
This ‘World View’ column was first published in ‘The Irish Times’ on Saturday 13 June 1998