RHODES - Turkish Daily News
As the boat from Turkey's southern port of Marmaris approaches Rhodes Island in Greece, visitors admire the distinctive beauty of an island full of green in the deep blue of the Aegean Sea. Yet when the boat arrives in the Rhodes harbor, visitors find themselves in front of a historic wonder: the old city of Rhodes, a unique complex of medieval walls and towers, mosques and churches. Here one finds the biggest concentration of preserved Ottoman monuments in Greece. The first thought that may come to mind is a desire to enter the wall gate by the harbor and to vanish into the small streets. There in the old city one can trace inch by inch the unique amalgam of architecture and mingle with residents. It is, indeed, symbolic that Rhodes Island's old city was designated a World Heritage City by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization in 1988.
Rhodes before the Ottoman Empire
The city of Rhodes and capital of the Dodecanese islands – the twelve major islands of the Aegean – traces its history back to 408 B.C. when the island's three major cities, Ialyssos, Kamiros and Lindos, joined to form the city. By 164 B.C., the island was a province of the Roman Empire and in 1309 it was sold to the Order of the Knights Hospitallers of Saint John of Jerusalem who were on their way back from the defeated holy city. The knights chose Rhodes as its base of operation in the Mediterranean. During the knights' era, the city fortifications were extended, modernized and continuously reinforced. The city was divided in two parts by an inner wall. The northern part, known as Castellum or Conventus, was the site of the Grand Master's Palace, the church of the knights, the knights' houses, the Latin cathedral, the Catholic bishop's residence and a hospital. The southern part, known as ville or burgum, was the area where the laymen lived, and included the market, synagogues, churches and public and commercial buildings. Many of these monuments can still be seen today.
Ottoman heritage in Rhodes
In 1522 the Ottomans conquered the city. New buildings were constructed such as mosques and public baths first mentioned in public documents around 1581. Many churches were converted into mosques, such as Merriam church and Saint Spyridon in the old city.
In 1912, as the Ottoman Empire was ailing, Italy took over the island and in 1923 it established a colony, Isole Italiane del Egeo. During this period a policy of “architectural purity” was implemented mainly on the Street of Knights and its surroundings. However, all mosques, public baths and the library of Hafız Ahmet Ağa, which dates back to 1794, were preserved.
In 1944 the bombardment of Rhodes by British airplanes destroyed a great number of buildings. After the end of the second world war Rhodes was annexed to Greece along with the whole Dodecanese prefecture. Today, the old city of Rhodes is a blend of medieval European architecture with an aura of Ottoman architecture and art.
“An immense program of restoration of the mosques has started,” said the deputy mayor of Rhodes, Costas Taraslias, who is in charge of culture for the municipality. “We regard the [Ottoman] heritage as an inextricable part of Rhodes' history.” In the last fifteen years the medieval city of Rhodes, which includes churches and monuments dating back to the knights' era has undergone extensive restorations under the auspices of the Directorate for the Protection of the Medieval City of Rhodes. In the last five years the Ottoman monuments have also been subject to increasing restoration efforts. Taraslias said the successful restorations were a result of the collaboration and will of both the central administration of Greece and local actors. Experts working on the restorations told the Turkish Daily News that the restoration is carried out with care and respect to Islamic style and colors. “This work is done with love and detail, regardless of whether we deal with Ottoman monuments,” said one expert. There are nearly 10 mosques in and around the city of Rhodes, while other Ottoman era monuments consist of baths, cemeteries, a mausoleum, a library and fountains. The majority of these are either restored or awaiting restoration, with the exception of Rejep Pasha Mosque due to a lack of funds. Below are some of the most important Ottoman monuments and the efforts to restore them and reintroduce them to public life.
Rejep Pasha Mosque (Photo)
Rejep Mosque, erected in 1588, is one of the first buildings after the Ottoman conquest of Rhodes. Its engravings and reliefs are distinctive. It has details and rich painted decorations that offer a unique example of Islamic art on the island. It is situated in Dorieon Square and for now is undergoing preservation until funding for its restoration is found. “At least 3 million euros is needed for the restoration of Rejep Pasha Mosque. We have worked out plans and it is a very big project,” says Costas Taraslias. The municipality applied for funding to from the Aga Khan Development Network but was declined. After restoration the mosque will be turned into a museum of Islamic art.
The new baths (Yeni Hamam) (Photo)
One of the three public baths that were in operation during the Ottoman era is still offering its services to the public at Arion Square close to the Sultan Mustafa Mosque. The building, known as the baths of Suleiman or Mustafa, was first mentioned in 1558 and has been in continuous operation since. With 1,070 square meters of space, it is regarded as one of the most important rural public baths of the Ottoman Empire. It offers its services to men and women on a daily base from 10:00 a.m.-5:00 p.m. and the entrance fee is 5 euros.
The Tomb of Murad Reis
Outside the old city, in the area known as Qum Burnu or Punta della Sabbia, stands the tomb of Murad Reis, a famous Ottoman admiral, who died in 1610 in a battle sea with Malta's Knight in Cyprus. The tomb is surrounded by the cemetery named after him, a mosque and a “tekke,” a compound of buildings and a courtyard housing the head of a religious order. His tomb was a popular shrine for Turkish sailors in subsequent centuries, who visited his grave for good luck before setting sail to distant places. Eight successive building phases are evident in the compound, according to experts. The municipality plans to use part of the compound as a conservatory and the cemetery as an archaeological site.
Ibrahim Pasha Mosque (photo)
Ibrahim Pasha Mosque is the only mosque in the city of Rhodes that is still used for Islamic worship. It was built by the servant of Sultan Suleyman the Lawgiver, Ibrahim Pasha, in 1522 and is located in the Plato Square. The interior has some distinctive art, including a wooden surface below the women's section where a vine is painted on wood. According to the Mufti of Rhodes, the painting symbolizes a “fruitful embrace” and this drawing was first made when the mosque was built. The building itself underwent restoration; however outside the mosque there is a fountain that is out of order. The mosque is located in the old city at Plato Square.
Mehmet Ağa Mosque (photo)
In a prominent position on Socratous Street, leading to one of the biggest squares of the old city, Hippocratus, visitors can admire the Mehmet Ağa Mosque. It was built in 1820 on the first floor of an older building, presumably from the knights' era. Its wooden minaret, which looks like a lighthouse, captures visitors' attention at first sight. According to experts, mosques built on the first floor are also found in Bursa, such as İpek Han, and in Damascus. The form of the octagonal minaret follows patterns of Damascus' mosques. However, unlike other Ottoman religious monuments on Rhodes, the Mehmet Ağa incorporates several stylistic elements of Western origin, experts say. The mosque has been restored and its planned future use is as a cultural information center.
Ali Hilmi Pasha Mosque (photo)
In the contemporary city of Rhodes very close to the D'ambouaz Gate lies Ali Hilmi Pasha Mosque. While inside the mosque has all the typical elements of an Islamic place of worship, outside instead of a minaret it has a tiled octagonal roof with wooden corbels that end at the same point, evoking a pagoda. This mosque is unique, according to experts, and it is also the newest of the mosques, built in 1909. Above the entrance there is an inscription in Ottoman script, “This mosque was built by the Egyptian Ali Hilmi Pasha, who asks for God's mercy for his sins. 1327 Hijra year (1909).” The mosque was expropriated by the Italian administration in 1937 but, according to some locals, a grandchild of the Pasha is still alive. The mosque is fully restored and will be used for exhibitions and other cultural events of the Museum of Contemporary Greek Art.