In the Old Town, it pays to get lost, to turn a corner – any corner – away from the tacky tourist drag of Sokratous or the ‘Hello mister!’ restaurant strip of Orfeos, into the warren of lanes behind. Here, a doorway opens onto a courtyard shaded by lemon trees. On Fanouriou, a gaze forced forwards by the walls of souvenir junk on nearby Sokratous is suddenly compelled sideways by the unexpected, teeming gloom of a real ironmonger’s shop. Over a patch of waste ground, where figs shelter the scattered building blocks of past ambitions and morning glory scales the walls, is a view down a terrace of rooftops to the imposing dome and minaret of the Redjep Pasha Mosque.
There are proper gardens, too, such as the haven of cumquat and orange, cypress The ham mam allows the foot-weary tourist to stretch out naked on a marble slab and douse him or herself with water while contemplating the starry dome above
and myrtle that hides behind the little Byzantine chapel of Agios Markos, the private chapel of the Grand Master in the north-western corner of the Old Town. Today, Agios Markos is one of the building blocks of the Rhodian cultural renaissance. In 1993, a young Frenchman, Marc de Montalembert, died in a sailing accident off the coast of Rhodes. His parents came to the city and discovered the tiny chapel, which their son had mentioned in one of his last postcards. With the blessing of the local heritage department, they restored the chapel and the overgrown garden that lay between it and the church of Agios Georgios, and turned the lovely Turkish summerhouse overlooking the garden into the headquarters of the Marc de Montalembert Foundation, which provides bursaries for young students, writers and artists to complete projects on aspects of Mediterranean history and culture.
Rhodes needs this sort of attention. Before the war, most tourists had a cultural agenda, more or less, and some grasp of the island’s proud classical and medieval past. These days, most come to resorts such as Faliraki to be comforted with imitations of their homeland. The cultural debate is now limited to whether or not the Colossus of Rhodes wore underpants in deference to those sailing underneath (ignoring the historical consensus that this massive, bronze statue of the third century bc never bestrode the harbour but stood to one side of it).
Because of its proximity to Turkey and its position on the Eastern Aegean trade routes, not to mention its long history of foreign rule and foreign residents, Rhodes had a reputation as the cosmopolitan entrepot of Greece. It only became a part of the country in 1948: four centuries of Ottoman rule had been followed by three decades under the Italian flag, when Rhodes was the centrepiece of Mussolini’s Aegean Empire. The Italians left some clean-cut colonial architecture, a rebuilt Palace of the Grand Masters (the original had been destroyed when lightning struck an Ottoman powder-store in 1856), a few decent roads and a generation of Rhodian Italian speakers who have almost died out.
The island also had strong Turkish and Jewish communities, both of which lived in relative harmony with the Greek Orthodox majority. Today there are only about 3,000 Rhodians of Turkish descent, most of whom have menial jobs. Surviving legacies of the Old Town’s Ottoman past include four mosques (only one currently open), the delightful Muslim library bequeathed by a former equerry to the sultan in 1793 and the only functioning public Turkish baths in Greece, next door to the Sultan Mustafa Mosque. This hammam makes for an unusual diversion from sightseeing, allowing the foot-weary tourist to stretch out naked on a marble slab and douse him or herself periodically with water from a brass bowl while contemplating the starry dome above. The building requires periodic renovation, and when one section is closed, the hammam is open to men and women on alternate days. Remember to bring a towel, as nothing is provided.
Equally atmospheric is one of the few worthwhile sights in the New Town: the Murad Reis Mosque and Muslim cemetery just south of Elli, the town’s main beach. This dusty garden of skewed, turbaned tombstones, and the small, innocently kitsch mausoleum that holds the tomb of Murad Reis (an admiral who perished during the 1522 seige that put an end to the knights’ Rhodian sojourn) are presided over by an ancient fisherman, who was mending his nets when I arrived. In broken Italian he told me that he remembered Lawrence Durrell coming to take tea with the local magistrate every day at 9am. Durrell lived in Villa Cleobolus, an unassuming and now rather decrepit cottage bordering on the graveyard, between 1945 and 1947; his two years on Rhodes are recorded in effusive prose in the book Reflections on a Marine Venus. When I asked the fisherman how old he was, he stabbed at his chest and said proudly Babbo di mi’ babbo di mi’ babbo di mi’ babbo’, which I took to mean that he was a greatgrandfather, at the very least.
Though depleted since the days of Ottoman rule, Rhodes’s Turkish minority did not suffer the fate of the city’s once-thriving Jewish community, whose members referred to themselves as Rhodesli. A visit to the still-functioning Kahal Shalom Synagogue in the former Jewish quarter in