Cruising through the Aegean Sea, Part II: Rhodes, Chios, Mykonos and Delos

"The famous medieval Jewish traveler, Benjamin de Tudela, visiting Rhodes in the second half of the 12th century, noted that the Jewish community numbered 500 people..."

'Little Venice' in Mykonos. (photo credit: IRVING SPITZ)
'Little Venice' in Mykonos.
(photo credit: IRVING SPITZ)
Rhodes
Located off the coast of Turkey, the island was the site of the famous Colossus of Rhodes, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. This giant bronze statue that stood at the entrance of the harbor was completed in 280 BCE, and destroyed in an earthquake 50 years later; no trace remains. The Order of the Knights of St. John, or Knights Hospitallers, was founded in Jerusalem at the time of the Crusades.
When the knights were expelled from their last stronghold in Acre in 1291, they found temporary refuge in Cyprus and then in 1309, occupied Rhodes. The island fell to the Ottoman army of Suleiman the Magnificent in 1522; the surviving knights then moved their base of operations to Malta. Rhodes remained a possession of the Ottoman Empire for nearly four centuries.
In 1912, Italy seized it from the Turks, and during World War II the German Army occupied it. After the war, Rhodes was reunited with Greece. The island’s medieval old city has been declared a World Heritage Site. The formidable walls were rebuilt by the Knights of St. John and feature imposing gates, towers, bridges and moats.
The palace of the Grand Master (Castello) is situated on the highest point of the medieval city; it is a roughly square building designed around a large courtyard. Both the city walls and the Castello were originally built at the end of the seventh century as a Byzantine fortress. Under the knights, the palace became an administrative center as well as the residence of their grand master. During Turkish rule, the palace was used as a prison, and it continued to have this function under the Italians until they restored the building.
The main entrance is flanked by two imposing towers; the interior is filled with many vaulted rooms with floor mosaics, medieval furniture, paintings and sculptures. Leading from the palace is the paved medieval street of the knights, one of the best preserved of its kind, with homes that belonged to the order’s members.
The archeological museum, with arched and domed porticoes and a monumental staircase, is located in a Gothic building that previously housed the knights’ great hospital. Especially impressive is the refectory, as well as the large patient ward with its central arched colonnade. One of the famous items in the museum is the marble head of the Greek sun god Helios as a likeness of Alexander the Great, dating from the 2nd century BCE.

Jewish presence in Rhodes
The Jewish community of Rhodes goes back to the second or third century BCE. The famous medieval Jewish traveler, Benjamin de Tudela, visiting Rhodes in the second half of the 12th century, noted that the Jewish community numbered 500 people, when there were only 200 Jews resident in Jerusalem.
Initially, the Knights of St. John had cordial relations with the Jews; they even repaired a synagogue, damaged in one of the earlier Turkish invasions. However, in 1502, the order’s grand master expelled all Jews who refused to convert to Christianity. With the Ottoman conquest, Suleiman invited Jews to return to the island and reopen the synagogues. Following their expulsion from Spain in 1492 and Portugal in 1497, many Jews found refuge in Rhodes as well as other parts of the Ottoman Empire.
Under Ottoman rule, the Jews did fairly well, but discrimination and bigotry occasionally arose. In 1830, the Jews of Rhodes were accused of a ritual murder, although this charge was later withdrawn. In the early years of the 20th century, many Jews left the island in search of better economic opportunities. In 1936, there were about 4,000 Jewish residents. When the government in Rhodes enforced the Italian Fascist racial laws in 1938, several Jewish families were expelled and many others fled the island.
The end of the 2,000-year sojourn of the Jews in Rhodes came with the German invasion. In the summer of 1944, the Germans rounded up all of the island’s Jewish inhabitants, which at that time numbered just over 1,600; the Turkish consul succeeded in saving about 40 Jews who had Turkish citizenship. The Jews were transported to the mainland and deported to Auschwitz; more than 1,200 were led to the gas chambers on the day they arrived. Only 150 people survived. After the war, very few survivors returned to Rhodes.
Of interest to Israelis is that in 1949 Rhodes was the venue for negotiations between Israel and its Arab adversaries after the War of Independence. The sole remaining synagogue on the island, Kahal Shalom, was established in 1577. It is the oldest synagogue in Greece and stands in the Jewish quarter (“La Juderia”) of the old town. Services are held infrequently, since so few Jews are resident there.
The synagogue has been renovated with the help of foreign donors. The interior follows the traditional Sephardic style of having the bima in the center of the sanctuary facing Jerusalem. There are three large arches in the synagogue; the floor is decorated with graceful black-and-white mosaic stone patterns. A balcony along the western wall is used as a women’s prayer area. There are two Torah arks and between them is a door leading to a rear courtyard. Situated here is a plaque which bears the inscription Kislev 5338 (1577), the year the synagogue was established; there is also a plaque listing the names of the Jewish victims of the Holocaust.
The Jewish Museum of Rhodes is part of the synagogue complex. Established to preserve the special heritage of the island’s Jews, it houses artifacts and photos of Jewish life in Rhodes, including the remains of a mikve (ritual bath). The Holocaust memorial commemorating the tragic fate of the unfortunate Jews of Rhodes is in the central square of the Jewish Quarter.
From Rhodes, we departed for the island of Chios, reputed birthplace of Homer, the greatest of all Greek epic poets.

Chios
Situated just off the Turkish coast, Chios’s history is similar to that of many other Aegean islands. Successively conquered by the Romans, Byzantines, Genoese and Ottomans, it was occupied by the Germans in World War II. Since Roman times, the island had a small Jewish population. Like in Rhodes, the Germans transported all the Jews to Auschwitz, where they were murdered.
The mainstay of the island is mastic, a resin obtained from the mastic tree that has been harvested since Roman times. During the Ottoman rule of Chios, mastic was worth its weight in gold and stealing it could incur the death penalty. The mastic tree, which grows only in Chios, reaches a height of 2.7 meters. To harvest the resin, incisions are made in the bark of the tree; the resin flows from the incisions and solidifies on the ground. The pieces of dry mastic can then be collected for cleaning and eventual sale. When chewed, the resin softens and becomes a bright white, opaque gum.
Chewing mastic was one of its earliest uses. In fact, the word “mastic” is used for chewing gum in many languages, including Hebrew. Mastic is also used in ice cream, sauces, cakes, sweets and pastries, as well as in perfumes, cosmetics, soap, body oils and lotions; since ancient times, it has been used for medical purposes. Mastic is also mentioned in the Talmud; according to Tosefta Shabbat (8:7), “It is forbidden to chew mastic on Shabbat; yet it is permitted when the intention is medicinal, for the prevention of bad breath.”
Today, the island’s mastic production is controlled by a cooperative of medieval villages. The most picturesque is Mesta; houses are built on narrow streets covered with arches and vaults. The whole village has been built as a maze to prevent pirate raiding parties, which were active in the 13th and 14th century, from reaching the town’s most important buildings.
Nearby is the village of Anavatos, built on a steep rocky elevation. The site’s natural defenses suggest it was originally founded to guard the island during the period of piracy. The village is now completely deserted; within the walls are remains of buildings of gray stone with flat wooden roofs, low doors, tiny arched windows and terraces.
Leaving Chios, we then sailed to the island of Mykonos. Here we disembarked from our cruise ship.

Mykonos
This small, stunningly beautiful island with sandy white beaches has a population of just over 10,000. In the 1930s, famous artists, politicians and wealthy Europeans began to spend their vacations there. Today, over 1 million tourists flood Mykonos during the summer season.
The buildings in the main town of Chora are often white with blue windows, rarely exceeding two stories in height; many are topped with hibiscus and bougainvillea. There are chic boutiques, cafes and restaurants along the narrow, meandering cobbled alleyways and passages. Another characteristic feature of Mykonos is the numerous domed, whitewashed churches. Near the port is the arcaded town hall and a small church dedicated to St. Nicholas, patron saint of sailors.
The Church of Our Lady Panagia Paraportiani, one of the most famous in all of Greece, is situated in the area known as Kastro, close to the port. Construction began in the 15th century and took more than two centuries to complete. It is comprised of four individual, interconnecting chapels.
From there, it is but a short walk to “Little Venice.” Here are the homes of wealthy merchants and sea captains built in the 18th century; their balconies are reminiscent of those on the storied Italian city’s canals.
Little Venice is also the exquisite setting for some of Mykonos’s famous windmills. The most dramatic group of five stand here in a row on a hill in the town overlooking the sea. Built by the Venetians in the 16th century to grind flour, they remained in use until the early 20th century.

Delos
The small island of Delos, a World Heritage Site – only 5 km. long and 1,300 m. wide – is accessible via a short boat ride from Mykonos. Greek gods Apollo and Artemis are reputed to have been born on Delos, and the island is mentioned in Homer’s Odyssey. Because of its sacred importance, it was forbidden to give birth or die here. No burials were permitted on the island; the terminally ill and pregnant women were transferred from Delos.
Delos was a major religious and commercial site, and during the Greco-Persian Wars the island became the center of the Delian League, an association of Greek city-states under the leadership of Athens, formed to protect these citystates from the Persian invasions. The Delian League met in Delos and functioned as a 5th-century BCE “NATO”; its common treasury was kept on the island until 454 BCE, when Athenian leader Pericles moved it to Athens. The league eventually dissolved in the mid-third century BCE.
Delos gradually evolved into a major commercial, military and maritime trading post, becoming one of the principal markets for grain and the slave trade. In 166 BCE the Romans converted Delos into a free port, resulting in a further influx of merchants – and the island reached its zenith. At that time, some 30,000 people were resident there.
The decline of Delos began when it was sacked in 88 BCE by Mithridate, one of Rome’s most formidable enemies; he ruled Pontus, located in present-day Asia Minor. By then, trade routes had changed and Delos was outside the main commercial axis. It entered a sharp decline since, unlike other Greek islands, it did not have an indigenous, self-supporting community of its own, and was devoid of vegetation and a source of water.
In the fifth century, the island was eventually abandoned, successively captured by the Byzantines, Slavs, Saracens, Venetians, Knights Hospitallers and finally, the Ottoman Turks Today, Delos ranks among the most important mythological, historical and archeological sites in all of Greece. It is uninhabited, with the exception of some resident archeologists. Since 1872, the French School of Athens has been excavating the island’s many fascinating archeological remains. However, the successive occupiers turned the island into a quarry, the columns of its temples destroyed and the houses left in ruins. Much imagination is required to visualize the site in all its glory.
Among the most interesting ruins is the Terrace of the Lions, dedicated to Apollo. Originally there were probably 12 squatting marble guardian lions along the Sacred Way; today, only five remain. The Temple of the Delians, also dedicated to Apollo, is a classic example of the Doric order. Another impressive ruin is the Doric Temple of Isis dating from the second century BCE, built on a high point of the island.
In addition to the numerous temples dedicated to Greek deities, there are many luxurious houses built around courtyards decorated with superb mosaic floors. Perhaps the most impressive is the House of Dionysus, a second-century private home named for the floor mosaic of Dionysus riding a panther. The House of the Dolphins is similarly named, recognizing its atrium mosaic displaying dolphins.

Jewish presence in Delos
The earliest reference to Jews on Delos is found in the First Book of Maccabees; they are also mentioned in texts from Josephus. Furthermore, Samaritan inscriptions have been found on Delos.
In excavations conducted over 100 years ago, archeologists identified a structure they believed was a synagogue. This was based on the finding of six Greek inscriptions, the predominant one having been found some 90 m. north of the site, containing the Greek words, “God, the Most High” – which corresponds to the Hebrew El Elyon. Many experts believe this synagogue to be one of the oldest in the Diaspora, its origin dating between 150 and 128 BCE. Located on a rather isolated spot on the northeastern seashore in an area of private dwellings, it was far removed from the city’s central areas. It was believed to have remained in use until the end of the second century CE.
The structure itself consisted of two large rooms. In the center of the west wall is a throne with a footstool, which may well have come from the theater on Delos; there are also multiple movable marble benches. The main hall is oriented towards Jerusalem, with a series of secondary rooms at the southern end. Beneath these rooms there is a water reservoir, although no evidence points to it having been a mikve. The building’s internal configuration is not in itself proof this was a synagogue.
While there is nothing that would exclude it from being so, there is no conclusive evidence to suggest that it actually was one. Moreover, none of the Jewish or Samaritan texts allude to the presence of a synagogue on Delos. We returned to Mykonos by ferry, and from there it was a short flight to Athens – and then home.
We are indebted to Froso Zaroulea (f.zaroulea@ louisgroup.com), the PR manager of Celestyal Cruises, who facilitated this trip. We were fortunate to have superb guides in Delos (Yolanda Baltavias – info@ all-greece-travel.gr) and Chios (Maria Andrianakou – andrianakou@yahoo.gr). Information on the Jewish history of Rhodes was obtained from The Jewish Community of Rhodes, published in 2010 by J.D. Alhadeff.
The writer, an emeritus professor of medicine, writes, reviews and lectures on medical topics, music, art, history and travel (www.irvingspitz.com). He was recently recognized with the Sidney Ingbar Distinguished Service Award by the Endocrine Society for his contributions to the field. Other images from this as well as other tourist sites can be seen at www.pbase.com/irvspitz. He may be contacted at Irving@spitz.com