Exploring the best Jewish heritage on Rhodes

The Greek island has plenty to offer as the area recovers from its latest misfortunes


For an island just over three times the size of the Isle of Wight, the history of Rhodes has been a turbulent one. Fought over, besieged and occupied by a string of different empires across the centuries, the Greek island’s strategic position drew wannabe occupiers — and inhabitants — from far afield.

Everyone from the Persians, Athenians and Macedonians to the Venetians, Ottomans and Italians left their mark, and while knights and kings battled for control of Rhodes, a Jewish community first flourished in this sunny corner of the Aegean, before being all but destroyed.

Walking through the medieval streets of Rhodes Old Town, most tourists flock to the Palace of the Grand Master of the Knights and the city’s Archaeological Museum, before strolling down the steep cobbled Street of the Knights and browsing for souvenirs among the twisting whitewashed alleys.

But head towards the waterfront and you can also discover the oldest synagogue in Greece. The Kahal Shalom Synagogue — now attached to the Jewish Museum — was once one of six synagogues and prayer halls within the Jewish Quarter, but it now the only one remaining, still occasionally used for services.

Inside, the building lives up to its name, Kahal Kadosh Shalom, a beautiful, peaceful space which seems oddly timeless. Glittering chandeliers hang above the prayer hall, laid out in traditional Sephardi style, while two Arks sit either side of the shul’s original entrance.

The Torah scrolls themselves were saved during the Second World War by the Grand Mufti of Rhodes, spiritual leader of the island’s Muslims.

There are more reminders of the island’s richly diverse community in the small museum attached to the shul, with the first Jews recorded living on Rhodes back in the 2nd century BCE.

Numbers had already grown to around 500 in the 12th century, before the Romaniote Jews making up the original community were joined in the early 16th century by large numbers of Spanish Jews who had fled to Greece and Turkey to escape the Inquisition.

At its height, the community numbered as many as 4,000 people; after the war, only around 160 survived the camps and today numbers have dropped to just 37.

Around the corner in Platia Evreon Martiron, sits a permanent memorial in several different languages to the devastated community, and the 1,604 murdered by the Nazis and their Italian allies after being sent to Auschwitz in 1944.

The Jewish community’s tale is only one strand of the story contained inside the honey-coloured walls of Rhodes Town; within a few minutes, you can weave your way past its famous medieval buildings, a Byzantine clock-tower with its string of later additions, as well as several colourful mosques from the island’s Ottoman occupation — most closed to the public.

The jewel of the Unesco World Heritage site is the Palace of the Grand Master of the Knights. Dating from the 14th and 15th century, the grandiose stone building would once have been used for medieval admin as well as for housing the Grand Master in its more imposing rooms.

Mosaics from nearby Kos now decorate the floors, transported here by the Italians last century when both King Victor Emmanuel and Mussolini used the palace as a summer home.

Historic auberges still line the slippery cobbled slope of the Street of the Knights, each intended to house knights speaking a particular language, with shields and carvings adorning some of the old buildings.

At its foot, the island’s Archaeological Museum is housed in the Knights’ former hospital, where ancient artefacts and knightly tombstones are on display and animal statues are frozen mid-prowl in the shady gardens.

Beyond the formidable walls, the Colossus of Rhodes once bestrode the harbour, marking a victory over the besieging Macedonians — well, probably.

No-one is quite sure where the 33-metre statue stood, or precisely what happened to this wonder of the ancient world after it collapsed during the earthquake of 226 BCE. Today, a rather less imposing but still endearing pair of statues stand on either side of the entrance to Mandraki Harbour; a Venetian-era doe and a stag.

Even by the time the Colossus was constructed, the earliest settlements on Rhodes were already centuries old. At ancient Kamiros, the oldest city on Rhodes, you can see former houses and baths under the pine trees as well as the remains of temples and its giant cistern — most date from the 6th century BCE, hundreds of years after the first inhabitants settled here and around Lindos, home to the better-known Acropolis of Lindos.

Perched on a hill above Lindos village, its white-washed streets a maze of souvenir shops and bars, the columns of the temple of Athena Lindia soar high against the cloudless blue sky. Today, it’s surrounded by a string of other ancient buildings and temples, all enclosed by later fortifications built by the Knights of St John.

Below lies a few of the island’s coves, the bays turquoise bright against the deep blue Aegean — and a short drive away, a reminder that Colossus-tumbling earthquakes aren’t the only natural disasters Rhodes has faced.

The results of this summer’s devastating wildfires are still plain to see as you travel along the coastline south of Lindos, where the olive groves and thickly tree-lined hills found elsewhere on the island have been replaced with slopes of blackened ash and scorched stumps.

Happily, work has already begun to regenerate the landscape, and my own visit played its small part; for every new hotel booking with Lindos Hotels, which has five different properties on the island, they’ll plant a tree.

Our own base was the luxurious Gennadi Grand Resort, around half an hour south of Lindos, and a site sprawling enough that you’re presented with a small map on arrival.

With its own private beach, three freshwater pools dotted around — I serendipitously stumbled across what became our favourite poolside spot after taking a wrong turning — and 11 restaurants and bars, it’s easy to surrender to the peace of this relaxed five-star bubble and spend your time drifting from lounger to meal.

If even that is too much effort, the hotel’s helpful app also lets order food and drink to your lounger.

Book into one of the swim-up rooms and you don’t even have to drag yourself away from your own terrace; the other accommodation includes suites with balconies on the upper levels, some with views out to the sea. Ours came with the biggest Nespresso machine I’ve ever seen, an equally lavish bed and Korres toiletries in the bathroom.

Add in a kids club, spa, fitness centre, watersports on the beach, tennis and outdoor yoga, and you won’t struggle to fill your days — or find ways to counterbalance the huge breakfast buffet, serving everything from baked eggs to pancakes, thickly creamy Greek yoghurt and fruit galore, to name just a few choices.

If you’re looking for a taste of Greek culture, the resort also runs weekly ceramic and cooking classes — paint a tile to take home as a souvenir, or learn a traditional Greek recipe, including melekouni, a traditional sweet made with honey and sesame seeds, and gemista, vegetables stuffed with herby rice.

Watching one of the hotel’s chefs do all the hard work, leaving us to spoon the rice into pre-scooped peppers and tomatoes, he painted a picture of village grandmothers sitting around in a circle, preparing it as they gossiped.

Best eaten the following day, we settled for having ours with dinner at Ouzo, one of the resort’s string of a la carte restaurants, alongside some fabulous fresh fish and a Greek twist on bruschetta.

With each day lulling you into an ever more chilled-out state, it can be difficult to muster up the energy to venture outside the resort. But with so much to discover on Rhodes, it’s well worth the effort — the new saplings lining the roadside reminding us that however eventful the past, there’s aways the promise of a flourishing future.

Getting There

Flights to Rhodes cost from around £90 from London and around £180 from Manchester with easyJet.

Rooms at the Gennadi Grand Resort cost from £210.

Entry to the Jewish Museum costs around £5. Guided tours also available.

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