ONE Magazine

The official publication of
Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

The Aegean Pearls

A group of Greek islands brings its history and culture to our world.

The Dodecanese Islands are strung like white pearls in the bluest sea in the world. Taking their name from the Greek word dodeka, meaning twelve, the islands are situated off the coast of Asia Minor in the southern Aegean.

Known for their beautiful beaches, sleepy fishing villages and local festivals, the Dodecanese are rich in archaeological and religious history. For instance, Rhodes was the sight of the Colossus, one of the seven wonders of the world.

The ruins of the temple of Ascelpion on the island of Cos can still be explored today and St. John is believed to have written the Book of Revelation, the last book of the New Testament, on the island of Patmos.

The Colossus was a hundred-foot high bronze statue of the sun god Helios. It was commissioned by Rhodians to commemorate a victory in 305 BC. Located at the harbor entrance with a leg on each side so that ships had to pass beneath as they entered port, an earthquake toppled it into the harbor in 227 BC. It remained in the murky waters for eight hundred years until an enterprising Jewish merchant undertook a salvage operation. It is said to have taken 900 camels to transport the metal to smelters in Syria where the remains were ignominiously melted down to candlesticks and tableware.

The temple Ascelpion, situated on Cos, was dedicated to the Greek god of health, Asclepios. People came from all over the Mediterranean area hoping to be cured. When they were cured they placed small clay or bronze models of feet, hands or heads in a building constructed to hold them. The practice of leaving crutches at Lourdes and other Catholic healing sanctuaries is said to have originated at Ascelpion.

In addition to being the site of Ascelpion, Cos was also home to Hippocrates, the “father of medicine.” In the main town of Cos, a visitor can stop at a square on the main road and see a huge plane tree that was supposedly planted by Hippocrates.

On the tiny island of Patmos a grotto stands today that marks the place where St. John lived. It is possible to see a rock which probably existed in his day and could have been used as a desk. Above the village capital of Hora lies a monastery built by the monk Ossios Christodulos in 1088 when he was the only person living on the island. Today, the monks who live there are eager to show visitors the priceless manuscripts and ecclesiastical relics.

Within sight of Moslem Turkey, the islands were once a stronghold of Christianity. Today there are only 700 Catholics among the 130,000 Greek Orthodox residents. Christianity was brought to Rhodes by St. Paul during his third missionary journey between 53 and 58. Later, because of friction between Rome and Constantinople, the jurisdiction of the islands would be a cause of dispute.

The Knight Hospitallers of St. John, a religious order founded to serve sick pilgrims during the Crusades, came to the islands in 1309. During their 200 year stay they influenced not only the lives of the people but the geography as well. They required the Greek population, who had been living under the jurisdiction of Constantinople, to acknowledge the pope as head of the church. They were also responsible for building castles or monastaries on practically every island.

In 1522 a Turkish army invaded Rhodes. The Greek population returned to the jurisdiction of Constantinople and severed ties with Rome. For the next 250 years, there were no Catholics on the Islands until French and Italian merchants settled there. The Franciscans built a small chapel to minister to them.

Italy battled the Ottoman Empire for possession of the Dodecanese in 1912. The Turks were ousted and Catholic administrators were appointed for Rhodes. Up until then Rhodes wasn’t considered one of the Dodecanese and in 1920 Kastellorizo became one of the group. During the Italian occupation, some archaeological explorations were completed. At the end of World War II the Greek inhabitants resisted Italian rule and joined Greece.

The rocky and barren island of Kalimnos is best known for its sponge fishing tradition. Divers are sent out for six months at a time after a religious ceremony at the harbor. Upon their return, the island celebrates with dances and banquets. Incidentally, these divers have established the largest sponge market in the world at Tarpon Springs, Florida.

Whether it be eating the plentiful fish and crops found on Astipalea, touring the beautiful homes built by wealthy seafarers on Kassos, visiting the picturesque taverns of Lipsi, walking through the castle on Kastelorizon, or exploring the towns clinging precariously to the edge of the inactive volcano’s crater on Nissiros, the Dodecanese offer a peace and tranquility rarely found today.

It is not hard to believe that traditions carried out today on the Islands are centuries old. To get around on Halki, one must travel on foot or horseback. One can see the beautiful and elaborately embroidered costumes that women on Tilos wear or buy silk that women weave in their homes on Karpathos. And on Simi it is easy to imagine the mythological story about the seafarer Glafkos abducting Simi from Rhodes and naming an island after her. Or one can sail through the sheltered and natural harbors of Leros.

Because the land has lost much of its fertility due to erosion and overgrazing, tourism is the main industry.

Many of the historical and religious contributions of the Dodecanese are now ruins in the glistening Aegean. But because of the islands, the culture of the Near East and our religion is indeed richer.

Charles A. Frazee is a professor of Byzantine history at California Sate University, Fullerton.

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