The Aegean Pearls

by Charles A. Frazee
photos: courtesy, Greek National Tourist Board

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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.

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Tags: Christianity Village life Greece Tourism