In the course of living and writing in Serbia, I had the great fortune to be invited by Rhodes International Culture and Heritage Society (Rhodes RICHES), a non-governmental organization (NGO) based in Rhodes, to the lovely island to present my lecture on Byzantium: Past and Future. In spite of the March 25 holiday weekend, the Rhodian NGO delivered a full house in an Art Deco hall built during the Italian occupation era to discuss the Balkans’ Byzantine heritage and the lack of the Byzantine brand.
As I completed my lecture and mingled with the crowd of diverse opinions, ages, and nationalities, I was impressed at the NGO’s efforts, both to promote awareness of Rhodes on the global stage, and to encourage an openness and transparency among the Rhodians themselves about their rich (and quite diverse) cultural heritage. Even in a country with such a vast history as Greece, Rhodes stands out. The Classical Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Crusader, Ottoman, Sephardic Jewish, Franco-Levantine, and Italian colonial heritage all rub shoulders in Rhodes’ long historical timeline, and their architecture is a treasure trove.
Rhodes RICHES differs from other cultural organizations on the island, and indeed elsewhere in Greece, in that it seeks to make this rich cultural stew available to all Rhodians and visitors. The organization is staffed by dedicated volunteers of several nationalities, and their labor is one of love which keeps the costs down, and ensures that their lectures and cultural series are available to all. Culture is not a commodity to them, but rather a social good to be enjoyed by all in an atmosphere of tolerance. In a world so increasingly monetized and seesawing between tolerance and xenophobia, organizations such as this are greatly in need everywhere.
Aside from lectures like mine, the organization hosts the “Open Doors Program” which operates in conjunction with European Heritage Days, a common day throughout Europe when buildings of historical or architectural significance normally closed to the public are opened for tours; this was the first such program in Greece. Heritage Walks, tours, and cultural projects are also part of the group’s efforts. The Rhodian public has embraced the innovative thinking of RICHES, and the organization is gaining attention elsewhere. In a recent edition of Kathimerini, RICHES’ current president, Christos Maliarakis, an erudite Rhodian lawyer, presented the organization to the wider Greek public.
I had the opportunity to become friends with several board members, again of diverse nationalities, all dedicated to providing a holistic and transparent picture of Rhodes. This is not always easy in a Greece which is highly bureaucratic and often intolerant of unofficial history. Unofficial history, however, is the most real and interesting, I have found. The organization’s founder, Erik Bruns, a Dutch transplant, took me through the old city of Rhodes, from the castles and ramparts of the Knights of St. John, to the mines dug by Suleiman’s troops during the epic Ottoman siege of 1522, to the Byzantine Churches, Ottoman Mosques, the Sephardic Jewish Synagogue, and Catholic basilicas, both from the Medieval era and the more recent Italian colonial era, from 1912 to 1945. Aside from work with Rhodes RICHES, Erik organizes tours for locals to learn of their island’s diversity, or for groups from Israel, Turkey, and elsewhere to find their roots in Rhodes.
Though Erik is a historian dedicated to accuracy and historical transparency, with no time for narrow Greek nationalism, Greece had taken hold of him. His self-taught Greek is excellent. Looking out from the tip of the island, the narrowest point of Rhodes and the closest to Asia Minor, we stared into Turkey. As a Greek, my thoughts were obvious, a wistful sense of loss, but I was almost to tears when Erik said, in a clipped Dutch English, “It’s a pity WE lost it.” In all the years I lived in Byzantine Orthodox Serbia, married to a Serb, and in spite of my love for Serbia, I had never used the word WE when speaking of Serbs. That is what Greece had done to this Dutch historian, and in turn he dedicated several years of his life to presenting Rhodes to the world—and to itself. Philhellenism is alive; time and again I have seen foreigners take up the cause of Greece as their own.
Since I visited Rhodes in the Spring of 2013, I am pleased that Rhodes RICHES has continued to thrive, with their lecture series continuing over the winter of 2013-2014, and that their causes have continued to proliferate, focusing more and more on the architectural heritage of Rhodes which is often in danger of the developer’s wrecking ball or the simple combination of indifference and economic hardship. There is so much heritage to protect, and in a cronyistic, bureaucratic Greece, this is an uphill battle, but one that RICHES is determined to win.
Not every Greek island or region has the diversity of Rhodes. Yet every part of Greece has incredible depth, diversity, and most often, beauty. With the exception of remote villages, moreover, Greece has plenty of expats who have been moved by Greece’s history, climate, landscape, or character to make our homeland their home. A nation’s culture is part of its strength, and fundamental to its brand. Rhodes RICHES is a labor of love, and yet, fortunately, love has not made them blind; their mission is to promote culture in an environment of diversity and debate. Perhaps as importantly, they have not monetized culture, but they have made culture more widely and freely available as part of our common heritage. We need more such organizations.
To learn more about their efforts, visit www.rhodesriches.org.