Built around a busy harbour which has been guarded since the 14th century by the Castle of the Knights of St John Kos Town is a wonderful mixture of the ancient and modern and a worthwhile holiday destination both in its own right as well as a base for touring the island of Kos with the other Dodecanese Islands and the Turkish mainland with Bodrum (ancient Hallincarnassus) just a short boat ride away.
See; Kalymnos, Island of the Sponge Divers
The Taxi Driver of Nisyros
The town of Kos was founded in 366 BC, in the same area where modern Kos is nowadays found. It reached the apogee of its importance during the Hellenistic and Roman periods, being a crossroad between civilisations, between East and West, the meeting point for both culture and trade. Its public market was of great fame during antiquity and still is thriving today. All around Kos Town you can find signs of the past, reminders of the civilisations that passed through its harbour. There are numerous buildings, built in imitation of the Italian architecture of the colonies in North Africa, most typical being the Municipal Buildings and Court House as well as modern Greek and Ottoman.
For such a bustling town there are a surprising number of peaceful retreats among the landscaped gardens and shady squares. Traditional tavernas and cafés around the waterfront also provide a place to escape the air of business that surrounds the island’s capital. Most parts have either been carefully preserved or thoughtfully developed to produce a pleasing resort full of character.
Its ancient Mandraki (Harbour) guarded by the Castle of Nerazia provides a pleasant hive of activity and a focal point although the ferries and inter island catamarans and hydrofoils go from a landing stage on the far side of the Castle. Despite regular and devastating earthquakes throughout its history Kos Town has remained on this site benefiting from the seaborne trade. It is the last major earthquake in 1933 (when the island was under Italian occupation) which gives us the shape and form of the contemporary city which spreads out from the harbour and which is home to half the island’s population. The Italians rebuilt with wide palm lined avenues and excavated the extensive Hellenistic and Roman archaelogical remains which were revealed by the earthquake. So modern Kos Town provides a fascinating mix of the Greek and Roman, the Crusader Knights who held out here until 1522, the Ottomans who left mosques, Hammans and fountains, the Italians who laid out the modern town and endowed it with fine public buildings, mock North African, fascist Internationalist and art Deco and modern Greece of which Kos only became a part of in 1948. The maze like Ottoman Centre apart (known as Kos Old Town) this is a planned town with the pines, palms and shrubs planted by the Italians now fully matured.
Eleftherias (Freedom) square is the centre of Kos Town. It is the atmospheric open air “Drawing Room” of Kos where everybody goes for their evening stroll, to see and to be seen. It is overlooked on one side by the Nefterdar mosque which was built at the end of the 18th century and the ablution fountain, on the other by the Italian Colonial style Merkato, and by the Theatre and library and the Archeological Museum on the other sides. Towered over at night by the illuminated crosses of the Orthodox Cathderal and adjoined by the ancient Roman Agora it provides a superb urban set piece symbolising the rich mix of influences which have made this unique island. A good pit stop for food and drink is Ideal snack bar on Martiou Street just off Eleftherias Square. Ideal is delightful and always friendly and the Gyros (Chicken or Pork Souvlaki) are the best value and tastiest on the island. It is run by Zoë and her family; She is Greek American from Boston and totally cool. She is also an unfailing source of reliable advice on what to do and what to see but nobody can give you reliable advice in Greece on ferry timetables! Nobody stacks a Gyros like Timo, the chef at Ideal; these are not bought in but made fresh every day by Timo and Zoë’s dad, Kostaes.
There is a “bar street” by the Agora with late night delights including a night club in an original Turkish Hamman. More satisfying though is to head up to Haluvazia, the atmospheric Ottoman Old Town. Off the pedestrianised narrow main street (Apelou Ifestou)you can see the sturdy Ottoman homes and courtyards which survived the 1933 earthquake. Following this street you come to a cross roads where you find on one side the Old Town Café and on the other side The Old Town Bar.
The café is run by the much travelled and amusing Alex who plays excellent lounge music whilst selling the best Frappe on the island – essential fuel on a warm day beneath the canopy of bougainvillea. The bar on the other side is run by Mines and his Mohitos are the real deal! It is a good place to hang out and if you turn up the second time you are greeted as an old friend and free nibbles and drinks are normal hospitality. Across from the café is Olive (Elia in Greek) at 27. Apelou Ifestou, a traditional Greek Restauraunt affiliated to the Slow Food movement which specialises in authentic local dishes and local produce and which I cannot recommend too highly. At the end of the meal you will be presented with their coup de theatre, a saucer of Olives! When you eat them you will react strangely for these are sweet olives marinated in honey and taste surprisingly delicious. Indeed they are so popular and unique that Elia now sells them in jars to take away.
See; Kos; A tale of two restaurants
What must be also said about Kos Town is it is very clean and well run – it had an energetic mayor for many years who is now the local MP and the contrast with the chaos and inept administration elsewhere (such as Kalymnos) is refreshing. There are two strips by the coast on either side of the harbour Lambi which is more down market (Sky TV and Coronation Street) and along an elegant promenade past the smart new marina Psaldi which contains more up market hotels including my personal favourite, the excellent and well managed Continental Palace. Bicycles are often seen in Kos Town and the cycle tracks are well used especially by Dutch and German visitors. Another quiet haven is Hippocrates Plane Tree and the Loggia Mosque which are in a pleasant square with an ancient Ottoman fountain.
Kos is the most fertile of the Dodecanese blessed with rich volcanic soil and plentiful water. In the ancient Mediterranean the trade routes did not go in straight lines but hugged the coast and on the height above Kos Town occupied by the Asklepia (the Temple where one of its priests Hippocrates practiced medicine) you have a wonderful view over the straights as far as Bodrum (as Hallincarnassus home of one of the wonders of the ancient world, the tomb of Mausulos, King of Caria on the mainland of Asia Minor. You can imagine the scene with ancient galleys. For the Roman Empire this was the stopping off point to / from Syria, Palestine and Egypt where they took on provisions (including the Cos lettuce), used the gymnasia and baths and left the sick to follow on after recovering in the Asklepia and sanatoria. And from guilt or longing they would buy their Roman ladies, Coan draperies, the somewhat saucy translucent numbers for which the island was famous!
Kos is basically a large, long narrow plain and measures 290 square kilometers, with the obvious exception of a mountainous region in the north west of the island. This region comprises of a series of peaks, the tallest of which is Dikaio Christo (which in Greek means “The Just Christ”). A castle of the Knights of the Order of St. John still survives on one of the many peaks of Dikaio near Thimiana.
In order to get a taste of the ancient wonders that Kos has to offer, make a stop at the Archaeological Museum, located at Eleftherias square which exhibits a wide collection of archaeological treasures, such as the mosaic of Hippocrates, the Hellenistic sculptures of Aphrodite, Eros and one believed to be of Hippocrates himself. It was built by the Italians in the Fascist International style as a none too subtle propaganda exercise with a distinct Latin bias. Whilst there are some Hellenistic exhibits many of the exhibits are in fact Roman including the mosaic which shows Hippocrates welcoming Asklepios to Kos.
The Hellenistic period is the brightest period in Kos’ history. In the creation of the new city (366 BC) many marble monuments were built such as the sanctuary of Hercules, Pandimou and Pondias Aphrodite, the Market, the Gymnasium, the Stadium, the Theatre, the Altar of Dionysus and the Acropolis. The relics of these monuments were brought to light by the diggings of Italian archeologists. King Ptolomeos II of Egypt was born in Kos at this time. He adored Greek literature and was know as the Philadelphos. During the Hellenistic period, the island thrived economically and culturally. Kos was not only rich in agricultural and livestock products but also started developing its export trade in wine, olive oil, fruit, perfumes, silk and wool. It then became part of the Roman Empire and then part of Byzantium where it remained until after the 4th Crusade and the sack of Constantinople by the Crusaders and the Venetians.
See; The Fall of Byzantium
The centuries that followed were marked by the presence of foreign conquerors. After a short occupation of the island by the Venetians and the Genoans, Kos came under the control of the Knights of St John in 1314. The Order was a force to be reckoned with, with its own governors, who were constituted by the Council of the Knights of Rhodes. At the same time Kos was attacked by the Turks. The knights however successfully managed to repulse them for a time largely due to the fortifications of the Perimeter Wall and the Castle of Nerazia (city), the Castle of Antimachia, which was unsuccessfully attacked – mostly in 1457, the Castle of old Pyli and the Castle of Kefalos. Even today the restorations to the damage done by the Turkish attacks of the two most important castles, those of Nerazia and Antimachia, are clearly visible. The Dodecanese eventually fell to the forces of Suleiman the Magnificent in 1522 – This time the Knights did not attempt to defend Kos but retreated to Rhodes which they eventually left before ending up some time later in Malta.
See; The Knights of Malta
The island slumbered in largely benign neglect under Ottoman rule for nearly 400 years being culturally diverse with Greek, Muslim and Jewish populations. Kos (along with Rhodes) was one of the Dodecanese which had inward immigration from Turks and the town has 3 mosques, four Hammans and numerous fountains and minarets. At Platani on the way to Asklepion there are still Turkish villages with restaurants reputed to have the best food on the island. Also on the way to Platani you can see the old Jewish and Muslim cemeteries side by side.
See; Jewish Kos
On May 20th 1912 the Italians conquered Kos from the crumbling Ottoman Empire. The inhabitants intialy welcomed them as their liberators. Soon they found out that their promise of a short occupation of the Dodecanese was insincere. The answer to the ulterior motives of the Italians was vigorous and included an upsurge in nationalist sentiments and promotion of Enosis (unification) with Greece. After the treaty of Lausanne the Italian domination of the Dodecanese was consolidated and the inhabitants of those islands were considered Italian citizens with singular citizenship. Kos became vice – governorship (Reggenza) and was under the jurisdiction of the governor (Governatore) of Rhodes. In all sectors (language, education, religion, economy etc.) there was a sweeping program under Mussolini of fascist italicisation of the Dodecanese. The people of Kos, being Greek, naturally resisted.
Italian buildings in Kos
After the disastrous earthquake on April 23rd 1933 the new city of Kos was rebuilt by the Italians. The archaeologists dug up and repaired many of the monuments. A large number of sculptures of the Classical, Hellenistic and Roman era are kept and exhibited at the archaeological museum at Eleftherias square. When the 2nd World War was declared, many volunteers took part in the “Dodecanese’s Regiment”. The Dodecanese Regiment fought with the Army of Central Macedonia against the Germans. After the Italian truce (03.09.1943) there was a landing of a small English force on the island, which was accepted by the Italians in order to face a potential German attack. On October 3rd 1943 the island was conquered by German troops. A new period of terrorism and brutality began. Two of the most poignant reminders of this traumatic time can be seen in Kos Town. The Jewish synagogue has a plaque outside “In memory of the Jewish Community of Kos – 16th century to 1944”. The large Catholic Church opposite the Municipal Buildings is no longer in use and the small catholic community instead uses the elegant circular church near the Casa Romana. This was originally the funerary church of the catholic cemetery and the Orthodox cemetery is behind it. Hear you can see the gravestones of the Italians executed on 3rd October including several to “Fante Ignoto” – an unknown child.
In 1948 after the years of war and occupation Kos, just four miles from Turkey was united with Greece for the first time in its history. The 50s and 60s were years of inertia when many emigrated from this shattered island (indeed from all the Greek islands) to America and Australia. Mass tourism, for all its woes, saved and regenerated Kos.
There are a wealth of archaeological remains in and around Kos Town. Just some of the more notable are;
Asklepion of Kos; Situated 4 km west of Kos, Asklepeio is the most significant archaeological site on the island. Aesculapius in the Greek religion was a son of Apollo and was the God of health assisted by his two handmaidens, Hygeia, goddess of cleanliness and Panacea, goddess of pain relief. The excavations here began in 1902, by Lakovos Zaraftis from Kos and Dr. Hertsok from Germany. Asklepeio was built in a green area full of cypress trees. During the ancient years, it served as a sanatorium and it was dedicated to Aesculapius, son of Apollo, protector of health and medicine. Many significant people taught and worked here, one of them being the father of Medicine, Hippocrates. Due to the steep ground, Asklepeio consist of four connecting levels, called “andira”. The first is characterized by ruins of Roman constructions of the 1st century AD. The second, where the medical school is said to have been housed, is known for its arches and statues. The spas were here and they were watered from the spring of King Halkon and the spring of Vournika on Mount Dikeo.
See; The Asklepion of Kos – Home of Modern Medicine
Hippocrates was born around 460 BC on the island of Kos, Greece. He became known as the founder of medicine and was regarded as the greatest physician of his time. He based his medical practice on observations and on the study of the human body. He held the belief that illness had a physical and a rational explanation. He rejected the views of his time that considered illness to be caused by superstitions and by possession of evil spirits and disfavour of the gods. Hippocrates probably had very little to do with the oath which bears his name taken by all doctors which enjoins them to “do no harm” and keep secret what is told to them by a patient. He did certainly write a treatise on healing entitled “Air, Water and Places” on the importance of environment to health whose holistic approach now seems positively contemporary.
The Agora, built right next to the harbour in order to facilitate trade, was a building 80m wide with a length of about 300m. An impressive stairway leads from the road to the internal yard. Two columns that have been restored form a type of portico. It is estimated that the first construction of the Agora was between the 4th and 3rd centuries B.C., while the few pieces from the buildings that have been preserved clearly show many construction periods.
Castle of Nerazia 12C. The castle of the Knights of the Order of Saint John is situated at the entrance of Kos harbour on what used to be an island in antiquity, communicating with the inland through a bridge that one can still see even today namely the bridge of “Phoinikon” (Palm Trees) Avenue. The castle consists of two defensive precincts. The interior one has four circular towers in the corners; the south-eastern tower forms part of the exterior precinct, which is the larger one of the two, with massive bastions on the four corners, battlements and gun ports. The two precincts are separated by a large moat and communicate with a drawbridge.
The western archaelogical remains contain both the Roman baths and the Hellenistic Gymnasium. The 3rd century Thermes Nymfeo or Forica are part of the bath complex. When the building was first discovered, its elegance initially led archaeologists to the conclusion that this was a sanctuary dedicated to the nymphs, but it was finally determined that the building was in fact a luxury public urinal.
The Hellenistic Gymnasium (i.e. athletics gym) was known as “Xysto”. The Gymnasium was thus named from the habit of the athletes of scraping (xisoun) their bodies in order to clean it from the oil they anointed themselves before the races began. A row of 17 restored columns from the ancient Gymnasium are an impressive sight. There was a water tank in the middle of the Gymnasium where athletes could wash themselves, and the western Thermes were adjacent for the same reason.
The Roman Odeon, built in the 2nd century, has been well preserved. The concave opening has nine marble rows that have been restored, a landing and then another five rows made of granite. The lower stands made of marble were for the more “respectable” citizens while the higher stand made of stone was for the remaining spectators. Other sections that were also saved are the floor of the proscenium and the wings, as well as the orchestra pit.
Kos Casa Romana: Casa Romana, which means the “Roman House”, is an important excavation area. This house shows the architectural style that dominated on the island in the Hellenistic and the Roman Times. It is a beautiful mansion with a style similar to the buildings found in Pompeii. It dates from the 2nd century and was built on the ruins of another house of the Hellenistic period. Apart from its nice architecture, the house stands out due to its frescoes, the most remarkable of which depicts a panther attacking a bear, as well as its elaborated decoration and statues, which date from the late Hellenistic period and are currently exhibited at the Museum of Kos. This and the rest of the mosaics date from the 3rd century AD. The scale of the house can be gauged from the fact that it spreads over 36 rooms and 3 atria.
To understand Kos and the Dodecanese you must realise that these stepping stones en route to the Middle East and Anatolia have always been fated for invasion and occupation; too rich to be ignored but never powerful enough to rule themselves. To understand the people you must understand the history of the Balkan Wars of 1912 – 13, Greece’s 1917 -18 involvement in the First World War and the disastrous Greco-Turkish War of 1919-1922 which led to massive population exchanges – essentially regulated ethnic cleansing. Refugees from Asia Minor make up a significant proportion of the population of Kos and the wider Greek Diaspora. Kos today is not multi cultural but is still an interesting and pleasant island which has largely kept its character. Kos Town is one of the more pleasant places as a holiday base with good facilities, a fascinating history whose remnants surround and sometimes astound you and a great hopping off point for the other Dodecanese and the Turkish coast.
Location: Dodecanese, Greece