On the mosaic floor in front of me, Europa, in her nude glory, clings to the neck of a brown bull. A dolphin is playing in the waves beneath them. Faded frescoes on the wall above them reflect the pale light of the full moon. From beyond the walls and pillars behind me, the cry of an owl and the rasping of night-time crickets can be heard.
This is Kos Town, the main city of the second largest island of the Dodecanese archipelago, the group of Greek islands that stretches along the south-west coast of Turkey. It is a place I visit frequently, when travelling between Greece and Turkey at the beginning or end of our tours, and also a key destination on several of our cruises: Cruising to the Cyclades, Cruising the Dodecanese, and Cruising the South-East Aegean.
A night-time visit to a full-blown archaeological site is a rare privilege in Greece, as site access, quite properly, tends to be restricted by such practicalities as fences and opening hours, with the exception of special events, such as the annual late opening of selected sites for the August full moon. But here and there, for example at certain sites in Athens, but also in Kos, there are opportunities to enjoy antiquity outside those bounds – and they are to be savoured.
Kos Town is an archaeological wonderland at any time of day. For the longest time, the only ancient site in the island considered generally as a “must-see” was the rightly famous sanctuary of Asklepios, set a few kilometres out of town in an especially beautiful and serene location, as befits a place sacred to the god of healing.
But there’s a lot more to ancient – and modern – Kos. In recent years, the local Archaeological Service has embarked on a major project of re-landscaping, cleaning and labelling the various excavation areas in the city itself, as well as renovating its exquisite little museum. Along with the pedestrianisation of the town centre, those works have transformed Kos and made it one of the most beautiful, laid-back, and moreover, interesting urban centres in the Greek islands.
The centre of Kos town has an unusual lay-out, unique in the Greek Islands, characterised by several large park-like archaeological zones defining and surrounding the core of the city. This scheme goes back to the 20th century Italian occupation of the Dodecanese. In 1933, a major earthquake shook the island and largely destroyed the old town, which had until then been a reasonably typical Greek island settlement: dense, compact and labyrinthine. In the aftermath, the local Italian colonial government invested considerable time and effort in reshaping the city, restoring its most important monuments (such as the mighty Crusader Castle of Nerantzia and the stately Gazi Hassan Pasha mosque), but also sponsoring a series of major archaeological excavations.
Thus, a considerable proportion of the Hellenistic and Roman city underneath Kos Town was explored, including various public buildings as well as residential areas. The new town was carefully planned to respect and incorporate those excavations in its very structure, creating the aforementioned open spaces and a new central square, along with various representative buildings in a very peculiar localised architectural style mixing historicising features with ones that might be described as late expressionist.
Of course, the occupiers pursued their own goals in reshaping the city, and especially in concentrating on the excavation of Roman remains, aiming to “prove” a continuity of Italian presence in the area. But be that as it may, they created an array of fascinating and beautiful places to explore, a series of windows into the ancient city of Kos.
One of the most striking testaments of the city’s ancient history is Castle of Nerantzia, erected by the Knights of Rhodes in 14th and 15th centuries and dominating the city’s ancient and modern port, where our gulets usually moor. It is not in itself a monument of Greek or Roman antiquity, but it may stand on the spot of an ancient fortification, of which nothing visible remains. Moreover, and obvious even to the untrained eye, it is primarily built of spolia, re-used blocks, architectural members and columns taken from the remains of the ancient city. Opposite the entrance to the castle stands a magnificent plane tree. Tradition claims that Hippocrates, the father of medicine, who practised in Kos in the 5th century BC, used to sit in its shade – in reality, the tree is hundreds, not thousands, of years old, which does not take away from its loveliness. Beyond is the the impressive Gazi Hassan Pasha mosque, built in 1786.
South of the castle, between it and the central square, there is a large archaeological park, comprising the remains of several temples (including of Aphrodite and Herakles), a massive stoa or colonnade from the 4th or 3rd century BC, perhaps the ancient city’s agora (market), part of the ancient city’s defensive walls, and an Early Christian basilica. The area is very well labelled, and strewn with trees and flowers. In spite of the vistas of the modern town all around, it is easy to imagine oneself walking the streets of its 2000-year old predecessor.
The park is separated from the main square (Plateia Elefthereias, Freedom Square) by a medieval town gate, to which clings what is probably the most magnificent Bougainvillea in the Aegean. In spring or early summer, that plant is a sight to behold, another reason to enjoy and remember Kos.
The square itself is the most striking aspect of the Italian re-design of Kos town, surrounded by its key landmarks. Among them are the rather severe archaeological museum, the much more light-hearted food market and the officers’ club, as well as the pretty 18th century Sefterdar Mosque. The ensemble of these unique structures is unusual, and in spite of its political undertones, the architects did manage to imbue it with a lightness, a pleasant sense of serenity that prevails.
Separated from the square by a few blocks are the southern excavation areas. Walking south, one passes a small park containing the altar of Dionysos, the god of wine, whose temple must have been nearby. Across the road from it are the scant remains of a large Roman bath, and next to them the Casa Romana, a fully reconstructed Roman town house, (it is currently closed for renovations, but we look forward to incorporating it in our tours in due course).
Just a little further west, a few steps lead downward from the modern road towards a series of shelters, covering the remains of several 3rd century AD Roman houses. This is the beginning of a large L-shaped area known as the southwest archaeological zone (archaeologists are not always very imaginative). The first ruins encountered here are of grand urban residences that clearly housed the leading classes of Roman Kos. Even though they are quite poorly preserved, the remains do give tantalising hints of their former splendour. There are various mosaic floors, including one depicting fighting gladiators. Kos was in fact known for its tradition of elaborate mosaic-making. Many specimens removed during the excavations are now on display in the Palace of the Grand Masters in Rhodes. The larger shelter covers the so-called “House of Europa”, featuring not only the mosaic described at the beginning of this text, but also an impressive pillared courtyard and some surprisingly fresh looking frescos.
A few steps further on, the visitor walks on the Decumanus Maximus, one of the main roads of the Roman city. It deserves a close look or two, revealing its solid pavement, well-designed underground drainage, and the doors and pillars of the houses and shops that lined it. Just to the south across the modern road lies the restored Odeion, a Roman concert hall or small theatre. The Decumanus itself leads into a large area of excavations, a virtual treasure trove of well preserved remains, starting with the towering arch of a Roman bath. To its left, a marble gate survives of an Early Christian baptistery, as do several pebble mosaics and its virtually complete marble-clad baptismal basin.
Just north of this, a row of fine marble columns in the Doric order is what remains of the Greek gymnasium, a structure devoted to the training of athletes. A large swimming pool inserted in Roman times is still visible. Opposite it are the remains of a very large Early Christian church, beyond which stands a large and mostly reconstructed square building. This is usually and politely described as a nymphaeum, a public fountain, but it also included a set of latrines,a public toilet.
The most spectacular sight in this area, however, is found a little further south, under a modern protective shelter. It protects a a huge and elaborate mosaic that must have been part of an immensely richly furnished home, or perhaps a public building. Its imagery includes the myth of the Judgement of Paris, surrounded by Apollo and the nine muses, as well as scenes of gladiators fighting animals.
These are just the main sights of ancient Kos. More remains, including parts of an ancient stadium and another Roman bath complex are also accessible, adding further dimensions to our understanding of this affluent and important island capital.
If you are tempted to join us in exploring ancient Kos Town, join us on Cruising to the Cyclades, Cruising the Dodecanese, or Cruising the Southeast Aegean. On each of those tours, ancient Kos with its engrossing mixture of Greek and Roman remains, 20th century architecture and contemporary life, including our selection of some of the island’s best food, is just one of many diverse highlights, ranging from antiquity to the present.