Rhodes, the "Island of Roses" (actually of hibiscus), the largest of the Dodecanese and the fourth largest Greek island (after Crete, Euboea and Lésbos), is one element in the island bridge which extends from the Peloponnese by way of Crete and Kárpathos to Asia Minor, from which it is only 18km/11mi distant. 78km/48mi long and up to 30km/19mi wide, Rhodes is traversed from end to end by a long mountain ridge rising to 1,215m/3,986ft in Mt Atáviros. The land falls away gradually towards the coasts, well watered and well wooded, affording good soil for agriculture, particularly near the coast.
With its beautiful scenery, its excellent beaches and the fine old buildings erected by the Knights of St John, now well restored, Rhodes holds a wealth of attraction for visitors and has long been a major tourist center. In and around Rhodes town is one of the largest concentrations of hotels in Greece, but elsewhere, particularly in the south, the island is still relatively unspoiled.
The island of Rhodes was already occupied in the Neolithic period, but its great cultural flowering came only with its settlement by Dorian Greeks. Their three cities of Lindos, Ialysos and Kameiros were members of the Hexapolis, the league of six Dorian cities, which became subject to the Persians in the sixth century B.C.
In the fifth century B.C. Rhodes became a member of the first Attic maritime league, the Confederacy of Delos. About 408 B.C. the new capital city of Rhodes was laid out on a regular plan by the famous Greek town-planner Hippodamos of Miletus, and in the fourth century it overshadowed Athens itself in commercial importance. Its great landmark, one of the seven wonders of the world, was the celebrated Colossus of Rhodes, a 32m/105ft high statue of the sun god Helios standing on a stone base 10m/35ft high. Cast between 304 and 292 B.C., it stood at the entrance to the harbor and probably served as a lighthouse. It collapsed in an earthquake about 225 B.C. A block of stone found in the sea in 1987 which was at first thought to be a fragment of the statue turned out not to be so.
With the extension of Roman control in the East the island's trade declined, but the city of Rhodes remained an important cultural center, with a well known school of rhetoric which was attended by Cicero and Caesar and a major school of sculptors which produced the famous Laocoon group (C. 50 B.C.) now in the Vatican Museums.
During the Middle Ages Rhodes was the subject of dispute between the Arabs, the Byzantines, the Venetians and the Genoese. In 1309 it was occupied by the Knights of St John, who developed the town into a powerful stronghold and in the 15th century defended it and the rest of the island against Egyptian and Turkish attack, but were compelled to surrender it to Suleiman the Magnificent in 1522. After almost 400 years of Turkish rule the island was occupied by Italy in 1912. In 1947, after World War II, it was returned to Greece.