Walking along the medieval streets of the storied town of Rhodes, Greece, the ancient and modern coexist in glaring contrast.  Scattered at the feet of the 14th century Gothic gates of the Palace of the Grand Master are hundreds of sleek motorcycles.  Inside the gates, behind time-worn limestone city fortifications, dozens more bikes owned by residents and workers sit in quiet corners of the cobblestone alleyways. A few years ago, Greece topped Italy and Switzerland to become the number one European Union country for motorcycle ownership. A gentle climate, a demographic skewed towards youth, and affordability have all fed the trend. Since 2014, Greek motorcycle ownership increased 0.5% year on year, with 150.24 Units per thousand persons. In 2019, the country was ranked number one compared to other EU countries in motorcycle ownership; Italy, Switzerland and Spain respectively ranked number 2, 3 and 4. The Motorcycles market in Greece is projected to generate a revenue of US$734.3M in 2024, and the BMW Motorrad is expected to have the highest market share there in 2024.

Motorcycles parked at the 14th Century Palace of the Grand Master in Rhodes, Greece [Mike McCabe]
Rhodes is the fourth-largest Greek Island, measuring 49 miles long and 24 miles wide. There are more than 14 motorcycle and step-through dealerships that support an active local and tourist two-wheeled riding community. Several well-organized mototourist companies provide historical and pleasure-riding itineraries around the island. On the downside, in the rest of the European Union, fatal accidents involving motorbikes make up just 17.7 percent of all road deaths, whereas in Greece the percentage is close to 40 percent, making Greece one of the most dangerous countries in the EU for motorcyclists. Young, inexperienced riders not wearing helmets account for the high numbers.

A custom chopper parked in front of the Islamic Library in Old Rhodes Town. [Mike McCabe]
Because of its strategic location, the small island of Rhodes has experienced a lot of history: the assortment of conventional and step-through motorcycles parked on the streets of the UNESCO World Heritage site of Old Rhodes Town serve as contrasting visual reminders of constant cultural, historical and strategic movements in the Mediterranean/Aegean region. The still legendary Colossus of Rhodes, one of the original Seven Wonders of the World, took 12 years to build between 294 and 282 BC. The 100-foot tall bronze statue is said to have stood at the entrance to Rhodes harbor but collapsed during a 225 BC earthquake.  The statue debris sat until 654 AD when it was cut up and hauled away by attacking Arab forces who melted the bronze down and refashioned it into swords and coins. No evidence of the statue has survived beyond the legend.

Scooters make up the majority of two-wheelers on Rhodes, and are very convenient for the ancient narrow cobblestone alleys. [Mike McCabe]
The motorcycles of Rhodes Town roam the streets of the oldest inhabited medieval town in Europe, where 6000 people live and work in the same buildings the Knights of St. John lived, six centuries ago. The Order of Knights of the Hospital of Saint John – commonly known as the Knights Hospitaller – was a medieval Catholic military order formed in the 11th century, with roots as a religious order located in Jerusalem. Their primary objective was to look after the welfare of wounded crusaders and religious pilgrims.  When the Knights of Saint John were defeated in Jerusalem, then Cyprus, they came to Rhodes in the year 1309, built the impressive walled fortress/town, and controlled the strategic island for 200 years. There were approximately 7000 knights from several European areas that were classified by their ‘tongues’ (languages) and lived in ‘tongue-based’ dormitories along the Street of the Knights. Even today, the French consulate maintains an active ‘French tongue inn’ on the Street of the Knights that dates to 1492. Construction of the medieval Hospital of the Knights of Saint John started in 1440 and was completed in 1489. Today, the impressive Archaeological Museum of Rhodes is housed in the remains of the hospital building and contains artifacts and historical collections from different parts of Rhodes and the neighboring islands.

Byzantine art in the Rhodes Byzantine museum. [Mike McCabe]
The Turkish mainland is just 17 miles from Rhodes, and during the 1400s, Ottoman Sultans attempted to overthrow the Knights several times. In 1522 Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent arrived with 400 ships and over 100,000 troops to finally conquered the Knights, who numbered only 7000. After seven years of wandering stateless, Pope Clement VII negotiated for a permanent home on Malta for the Knights, where they became known as the Knights of Malta.

The new knights of Malta? Bikes parked by the old fortress/city walls in Rhodes. [Mike McCabe]
The motorcycles parked inside and around the historic walls of the Palace of the Grand Master look out of sync, but are actually part of a long historical process. During the Roman Republican period, (510-31 BC) the Empire conquered the Greek city-states – including Rhodes in 146 BC – and incorporated them into the rapidly expanding Roman Empire. Imperial Rome dates from 31BC to 476 AD and became almost as big as the USA is today, stretching from the administrative city of Rome in the west to what was Constantinople in the east. The eastern Roman/Byzantine Empire literally butted against the massive Ottoman Anatolian peninsula and Asia.

Inside the oldest active mosque, the Ibrahim Pasha Mosque built in 1540. [Mike McCabe]
The Romans constructed and utilized an unprecedented network of roads to facilitate the efficient movement of goods, services and information. However, the scale of the expanding Roman Empire became untenable and the empire split into west and east in 395 AD. The Byzantine Empire emerged and ruled most of Eastern and Southern Europe throughout the Middle Ages. Its capital city, Constantinople, was the largest and wealthiest city in Europe during the time. The Byzantine Empire, also referred to as the Eastern Roman Empire, developed its own form of iconography, based Eastern Orthodox Christianity, that survives today in the churches of Rhodes.

The entrance to a 17th Century sea captain’s house in Old Rhodes. [Mike McCabe]
The Western Roman Empire finally collapsed during the 5th century AD, but the Byzantine Empire continued as a powerful administrative, maritime and mercantile economic power until 1453, when it finally succumbed to Ottoman Turk attacks, and Constantinople was renamed Istanbul. Byzantine art has a quality of magical religiosity, with static figures depicted in archaic styles surrounded by rich colors and ethereal gold leaf, that looks strangely naïve compared to the preceding Greek and Roman classical art styles. During the Byzantine era the Orthodox church controlled the purse strings of art patronage, and it would take the Renaissance to rediscover the naturalism of classical Greek and Roman artistic expression.

Cobblestone streets and two wheels; uneasy riding partners, but the only way to travel. [Mike McCabe]
Places like Rhodes represent the fluid mixing of history and culture that usually unfolds in border regions. The culture of Rhodes is still heavily influenced by Ottoman/Turkish culture and there is a Turkish Muslim minority of 3500 people who are descendants of the Ottoman times (as they will tell you, they are Greek ‘only by their passports’).  There are seven historic mosques with minarets that include the first and still active Ibrahim Pasha mosque that dates to 1522 where prayer is still called inside the mosque five times a day. Restaurants located in the Hora Muslim section of central Rhodes Old Town serve Turkish-influenced food and musicians (who ride to work on motorcycles), sing traditional Ottoman folk songs late into the night.

A rare c.1931 BMW R11 parked in Rhodes Old Town on the Street of the Knights. [Mike McCabe]


Michael McCabe is a New York City tattoo artist and cultural anthropologist. He is the author of New York City Horsepower, Kustom Japan, New York City Tattoo, Japanese Tattooing Now, Tattoos of Indochina, and Tattooing New York City. For New York City Horsepower, Mr. McCabe spent two years discovering and documenting underground custom motorcycle and car garages in the City, as rapid gentrification put their culture under tremendous pressure. He interviewed and photographed New York City customizers about their personal histories and creative sensibilities. More of Mike’s articles for The Vintagent can be found here.
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