Wrapped enticingly around the shores of Turkey and Asia Minor, the southernmost group of Greek islands called the Dodecanese (Twelve Islands) lies at the eastern edge of the Aegean sea. The Dodecanese archipelago first grabbed the spotlight when Rhodes was colonized by the crusading Knights of the Order of St. John in the 14th century. Today, of course, the Order of the Holy Holiday Maker now besieges its famed capital, Rhodes town (and the island's overbuilt beach resorts), but happily Kos’s native Hippocrates—father of Western medicine—seems to have immunized many of the inland landscapes of blissfully peaceful Symi and Patmos against tourists.
These islands have long shared a common history: Romans, Crusaders, Turks, and Venetians all built picturesque temples, castles, and fortresses in exotic towns of shady lanes and tall houses. Strategically located Rhodes has by far the most important place in history thanks to its starring role during the Crusades. Kos comes in second in popularity and has vestiges of antiquity; the Sanctuary of Asklepios
, a center of healing, drew people from all over the ancient world. Today, parts of the coast have been transformed into an endless line of shops and restaurants. Retreat inland, however, to find hillsides crowded only with bleating goats.
Symi is a virtual museum of 19th-century neoclassic architecture almost untouched by modern development, while Patmos, where St. John wrote his Book of Revelation, became a renowned monastic center during the Byzantine period. Sometimes called the Jerusalem of the Aegean, this little island is as peaceful as it must have been when St. John lived here. It continues as a significant focal point of the Greek Orthodox faith, and today has become a favorite getaway for both Greeks as well as an elite international crowd. Symi and Patmos both offer a sense of peace and quiet that in large part has been lost on much of overdeveloped Rhodes and Kos. But despite the invasion of sunseekers, there are still delightful pockets of local color on these islands, too.